With great social media reward comes great risk—and more responsibility, too. Across the board, brands employ a more conversational, personified voice on their social platforms. And just as no human is perfect, no brand will always do and say just the right thing.
But what makes this more informal territory treacherous also makes it thrilling. Brands are challenged with quick, real-time responses that may resonate positively or negatively with their customers, and the two-way street of brand-customer interaction is constantly evolving with technology. Take a lesson from this brand blunders, whose quick reactions went down in history as instant regrets and cringe-worthy slip-ups.
The Slip-Up: Misjudging how to take part in the conversation.
Commenting on race in advertising takes ninja-level sensitivity skills. Starbucks was probably the last brand that should have attempted to enter the conversation. But CEO Howard Schultz, who has a long history of social-good initiatives, thought differently. He kicked off the #RaceTogether campaign, encouraging the company’s baristas to engage their customers in discussions about race. Backlash ensued.
In perhaps the most pointed reaction, PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill tweeted, “Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”
The Response: Undeterred, Starbucks defended their strategy:
But aside from being uncomfortable, race relations dialogue was also nearly impossible for baristas to logistically execute during the morning caffeine rush. #campaignfail
Clorox Emoji Bleach
The Slip-Up: Neglecting to consider all interpretations of your message.
Following Apple’s release of its new diverse skin color emojis, Clorox tweeted this comment. It was almost certainly unintentional—but the tweet read as incredibly tone-deaf. Some responded by saying that the tweet was representative of the lack of diversity in corporate America and that varied racial perspectives could prevent such ignorance.
The brand’s response: Soon after posting, Clorox deleted its original tweet and issued an apology, explaining that they just wanted their product to be turned into a new emoji. To quote Ronald Reagan, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
The Slip-Up: Fighting with your customers.
After the viral documentary Blackfish exposed the dire conditions of orca whales and the unnatural captivity of one killer whale who attacked his trainer, the amusement park Sea World decided to turn to social media in an attempt to reverse the damage. Instead of approaching with caution and highlighting their efforts to address the negative claims made in the film, they opened the criticism floodgates with #AskSeaWorld. The brand faced a storm of controversial comments and spiraled downward even further into an image crisis. Even worse, their social manager fought with followers who spoke out against the company, which instigated full-fledged social warfare.
Animal rights organizations made it their mission to see Sea World’s brand pay for their errors:
The brand’s response: Sea World’s Senior Corporate Affairs Officer said this: "What we wanted with this campaign was to start that conversation with consumers and give them a place to go to get the facts about SeaWorld, about our animals, about our world-class animal care, and let them make up their own minds."
Bic International Women’s Day
The Slip-Up: Expressing a misogynist message on International Women’s Day.
Social media is typically advantageous for timely and topical posts, especially when it comes to special occasions. Some of the best social campaigns to date capitalize on holidays. This is not one of those cases. Bic’s approach to celebrating International Women’s Day does anything but salute women. Telling women to “think like a man” is 100 percent the wrong message—and moreover, as a brand that sells pens and razors, Bic has nearly no natural role in the gender conversation. Double duh.
This isn’t Bic’s first offense when it comes to sexist ad scandals. Back in 2012, Bic launched its highly contentious purple and pink “lady-pens.” Bring on the backlash: Women flocked to Amazon and social platforms to write sarcastic product reviews, thanking Bic and joking about how the pens helped them appear stereotypically feminine.
A sample review: “I'm so glad that I FINALLY found some pens suitable for my tiny, little female hands! I asked my husband if I could buys these pens because frankly, regular pens are just too heavy for my frail womanly fingers to hold. Luckily, he said that I could and gave me the $4 needed to buy them, because, being a woman, I am 100% dependant on him financially. Thank you BIC for understanding the needs of women in our modern day society!”
You know it’s bad when Ellen Degeneres dedicates an entire segment to making fun of your brand.
The brand’s response: Bic issued not one, but two apologies on Facebook—or, technically, one and a half. The first apology merely passed the blame to a women's business website in Australia. When people continued to comment aggressively on the post, the brand issued a second apology claiming that the post should never have gone up in the first place. At that point, it's safe to say that the brand's fate had been written in non-erasable ink.
Despite these unfortunate slip-ups, social media can be an incredibly effective marketing tool when used appropriately. And having a strong social presence is essentially mandatory to stay relevant in today’s saturated market. Social media can help brands establish a clear personality against competitors and forge a direct connection with overly inundated and easily distracted customers.
But the ultimate takeaway is this: Think twice. Check yourself, and then check with someone else before you send a branded message into the into the Internet abyss. And if you do slip up? Take full responsibility, follow up with a meaningful apology, and cross your fingers that your fans can forgive and forget.