Get Ready for Homemade Vanilla: Blue Bell Returns
If you’re one of the thousands of people who have been missing their Blue Bell, the announcement that limited distribution begins on Monday, August 31st in selected markets was welcome news. (Sorry, Ben & Jerry’s, but it’s just not the same.) But while people are scooping a bowl of their favorite vanilla, lots of questions remain about how the company will survive the repercussions of the listeria outbreak. That makes it a good time to think about your own company’s commitment to your products and services—and how you would bounce back from a major crisis.
A Role Model for Recovery
For those of us who work in crisis communications, the Blue Bell listeria outbreak conjures up memories of the Tylenol poisonings, which resulted in seven deaths in 1982. The Tylenol case has become a classic and is widely studied in business schools and schools of communication as a textbook example of how to cope with crisis. When seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, McNeil Consumer Products took an active role in issuing mass warnings. It led to a recall of 31 million bottles. At the time, NPR reported that Tylenol controlled 35 percent of the over-the-counter pain reliever market. That number dropped to less than eight percent within a few weeks of the murders.
Not only did McNeil take an active role in trying to protect the public, they went on to develop new production methods and introduced tamper-proof packaging that has become the industry standard. So the deaths in the Chicago area made the OTC industry—and the packaged food industry—safer. It happened not just at the cost of seven lives but an estimated $100 million that McNeil invested in their new production and packaging methods. If you were born after 1982, you probably think that multiple layers of packaging are just the way things are—but all of the foil, shrink wrap, glued boxes, and seals are a result of the Tylenol poisonings. And it paid off for McNeil—sales rebounded and Tylenol returned to prominence. But the murders haunted law enforcement agencies so much that the FBI re-opened the case in 2009, although no new suspect was identified.
What Does the Future Hold for Blue Bell?
Blue Bell now gets to chart a similar course—although its own crisis doesn’t have as high a death toll and lacks the extra drama of an unknown evil-doer. When the listeria outbreak occurred, Blue Bell was the 4th largest manufacturer in the country. Now Blue Bell has notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state health officials in Alabama and Texas that it will re-enter select markets on a limited basis. Blue Bell will return to Brenham, Austin, Houston, and two cities in Alabama. The Brenham plant isn’t open yet, although the production facility in Sylacauga, Alabama began production in late July. The first flavors back will be Homemade Vanilla, Dutch Chocolate, and Cookies and Cream.
The complete roll-out into the market will be done in five phases, although no timeline has been set for the remaining four phases after the launch on August 31. But all of this is happening at a cost. Blue Bell announced its first layoffs this summer, and then announced that it had a new business partner—Texas billionaire Sid Bass.
According to Blue Bell, the company has “been working to make our facilities even better, and to ensure that everything we produce is safe, wholesome and of the highest quality.” Now the consumer market will decide how much they trust the company. And Blue Bell will see how much their comeback costs them—both in terms of market share and in terms of a new dynamic with a new business partner.
So here’s a question for companies to ponder: what would it be worth to you to get back in business, to regain market share, after a major crisis? Would it be worth $100 million to fund new production methods, to say nothing of the money you’d need to rebuild reputation? Is it worth taking on a new business partner with very deep pockets? As you enjoy that bowl of Homemade Vanilla, Dutch Chocolate, or Cookies and Cream, take a moment to think about it—and then be sure you have a plan in place if your company faces its own crisis.
by Sara Rider