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Can Consumers Ruin Brands?

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The other day I saw this story about a pharmaceutical company called Lundbeck that makes a drug called pentobarbital. As it turns out, pentobarbital, which was invented in the 1930s to treat central nervous system disorders, is now going to be used by both Ohio and Oklahoma to execute prisoners.

Lundbeck has asked the states not to use pentobarbital in this manner, declaring, “The use of our products to end lives contradicts everything we’re in business to do.”

The story made me wonder, a) if Ohio and Oklahoma were endangering Lundbeck’s brand by using their product for lethal injections, and b), how much power (if any) do consumers have when it comes to damaging or ruining brands?

Consider Sudafed: 20 years ago, the brand was riding high with a reputation for delivering fast relief with no drowsiness. These days, thanks to some unscrupulous consumers, Sudafed suffers a none-too-welcome synonymy with meth manufacture — a connection that’s reinforced every time we’re asked to show our ID and sign for it at the pharmacy counter.

Firearms manufacturers face especially-tricky branding challenges. Aside from the obvious moral and political debates surrounding their products, there’s the built-in possibility that someone might use one to do something illegal at best and horrifying at worst.

Just ask Glock. Besides having become a staple of every gangsta rap song, the Austrian gun maker routinely makes the news as the weapon of choice in such tragedies as the Virginia Tech massacre and more recently, the Arizona shootings.

So what to make of all this? Will the nobility of Lundbeck’s brand be damaged by Ohio and Oklahoma using its product for lethal injections? Has Sudafed’s brand been tarnished by meth makers? Does Glock’s brand suffer any collateral damage when someone uses one of its handguns to commit a horrible crime?

My guess is no with a dash of yes. On one hand, I think most reasonable people don’t hold companies accountable for how consumers use their products.
On the other, I can’t see anything good about a brand being associated with something negative.

What say you?

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