Fictional Case Study Spotlights Crisis-Response Process

Thom Weidlich 11.12.20


A new article in the Harvard Business Review magazine offers insight into the process of crisis decision-making. The article provides a fictional case study on the potential rebranding of a product due to racial considerations. Clearly, it’s a timely exercise.

The article, “Case Study: When Your Brand Is Racist,” is based on Quaker Oats’ recent announcement that it would rebrand Aunt Jemima. The fictional account centers on “Overseer Whiskey,” now owned by “Cork Beverages,” but with a history going back to 19th-century Tennessee. The story goes that the liquor was named after an enslaved man who was made foreman in the cornfield.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests, the Overseer brand team is tasked with deciding how to respond. Though research shows most people don’t associate the whiskey with slavery, the increase in Google searches for “Overseer” is worrying. The team has three options: nix the brand altogether, change the brand (suggestions include “Seer” and “Chattanooga Seer”), or do nothing.

The situation is especially fraught because Overseer is Cork’s most profitable product. Yet, it seems the company’s board leans toward doing nothing, especially because of the cost of rebranding.


We are evaluating further measures and will announce our plans soon.

— “Cork Beverages”

Ahead of debating this question, the company issues a holding statement. It proclaims its commitment to diversity, but recognizes the connection between the product and the country’s history of racism. It notes changes made in the past to tone down the brand. It announces that it’s donating $3 million to African American groups. In the statement’s most conspicuous sentence, Cork writes: “We are evaluating further measures and will announce our plans soon.”

Holding Statements

That sentence is paramount because it’s crucial in holding statements to convey that a situation is being evaluated (or investigated, etc.) and that the results of that process will be communicated. Cork’s sentence comes off as vague. In addition, what happens if the company decides on option three: to do nothing? The company all but announced it will make further changes. It would have been better to emphasize that it will decide — with consumer input — whether more changes are needed.

The donation raises the question of whether it’s sincere or just for optics (“virtue signaling”). There’s simply no way to win that debate. No matter what you do, you’ll have critics. The simple solution is to do what you think is right.

The article is interesting for the internal debates it shows over these questions. Another issue raised is the balance between wanting to get in front of an issue and reacting to public sentiment. Spoiler alert: It’s always best to get out in front of an issue.

The article is by Joseph C. Miller, professor of sales and marketing at St. Ambrose University; Michael A. Stanko, associate professor of marketing at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University; and Mariam D. Diallo, an MBA student at Poole College of Management. The authors’ Aunt Jemima case study is “Reckoning with Jemima: Can the Brand Be Remade for Good?”

Photo Credit: CrisisResponsePro

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at

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