If history is anything to go by, Spur should be able to recover from severe brand damage and current boycotts in spite of its woeful knee-jerk attempts at damage control. Like many other South African companies, such as Ford SA, Spur just didn't have anything in its brand arsenal to counter the brutal, racist event between two customers and their families that went viral instantly.
Simply put, Spur staff had clearly not been trained to handle this kind of conflict, with the result that everything escalated beyond control in no time flat. Like Ford's reaction to its Kuga vehicles bursting into flames, Spur immediately knee-jerked its way from denial to what was seen by many to be a politically correct decision to ban one customer and apologise to another. The sort of no-win decision-making that defies marketing logic and ends up damaging the brand.
However, the latest news that the white customer who was banned appears to have a history of previous assault-related cases against him has likely taken some of the venom out of the boycotters' campaign.
But in spite of this latest development, there is little doubt in my mind that from a pure brand point of view, Spur will recover. The thing is that South African consumers not only have a short memory and singular lack of dedication to any such cause but also that the drivers of consumer choice in this country are not in the hands of adults but children.
For example, after the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq under the mistaken impression that the country was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, anti-American sentiment started growing across the globe. Here in South Africa a number of communities threatened a boycott of US products, especially Coca-Cola. Six months later, Coke announced record sales figures in South Africa.
What the boycotters forgot about was a marketing phenomenon called "pester power", the influence of children on consumer choice. So it was one thing wanting to boycott Coke but another entirely trying to explain this to children. The "pester power" factor is real, to the point that children are influential with regards to the colour car their parents should buy and particularly which fast-food outlets they should frequent.
Billions of Rands are wasted annually as a result of consumers walking out of stores unhappy.
In my opinion, children will once again become the boycott-breakers in Spur's case, because of the brand's strength in this market.
Another example of consumer apathy is Volkswagen, which not more than a year ago was found to be blatantly cheating with regards to emission-control technology. Everyone thought this would kill the VW brand but now, a year later, Volkswagen worldwide has been found to have outsold Toyota to become the global market leader.
And in spite of Ford Kugas seemingly bursting into flames at the drop of a hat, sales of Kugas are improving month by month. South African retail brands notoriously concentrate only on management systems on the basis of everything going well. Which is why, with most brands, their customer service efforts collapse in a heap when the wheels even vaguely look to be coming off.
The problem is twofold. Firstly, a complete lack of crisis management training. Staff are never taught even the basics. They are given "customer service training" that in itself is silly because most human beings think they know all about how to deal with other human beings, so these training courses are never taken seriously.
Secondly, front-line staff are not empowered enough to be able to make instant decisions. They are too scared of doing the wrong thing. So they simply defend their brands to the hilt, whether they are right or wrong. One of the biggest costs to any brand in South Africa right now is lack of staff training. Billions of Rands are wasted annually as a result of consumers walking out of stores unhappy.
Like Woolworths, Pick 'n Pay, Ford and many other brands that have borne the brunt of militant consumerism, Spur will bounce back. But only if its starts putting all the proper branding and other marketing elements into place.