Guest Post: Great Idea, Horrible Execution

Jonathan and Erik Bernstein crisis communications, crisis management, Crisis Prevention, Erik Bernstein, Jonathan Bernstein, public relations Leave a Comment

[Editor’s note: This post, originally published in Jeff Chatterton’s Winning Reputations newsletter, provides a perfect example of how using the wrong language can completely disrupt the message you’re trying to get across.]

Brussels Airlines has launched an international ‘image makeover’ campaign in an effort to disassociate Africa from the horrible headlines regarding the Ebola virus last fall. Unfortunately, they forgot the most important part.

(Brussels Airlines serves a number of destinations in West Africa that were originally affected by the Ebola virus.) The campaign is a fantastic, well-intentioned effort and the concept deserves applause. But the campaign falls apart as soon as you get to the title.

Can you see the problem here?

The first rule of an image rebrand – don’t directly tie yourself to the one thing you’re trying to shake off. Do not take the very worst thing associated with the product you’re working with, and highlight it.

This is simple math. If the point of a campaign is to convince people to ignore 1% that’s wrong and focus on 99% that’s good – don’t focus on that 1%!

Imagine if Coca-Cola developed a “Coke is not sugar-water” campaign. Is it ever going to happen? Of course not!

The Italian Tourism Commission will likely never create “Sicily is not the Mafia.” Just like Canada won’t launch “Canada is not REALLY cold.”

Every time “Africa is not Ebola” is introduced, it cements two words together – Africa, and Ebola. That is a marriage that an airline servicing Africa really does not want to see.

Africa is more than Ebola. Africa is vivid, full of life, laughter and culture. So the job of any savvy marketing professional is to move the audience away from the scary and into the good.

There’s no denying that is a tough job. Ask potential tourists why they won’t book an Africa trip, and they will inevitably bring up Ebola.

But simply inserting the word ‘not’ in there does little to blunt that negative association. In this title, the word ‘not’ is easy to forget. The words ‘Ebola’ and ‘Africa,’ aren’t so easily ignored.

Negatives are memorable. Negatives are vivid, and stark, and scary, and a stake in the ground – but they’re the stake in the WRONG ground.

Need further proof? Quick – name the most memorable political quote in the last fifty years. If you’re American (or even if you’re not), chances are good you identified one of two: “I am not a crook,” by Richard Nixon, or “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” by Bill Clinton.

Negatives are vivid, they’re memorable, and they’re legacy inducing.

Skeptics can point out the statement is memorable because it’s true. They can point to the fact that Nixon WAS a crook, and Clinton DID have sex with that woman. Unfortunately, Africa still has Ebola. But do we need to remind people of that?

Brussels Airlines would have been far better off to focus on what Africa is, rather than try to deny what it is not. Focus on what they want people to remember.

Develop a message like “Africa – More than Safaris.” Or, “Africa – the Friendliest People on Earth.” Or, “Africa- Fastest Growing Economies on the Planet.” Spend half-a-day brainstorming in a boardroom and come up with several slogans that are far more effective.

Need something that’s #hashtag friendly? What about “AwesomeAfrica?” I’m sure any group of people can develop something smarter than that

But “Africa is not Ebola” is clumsy, and starts what is a long-overdue, and extremely well intentioned campaign by shooting itself in the foot.

What would you like to see here instead? What makes sense? What’s the best title to move people away from scary and into the good?

What do YOU think of when you think of Africa? What’s unique and compelling? How can we help Brussels Airlines – and African tourism in general?

The campaign itself is brilliant. It’s a fantastic concept. Some well-deserved kudos are in order to Brussels Airlines – with the sincere hope that they’ll accept criticism as constructive.

Are you interested in helping restore Africa’s tourism reputation? Chime in with your ideas in the comments section here.We’ll share your ideas with Brussels Airlines – provided they’ll still take our call.

Jeff Chatterton is a friend and colleague with a unique reputation management practice in Ontario, Canada.  To learn more, visit

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