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British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson leaves his home in London March 24, 2015. The BBC is reportedly going to fire the “Top Gear” star after a “fracas” with a producer.PETER NICHOLLS/Reuters

He is brash, politically incorrect and, until today, the face of a globally acclaimed British TV program called Top Gear – all about cars and the antics of its host, Jeremy Clarkson.

But branding and marketing experts agree that the BBC had no choice but to dump its biggest star despite his own strong brand recognition and the set-back it could cause the popular Top Gear program. Facing its own Ghomeshi-like moment, the BBC decided Mr. Clarkson had become too toxic and a brand liability.

The weekly program draws 5-million domestic viewers and, through rebroadcasts around the world, an estimated global audience of 350 million. The show was one of the BBC's most successful exports – generating annual revenue of $93-million.

But today the British Broadcasting Corporation cut him loose. The BBC said that Mr. Clarkson had crossed a line and that his contract would not be renewed following an investigation in to a "fracas" earlier this month after a day of filming. British media reported that an altercation happened when the TV star discovered that the hotel where the Top Gear team was staying had stopped serving hot food for the day.

According to the BBC investigation, Mr. Clarkson had unleashed a verbal tirade lasting 20 minutes followed by a 30-second physical assault on a producer. The assault resulted in swelling and a bloodied lip and sent the producer to the emergency department of a hospital in northern England.

The demise of Jeremy Clarkson sparked a social media backlash as fans of the show – including many here in Canada – criticized the BBC for its decision. Top Gear and its main host are so intertwined that fans could not imagine the show without him.

But the case also highlights the difficulties all organizations like the BBC face when trying to protect their reputation and whether to hold on to a key part of their brand or let it go.

Branding and workplace experts agreed that the BBC was left little choice.

There is more than one brand

"If you step back from the individual interest and you see the BBC as the retailer and Jeremy Clarkson as the brand, should the retailer continue to carry the brand after a product harm crisis? A product harm crisis is for example is when a product has to be recalled because it's harming consumers," explained Professor Niraj Dawar, an expert in branding and marketing at the Ivey Business School at Western University.

In the past, Mr. Clarkson had used the N-word in a program outtake, said striking public sector workers should be shot in front of their families, and called then-British prime minister Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot."

Those comments and other stunts – such as testing a new pick-up truck by driving it in to a chestnut tree – did little to dent his popularity among fans of the show.

Professor Dawar argues that Mr. Clarkson's most recent transgression – assaulting a fellow employee – was too much to accept and that keeping the "brand" in this case would have further tarnished the BBC.

He also said that there are, in fact, two brands at play – the TV host being one, and the show itself being the other.

"It's a little bit like what the CBC went through with Jian Ghomeshi and Q. The question is: Is Q a brand that can stand on its own without Jian Ghomeshi? I think the BBC is in a similar situation. Can the Top Gear brand sustain itself without the Jeremy Clarkson brand?"

Plan for life after the 'star'

Top Gear's audience, regardless of its disappointment, will be tuning in to see who ends up replacing Jeremy Clarkson – and the BBC is confident that it can manage the brand impact of losing the long-time host, said Professor Alan Middleton, a marketing expert at the Schulich School of Business at York University.

But managing a smooth transition will come down to whether the BBC already had in place some kind of succession plan for Mr. Clarkson's departure – a plan that Professor Middleton likens to taking out insurance on your brand's biggest asset in the event of an abrupt change. In that, there is a lesson for any organization.

"The way of taking insurance for having some flexibility with a major star is you do some kind of contingency planning. It's never perfect. It can never resolve the issue overnight. But any strong brand can survive it – and being taken through it. But you have to plan," he said.

Don't dither

For Chris MacDonald, an expert in business ethics and corporate responsibility at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, the BBC case echoes some of the challenges that organizations like the NFL and CBC have faced recently.

"It made me think of the more local case of Jian Ghomeshi where clearly an organization has an image to protect and has a brand to protect and at a certain point the behaviour becomes such that it can't even appear to endorse abusive behaviour – partly for brand protection reasons but also just from an ethical point. It would have to take some sort of action," said Professor MacDonald.

But the criticism of the CBC and the NFL – which struggled to respond to domestic abuse scandals involving its players last year – is that both organizations were slow to respond, he added.

"On the one hand, we want to protect our employees, but on the other hand we have this valuable commodity, this valuable star. It's legitimately a difficult spot to be in. But organizations also have to realize that if they dither about it too long, they have yet another way to lose out, which is by losing face by having been seen as soft on what is, in all of the above cases, quite outrageous behaviour," he said.

No one's untouchable

An online petition started by fans shortly after the Top Gear star was suspended earlier this month calls on the BBC to bring Jeremy Clarkson back. It received more than 1 million signatures. On the day that it was announced that the BBC was not renewing his contract, the support for Mr. Clarkson was strong – even as disturbing details of the "fracas" emerged.

"I wondered if one of those million people were accosted or physically beaten, would they want something done? The answer is unequivocally yes," said Bill Howatt, CEO of Howatt HR Consulting, which, in conjunction with The Globe and Mail, is behind an online life-at-work survey.

"At the end of the day this is not very complicated. If you were a victim of that behaviour, would you want it dealt with appropriately so you knew you could go back to work and not have to experience that again? That's why he got sacked. They [the BBC] don't want to take a chance that he'll do it again."

He commends the BBC for role-modelling a no-tolerance approach when it comes to workplace violence and that "no one's untouchable."

"If you took this guy and rationalized that he's a great entertainer and that he's a bit eccentric and that we're going to let him off the hook – what message are you sending to all the people who are not great entertainers in that organization … when it comes to the whole concept of civility in the workplace," said Mr. Howatt. "Organizations do best when they create a policy, and it doesn't matter who you are, they all follow the same rules."

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