In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced the largest PR crisis in company history.

Its star product, Tylenol, had killed 8 people. Market share plunged down from 37% to just 7%, and the media religiously posted health concerns and warnings urging the public to stay away from the Tylenol pill. Experts predicted the Tylenol brand, which accounted for 17% of Johnson and Johnson's net income, would never recover. Soon after the deaths were brought to light, Tylenol was taken off the shelves.

Johnson & Johnson responded by recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules, and offering free replacements to consumers. Before 1982, recalling a product was not something companies did, but Johnson and Johnson decided the risk was worth it, spending over $100 million for the recall.

But 2 months later, Johnson & Johnson brought back Tylenol, accompanied with one of the smartest media campaigns in history. A year after the disaster, Tylenol jumped back to 30% market share, and Johnson & Johnson earned its respect and loyalty back from its customers.

To this day, loyal fans bring up the Tylenol crisis when they talk about why they buy Johnson & Johnson products.

For the Bloomingdales' marketing team, the Tylenol crisis serves as a beacon of hope as they battle through an ad hiccup causing public outrage.

In a recent Christmas catalog, Bloomingdale's published an ad where a woman is laughing during a holiday party with her hair thrown back. The man to her right, however, appears as a creeper getting ready to play a shady trick on his unassuming friend. What does the ad say?

"Spike your best friend's eggnog when they're not looking."

It didn't take long for Twitter users to call out the brand, and for journalists from all over to describe the ad as distasteful, hurtful, and disturbing. Needless to say, Bloomingdale's has taken a major hit, and the marketing team needs to come up with a way to fix its mistake.

But as we've seen with the Tylenol crisis, it's possible to bounce back from even the worst punch. In fact, mistakes can often times be used as shortcuts to establish a newer and stronger brand, much like Johnson and Johnson was able to do with its product recall.

If you're ever forced to handle a situation like Bloomingdale's, here's how you can turn even the worst situation into an opportunity to improve your brand.

1. Put your money where your mouth is

Following the negative response to the catalog ad, Bloomingdale's apologized in a statement to Tech Insider saying, "In recent reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdales' sincerely apologizes for this error in judgment."

Despite the apology, people continued calling out the brand all over social media.

With annual sales over $2 billion, I guess a written apology and a tweet saying you're sorry just doesn't cut it.

Put simply, talk is cheap. A company apologizing after it messes up is common practice, and to the public means very little. For the Bloomingdale's marketing team, ample time should be spent thinking of how to show the public that your company believes in its apology. Whether it's donating a portion of profits to support groups helping rape victims, giving free ad space to charity groups, or creating a new catalogue that is focused around stopping date rape, something substantial must be done for Bloomingdale's to come back stronger than before the ad release.

When trying to figure out how to turn a crisis around for your company, you need to think through the eyes of your customers. Will your customers be so surprised by you tweeting an apology that they'll share it with their followers? Probably not. But if you do something meaningful, like Johnson and Johnson did when they recalled Tylenol, you'll be able to turn your upset consumers back to your promoters.

2. Fight fire with fire

The largest number of upset messages against the Bloomingdale ad has come from Twitter. By simply looking up #Bloomingdales on Twitter, thousands of people voicing their anger towards the ad can be read.

As the CMO of Bloomingdales, I would make sure that every single angry tweet towards my company gets a response back from a Bloomingdale's team member. In today's social media driven world, responding to angry customers on Twitter is no longer exceptional customer service, it's more of an expectation.

As a marketer, you first need to find out where people are criticizing you, and then you need to use a personal touch to contact them through the same channel. Responding to even the worst messages with sincere and personal apologies is what will make your brand stronger than it was before.

3. Rebrand your vision and then work backwards

To use the ad mistake as a shortcut to create a more powerful brand, Bloomingdales must take time to decide on what it wants its customers to know it for the most.

For Johnson and Johnson, branding itself as transparent became the goal when it faced the Target Crisis. James Burke, the Johnson and Johnson chairman at the time, was praised for his leadership as he spoke to the press openly about all the mistakes the company had made that caused the 8 deaths from Tylenol. He walked the media through the entire step-by-step process of where the things went wrong, and how the company was going to fix it. When people look back at why the way Johnson and Johnson handled the issue was so memorable, its level of transparency is what first comes to mind.

Bloomingdale's will also need to decide the one thing it wants its brand to be remembered for after this mistake. Honesty? Integrity? Righteousness? The team needs to make the decision, and then create a plan on how to get customers to believe in the company again.

When you need to repair a company mistake, first decide on the one trait you want customers to remember you by when they look back at the crisis years later. Trying to fix your image by doing every kind of damage control you can think of will get you nowhere, but honing in on one thing you want your customers to know you by will turn even the worst crisis into an opportunity to improve your brand.

Published on: Nov 25, 2015
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