How tragedy damages a brand

Observations on marketing

It has been impossible to escape the Vodafone logo for the past three weeks. It has stared at us from countless front pages and endless news bulletins. At one point, it was fixed constantly in the corner of Sky News broadcasts. But Vodafone executives will not be cracking open the champagne just yet. Their logo has been ubiquitous because it was worn by Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the victims of the most horrible child-killings in Britain since the Moors murders.

Speaking on the record, advertising industry pros were careful to make their comments on Vodafone's bad luck as bland as possible. Vodafone insists that "commercial interests are the last thing on anyone's mind at a time like this". Off the record, however, the tone from within the industry shifts to biting cynicism. "Those girls' chests became, in effect, the worst billboards any company could ever want," one advertising exec commented coldly.

The PR guru Max Clifford insists that the impact on Vodafone - which paid £30m to have its logo on Manchester United shirts - will be negligible. "It will have no reflection on David Beckham, Vodafone or anything else unless the media choose to make an issue of it," he says. "It will not stop one person buying a Manchester United shirt, or one person from buying a Vodafone."

But one leading advertising executive - who asked not to be named - scoffed at these comments. "If you asked consumers outright, they would tell you that it is an unfortunate coincidence for Vodafone and nothing more. But just as obviously, it has had a huge effect on how their brand is viewed by everyone. If I were at J Walter Thompson [the advertising agency that took over Vodafone's marketing this May], I'd be s****ing my pants. They're facing a nightmare situation. All of their marketing strategies for the coming year will have to be gone through with a fine-tooth comb, and most of them will have to be scrapped."

Vodafone's strategy of targeting the youth market is, in particular, in jeopardy. Last year, it launched a £2m advertising campaign that shows a group of young friends texting each other on Vodafone mobiles, with cartoon-style characters that now look grotesque.

Paul Donovan, commercial managing director of Vodafone UK, said at the time that "we are showing that Vodafone is a fun and engaging brand with saliency for 16- to 24-year-olds". Now, as our advertising insider continues, "the company has to find a way of targeting the youth market - and let's be honest, they're targeting the under-16s aggressively - without making people think of Holly and Jessica. Thank God, that isn't my job."

There are few parallel situations where brands have become so closely associated with a tragedy. However, in the hours and days following the attack on the World Trade Center, the classy Brooks Brothers clothing store in Manhattan became a temporary morgue - and images of that blood-stained shop were broadcast across the world. Although nobody from the shop or the Brooks Brothers HQ would comment directly, the store admitted that it relaunched under new management just three months after the attack.

Once brand contamination sets in, only drastic action purges bad memories - and Vodafone's brand is badly contaminated.