Can Ashley Madison Cheat Death?

New leadership, and even a new name, likely won't be enough

Can Ashley Madison cheat death?

Almost certainly not, experts said, as the flak surrounding the company's data-security breach continues to fly. Many are skeptical the infamous adultery site can come back from the devastating leak that has exposed customers and brought on $500 million in lawsuits.

"One couldn't have invented a more efficient scenario for the annihilation of a brand," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Client lists have been leaked, reports have questioned the reality of female members, and Josh Duggar has emerged as a public face of the company."

There was more churn today as Noel Biderman stepped down as chief executive officer of Ashley Madison's parent, Avid Life Media. In a statement, Avid Life Media vaguely explained that the change "is in the best interest of the company and allows us to continue to provide support to our members and dedicated employees. We are steadfast in our commitment to our customer base."

Of course, many of those 37 million users (31 million of them men) have been royally pissed off since last month's disclosure of a massive hack. The cyber-assault left users—who shared personal information in the hope of finding partners for extra-marital affairs—vulnerable to public exposure. That threat became reality last week when names, phone numbers, emails, credit card details and sexual preferences hit the Web.

"We are actively adjusting to the attack on our business and [on] members' privacy by criminals," the company said today. "We will continue to provide access to our unique platforms for our worldwide members."

Can Ashley Madison continue to do business given that its customers, looking to betray the trust of their partners, will now understandably mistrust the service itself?

"It's a goner," said Greg Monaco, founding partner of branding firm Monaco Lange. "Creating a strong brand begins and ends with trust. I can't imagine AM regaining any semblance of trust as Ashley Madison. Putting aside any moral judgments, and looking at this as just a business, a complete rebrand is imperative."

When a name becomes a liability

It's a no-brainer: the name must go. That's the first step to staging any kind of a comeback. Yet, an overhaul, even with different branding and a new management team in place, might still fail unless the company can convince users that their information is, in fact, secure.

That's a tall order, but far from impossible.

"In some ways, this is the same as asking if banks and retailers can come back from these kinds of situations," said Robert Passikoff, a best-selling author on marketing topics and founder of consultancy Brand Keys. "The answer has always been 'yes.'"

Of course, Ashley Madison's business proposition is a far cry from the services offered by department stores or savings and loan companies. Oddly, this might be one reason that some future rebranded version of the site, or perhaps an entirely new successor, will ultimately thrive.

After all, the demand for infidelity will continue to fuel businesses eager to make such fantasies come true. Ashley Madison's ability to facilitate such hook-ups was highly dubious at best. Even so, it's the possibility of fulfilling the fantasies that drives site visits.

"There's a need to be met," Passikoff said. "Infidelity has been around for all time. It's not going anywhere." And in our digital culture, it's easy to imagine ex-Ashley Madison execs or somebody rushing in to fill the void.

What's more, consumers might return to such sites after they've had a chance to consider that "Ashley Madison is the victim here," said Doug Bailey, president of DBMediaStrategies and a communications professor at Boston University. "It's the hacker that's caused all the pain and controversy."

Of course, it's easy to forget that in the passion of the moment, Bailey said, especially as purloined data continues to heat up screens worldwide.

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