Major retailer, American Apparel, recently received heavy criticism, after sending out an obnoxious email blast amidst Hurricane Sandy, which is now known to have caused substantial damage, and many deaths in the Northeast.
They weren’t, however, the only major retailer to ruffle the feathers of fellow tweeters. Popular clothier, Gap, posted an insensitive tweet while Hurricane Sandy was making its way towards the East Coast.
To be fair, American Apparel and Gap wasn’t the only businesses that took advantage of the disaster. They just so happened to be the most publicly damned business as a result of one little marketing blunder. Regardless of whether or not you feel they deserved the backlash or not, and regardless of whether or not it was all a publicity stunt, there are five clear lessons to be learned from their mistakes.
1. Don’t be a Shill
Shill (n.): A decoy who acts as an enthusiastic customer in order to stimulate the participation of others.
Gap’s sly tweet (above) attempts to trick their followers into actually believing that the tweet was posted by genuinely excited customers, ready to shop their little hearts out during the storm, and that their followers, in turn, should get equally excited. In actuality, this is not the case. The account is obviously run by an employee of the Gap who is responsible for managing their social media, not real customers.
One angry customer replied to Gap’s tweet, “Try taking a break from being a shill for a couple of days instead of trying to tie in a life-threatening storm warning to your ads?” A comment on Mashable’s article also stated, “I get the tweeter’s comment that the company should “stop being a shill.” The key lesson to be learned here is that if you want to promote your products in social spaces, don’t be deceitful and pose as something you’re clearly not, especially amidst an approaching tragedy.
2. Be Sensitive and Considerate
You’ve already got the odds stacked against you. Why? You’re a business… you know, a profit driven, ruthless entity. Social media, then, will be the one thing to humble you, my friend. Before you engage, you really need to understand the culture of social media, as shameless promotion simply doesn’t fly. Tragedies and potentially dangerous situations need to be treated delicately. You’re going to rub a lot of people the wrong way if you continue down this tactless path. It’s important to humanize your social media presence so people respect you.
Show them you’re not all about the Benjamins. Show them you care. If you can’t show this to your online community, even when there’s a tropical storm on the way that’s forecast does not look too promising, you’re destined for social condemnation. Another comment in Mashable’s article on Gap’s tweet stated, “It’s someone like telling you their dad died, you saying “Oh, that’s sad……. You want to order some Papa John’s tonight?” The key lesson to be learned here is to lay off on the impudent advertising during times of such grave uncertainty and show your followers a little consideration. Wouldn’t it make more sense to actually provide some help and use the online community to spread the word about your good deeds?
3. Offer a Sincere Apology
American Apparel has yet to offer a public apology for the controversial email blast. While Gap, on the other hand, did offer an “apology,” it has been criticized for its lack of sincerity and rationalization.
Another recent post by Mashable stated, “online reaction to the ad has been overwhelmingly negative” and “American Apparel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.” The other post by Mashable, however, stated that Gap “made a mildly insensitive tweet” but then “took the tweet down and offered the following semi-apology.”
As you can see, the two cases vary in intensity of reaction. The notable difference is that Gap offered an apology but American Apparel did not. Gap’s apology, however, also seems to have slightly backfired. The key lesson to be learned here is to offer not just any ol’ apology, but a heartfelt apology. The retailers could have even considered offering a donation to the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in an attempt to make things right. Again, that is what they should have done in the first place. That would have gone a long way towards building the brand and building goodwill all at the same time.
4. Timing is Everything
Clearly, both these major retailers have no concept of “too soon.” They’ve in fact, gone so far as to be witty just as a life threatening storm was about to hit the East Coast. C’mon now, really? Now is certainly not the time to be “clever” or to apply cheap, tasteless, newsjacking PR tactics. Businesses should understand that, yes, while newsjacking usually offers a convenient avenue to promote sales and drive traffic, it’s completely inappropriate during a crisis. Businesses should know to show empathy and common decency instead of self-promotion.
Another angry customer tweeted “Hey @americanapparel people have died and others are in need. Shut up about your #Sandy sale” along with an image of the email blast. Even Chris Rock probably respected that it was “too soon” to crack a few jokes at one of his sold out comedy shows immediately after the sudden passing of pop icons Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Well, so we’d like to think so… Nevertheless, the key lesson to be learned here is to know when NOT to be witty and when to keep your wisecracks to yourself during times of panic, loss and mayhem. Another individual also tweeted, “@americanapparel will soon be hiring a new marketing director. Yes, they just email blasted a “Hurricane Sandy sale”… which brings us to our final lesson.
5. Hire a Responsible Marketing Director
There are plenty of dangers in participating in social media for business purposes. The one that particularly applies to both these real life scenarios, however, is a lack of control. Unless the employees who carried out the acts were out to purposely sabotage the businesses they worked for, they most likely did not intend to cause any public grievances. The marketing blunders were most likely a combination of poor judgment. One little tweet or email blast, however, can cause substantial damage to your brand’s reputation, and you may end up suffering from financial loss as a result of boycotting.
For example, another angry customer tweeted, “I just received a “Hurricane Sandy sale” email blast from @americanapparel. I will forever boycott their stores. RT if you’re with me.” The key lesson to be learned here is that you need to recruit an individual who you believe is responsible enough to handle your marketing efforts. Alternatively, you need to create a process, if necessary, one that may involve committee approval during particular difficult times, so you remain in control.
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