Kellogg Rep Takes Rap After Phelps Flap

Little-Known Brand Tracker Vanno Finds Marketer Took a Hit for Dropping Olympian

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- What can do more damage your reputation -- recalling peanut butter products due to possible salmonella contamination or firing a bong-smoking Michael Phelps? According to a little-known online "social evaluation" community, Kellogg took a much bigger hit for the latter.

The waves of negative press surrounding Kellogg's dismissal of Phelps have been sizeable enough that 'off the box' is becoming a euphemism for getting fired for doing something stupid.
The waves of negative press surrounding Kellogg's dismissal of Phelps have been sizeable enough that 'off the box' is becoming a euphemism for getting fired for doing something stupid. Credit: Rob Carr
Vanno, a website that follows 5,500 companies, compiles its reputation index by capturing "gossip, news, opinion and personal insight about companies and their reputations" submitted by users that it converts into numerical scores and rankings. Its figures shows Kellogg, which was ranked an impressive No. 9 in January, fell to No. 16 after announcing its peanut-butter-related recalls. But the company fell to No. 68 after letting Mr. Phelps go, as first reported by AdAge.com on Feb. 5. According to Vanno, Kellogg has since fallen to 83.

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based marketer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To compile its listing, Vanno asks users to submit stories "about how you think a company treats its customers, employees, communities, the environment or society in general." Other users can vote on whether they agree with others' assessments. At the time of Mr. Phelps' dismissal, Vanno members agreed with Kellogg (23 to 9).

Vanno blogger "NickD" gave some background on Kellogg's drop after Mr. Phelps' fall from grace. "Kellogg stories at Vanno, starting during our six-month private beta and continuing through our public launch in November 2008, were very positive, mostly citing credible third-party sources," he wrote, adding the peanut-butter recalls seemed to have a very moderate effect. "But Kellogg dropping Michael Phelps, and the subsequent focus on the moral/nutritional equivalency of pot and Pop-Tarts, drew more negative attention and passion from users, and the belief base took a much bigger hit, dropping Kellogg to No. 16 and then to No. 68."

While there has been a wave of negative press, much of that seems to have an epicenter in the stoner community. The waves have been sizable enough that "off the box" is becoming a euphemism for getting fired for doing something stupid. UrbanDictionary defines it as "the state of being removed from a position of prominence/importance due to a foolish mistake. Related to Michael Phelps being dropped by Kellogg after a picture of him with a bong was released."

Of course, one user survey isn't definitive. But if the impact on Kellogg's reputation is real or sustained, it could turn out to be an expensive stand for the company, which said it was parting with Mr. Phelps because his behavior "was inconsistent with the company's image."

While his other sponsors stood by Mr. Phelps, the incident hasn't been good for him. His ratings on the Davie Brown Index, which monitors celebrities brand attributes, were down earlier this month.

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