Brands in the News

Fair Oaks Deals With a Brand Crisis

11 Jun 2019  

Last week I wrote about UNC Health Care and the organization’s disappointing efforts to deal with a devastating article in the New York Times. This week, another brand, Fair Oaks Farm, is facing a brand crisis and making the right moves.

Fair Oaks Farm

As you drive from Chicago to Indianapolis, you pass a remarkable dairy operation: Fair Oaks Farm. The establishment is Indiana’s largest dairy with 35,000 cows, and a major tourist attraction. More than 500,000 people tour the facilities every year: school groups, church groups, families. There is a lovely visitors center and some fascinating farm tours showing the dairy and hog operations.

One of the more impressive parts of the tour is the birthing center, where one cow after the next delivers in a clean, bright room. It is stunning.

The Crisis

Last week Animal Recovery Mission, an animal rights organization, released undercover footage of Fair Oaks employees abusing animals. The footage is horrifying. You can watch it here.

For Fair Oaks, it is difficult to imagine a more profound crisis. The entire brand positioning – celebrating farm animals and farm life – suddenly seems like a fraud. Richard Cuto from Animal Recovery makes a harsh assessment in the video, “They’re doing nothing but deceiving the public.” He continues, “Everything is a lie.”

All of sudden touring the farm seems wrong. Buying the product seems wrong. Drinking the milk, wrong.

The Response

Fair Oaks is moving quickly to deal with the crisis. The company released a powerful video from its owner and founder, Mike McCloskey. He acknowledges the Animal Recovery video and says, “Watching this video broke my heart. I am sorry and I apologize for the footage in this video.” You can watch his response here.

In his remarks, McCloskey announces a series of moves, from allowing random spot-check inspections to installing video cameras throughout the premises.

He also explains what happened. The core of the problem, according to McCloskey, was that he trusted employees to act in a responsible way, living up to the Fair Oaks brand values.

The response is powerful. It seems earnest, it has specific action steps and Fair Oaks released it quickly.

The Outlook

Fair Oaks is in for a difficult stretch. The videos won’t go away and the brand is tarnished. Fair Oaks recently had to discontinue milk and cheese deliveries because people were angry at the drivers.

McCloskey and Fair Oaks will attempt to make the story about a few rogue employees. Animal Recovery Mission wants to make the story about Fair Oaks and the entire dairy industry.

This will be interesting to watch.

The challenge for Fair Oaks is that farming isn’t all sunny skies and baby animals; as anyone who has spent time on a farm knows, parts of the agrarian life are not pleasant. There are flies, and mud. Animals die. Cows just don’t live in traditional family units like herds of elephants.

Still, if Fair Oaks acts in a responsible way and communicates openly and clearly, I suspect the brand will recover.

There is an important learning point here for all brand leaders. It isn’t enough to hope and assume that people will live up to your brand’s vision – you have to monitor. As President Ronald Reagan advised when dealing with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.”

Learn More

To learn more about building strong brands, get a copy of the new book, Kellogg on Branding in a Hyper-Connected World. It is a terrific collection of insights from academics and brand leaders.

1 Response

  1. emitahill says:

    That’s a devastating story and just as many smaller dairy farms are shutting down. Read Madeleine’s story about Leelanau Cheese on FB. It will be interesting to see whether they can manage to recover from this horror.

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