Drinking the Kool-Aid, 40 Years Later

Dealing with Crises Created by Collateral Brand Damage

11/20/18 – – In Chapter 20 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient — Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm, we discuss a crisis situation I call “collateral brand damage.” It’s every brand manager’s worst nightmare. An event unrelated to your product or company occurs and you find yourself at the center of a storm. November 18 was the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, arguably the mother of all such crises by association.  

You’re probably familiar with the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” in reference to someone who blindly accepts a belief or point of view. The derivation of this commonly used phrase stretches back to one of the most bizarre events in American history. Jonestown, a cult colony in the South American country of Guyana, was founded and ruled by a charismatic figure named Jim Jones. His followers, mostly Americans, were part of what they called The People’s Temple. On November 18, 1978, during an investigative visit by California Congressman Leo Ryan, Jones instructed the men, women and children of Jonestown to commit suicide. Shockingly, more than 900 people followed his orders. The Congressman, several members of his staff and a news team were murdered as well.

What does this have to do with the product Kool-Aid?

The followers drank that day from a lethal brew of flavored drink laced with cyanide and sedatives. News photographs of the mass suicide scene revealed used packets of both Kool-Aid and Flavor-Aid fruit drink mix. Sensational media coverage around the world repeatedly referred only to the better-known brand, Kool-Aid.

For Kraft Foods, owners of Kool-Aid, this certainly was not the kind of “product placement” and global publicity they desired. More than 200 of the suicide victims were children, the primary consumers of Kool-Aid. But what could they have done? Put yourself in the shoes of the Kraft marketing people. Their product was in no way responsible for this tragedy. And you could argue that it was irresponsible of reporters to refer to the drink mix by name. But, how petty would it have seemed for Kraft to challenge such an insignificant element of so heart-wrenching a story. There were already too many victims in this saga.

Weighing the risks and rewards of any forceful response, Kraft opted for restraint. In an April 12, 2012, Associated Press article looking back on what has come to be known as the Jonestown Massacre, Kraft spokesperson Bridget MacConnell reflected on the company’s marketing dilemma: “It would be like spitting in the wind at this point — it’s just part of the national lexicon . . . We all try to protect the value of our brands. But this one just kind of got away from us. I don’t think there was any way to fight it.”    

Looking back with the perspective of this 40th anniversary, I think Ms. MacConnell is right. People must be a company’s first concern, ahead of property, products and profits. A defensive response would have made things worse for the brand and the company. Customers are still buying Kool-Aid, especially in the hot summer months. My guess is that most people under 30 do not relate the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” with the horrific events of November 18, 1978.


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