Texas, and other states, have had to go months without Blue Bell ice cream after the company was shut down due to a Lysteria scare. But many Texans are rejoicing at the news that Blue Bell has restarted production this week. Listeners have sent us photos of Blue Bell delivery trucks in and around Brenham and the shoppers across the state are checking the frozen aisle to see if their store got one of the first shipments.
But for some ice cream lovers, the road to respectability is a long one, potholed with questions for the once-beloved brand. With three people dead from the Lysteria outbreak earlier this year, it may take more than a rustic picture of a little girl and her cow to overcome images presented in news accounts of unsanitary conditions at creameries.
Jim Lukaszewski is the president of The Lukaszewski Group, a crisis management PR firm, and he says Blue Bell is in good company with its recent recall. “Major brands suffer from major upsets all the time. We’re awash in recalls all the time,” Lukaszewski says. “If you own a recent automobile, you probably have multiple recalls on that vehicle. Blue Bell’s situation is unique in that they shut down the company, so the real issue they face is the trust issue going forward. Not so much what they just went through, but should they suffer a second problem down the road somewhere fairly soon, that would be pretty serious.”
And the Blue Bell brand is a particularly strong one, he says. “It’s powerful because it has this loyal customer base who are… anxious to get back in the stores and buy the ice cream.”
But even though Blue Bell loyal customers are loyal, how are they going to forget about the Lysteria? “People don’t forget these things, they basically ignore them,” Lukaszewski says. “[They] want things to get back to normal. Blue Bell, in that region of the country, is part of the normal life down there.”
It’s really hard to break Blue Bell’s loyal customer base. “What makes brands powerful is this extraordinary customer loyalty,” Lukaszewski says.
His argument is that customers tend to like what they like and don’t alter their behavior too drastically. “We’ve got a car with four recalls we haven’t bothered to take in yet, we’ve got a kid’s toy that’s supposed to be recalled and he’s still playing with it. We tend to ignore these things,” he says.
But Blue Bell should be worried that food recalls often have a greater impact on a company’s long-term reputation and sales. “Health issues are different — food issues are more potent than typical kinds of mechanical problems with toys and things,” Lukaszewski says. “But still, loyal customers will come back [and] will trust you — at least one more time.”
And there’s the key: Lukaszewski says Blue Bell needs to make sure it doesn’t repeat the same mistake twice. Tylenol bounced back from a scare of cyanide-laced pills in the early 1980s, but there was a second Tylenol recall in 1986, Lukaszewski says.
“Tylenol actually never fully recovered the second recall because by that time the marketplace had change [and] there were different products on the market.”
So Blue Bell — you’re on notice. We’re excited for the ice cream trucks to start rolling into town again, but don’t break our hearts twice.