|“Rob Ford scandal hurting Toronto’s global brand, research finds.” So said the headline from The Globe and Mail , Toronto’s daily newspaper on November 20, 2013 that popped up in my weekly Google alerts for “brands”. Great, I thought, it will be interesting to see how all the press and comedians’ jokes about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged drug problems and his fight with the city council over retaining his power have impacted perceptions of the city’s brand. It was not to be.The article quoted a company called Cormex Research and its CEO Andrew Laing about all the negative coverage in traditional press, talk shows and social media. But the article made no mention of the impact of the story among Toronto’s key audiences, including residents, tourists and executives doing business or considering doing business in the city. A quick look at the Cormex web site looks like they are a media monitoring and scoring company.
“Toronto’s brand globally is hip and smart, generated by its cultural industries such as TIFF and performers such as Drake, and its education and research organizations like the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Kids. Now there’s a new narrative – bad political governance – and it’s quickly overtaking the good news story that is Toronto globally,” Laing said in the article.
The folks at Cormex seem to be making a presumptive leap that negative press automatically results in negative brand perceptions. To find out what is really happening with the Toronto brand Cormex should be asking people for their perceptions because that is where the brand lives: In the minds of the city’s important audiences. I have little doubt that all the negative attention is not helping Toronto’s brand. I have visited Toronto a number of times (although not in the past 15 years) and have very favorable views of the city as cultural and well run. I am viewing the mayor’s problems as an outlier. How quickly the city’s government resolves the issue will determine if my perceptions change.
I contrast this with the drug problems of Marion Berry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., who was convicted of smoking crack cocaine. At the time, D.C. had a serious crime problem, including drug-related crime, and Berry’s conviction just reinforced those image problems. The D.C. brand was pretty much in tatters at the time, so it is hard to say if Berry’s conviction had any impact on the brand. Like Toronto’s current situation, the mayor’s problems didn’t help.
The moral of the story: The only thing that matters is customers and prospects’ view of the brand. Of course what the press says, your CEO says, analysts say and the Twitterverse says can influence brand perceptions, but you never know until you ask your customers and prospects. As anyone who has tried to rebrand knows, it is very difficult to change negative perceptions and it can be also be hard to change positive perceptions among true brand loyalists. It generally takes more than one negative incident to erode years of brand equity.