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Unknown unknowns: protecting your brand in the face of unexpected tech failures

January 2022
 by Georgina Lovett-Wride

Unknown unknowns: protecting your brand in the face of unexpected tech failures

January 2022
 By Georgina Lovett-Wride

Data breaches, cyber-attacks, unstable server crashes and software dependencies: for companies facing public tech failures, efforts to restore brand loyalty can be as expensive as litigation costs, so the fear of losing investor and customer commitment should be as great a worry as the operational disruption such failures cause.

2021 bade us farewell with a reminder that unplanned events do happen: Facebook’s outage in October and Apache’s Log4j vulnerability exposure in December were just two of numerous events that disrupted digital stability and security last year, with costly impacts for the companies affected and their brand reputations, as well as for their consumers.

Log4J: a software vulnerability with far-reaching impact

In December 2021, the internet was alerted to a vulnerability in the logging system Log4j, a widely-used software which, much like a record keeper, helps developers track changes in applications that they build. Apache’s Log4j software is embedded in numerous popular internet services including Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Netflix and Oracle. The flaw, which enabled attackers to break into systems, steal passwords and logins, extract data, and infect networks with malicious software, had gone unnoticed since 2013. Yet there was no evidence of mass exploitation until the 2021 public disclosure from Apache, after which threats on associated companies using the system increased.

The software bug is considered one of the most severe vulnerabilities in the internet’s recent history. As well as causing huge operational disruption as organisations using Log4j scrambled to apply fixes, the flaw had an impact on brands, with concerned users and investors taking to online searches to find out which companies and services were affected.

The potential repercussions of bugs like this are not limited to software companies. With practically all companies now relying at least in part on online services, websites and apps, strategists across industries have one immediate reflex when such vulnerabilities arise: “How will this impact the brand?”. Loss of market share is the main quantifiable measure of the impact of security breaches, so managing customer confidence has become a central pillar to their mitigation strategy.

The Apache Log4j vulnerability is more than a simple software vulnerability: it affects the wider digital economy. At the time of writing, the long-term impact on companies, both reputationally and economically, is incalculable. Not only is this the largest vulnerability exposure in 10 years, but it is ongoing – the security patches deployed are already being penetrated. Very soon, we will however be able to measure the impact to brand equity, in related search volumes and in stock prices.

Protecting yourself from the costs of tech failures

Recent, smaller-scale tech failures continually demonstrate the costly impact of similar events. In October 2021, Facebook’s platforms suffered a six-hour blackout resulting in a near 4.95% fall in stock price. As a result, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, lost nearly $6 billion. Facebook rebranded its parent company to Meta later that month. In a company memo, Facebook’s global security operations centre determined the outage was “a high risk to the reputation of Facebook”.

Though not everyone has the reach or value of Facebook, no company is immune to such unplanned events. When faced with a tech failure, companies often respond by adopting expensive measures to preserve or redress their brand position. And although some companies also take preventative measures, lamentably few direct pre-emptive positioning to the first place people search to find out more when a tech failure hits: Google. Post-crisis, the quality of a Google search results page is enough to influence brand loyalty for consumers and shareholders alike – so ensuring Google’s users see accurate information that supports your intended brand narrative when they carry out a search is vital in protecting your brand.

Many of us will choose to kick off the new year with thoughts of strength, resilience and preparedness. It’s worth also making a resolution to look after your digital health in the coming year – positioning yourself to be resilient in the face of an unexpected tech failure will help to protect your brand throughout 2022 and beyond.

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