How to avoid marketing and PR promotion traps

Sales, marketing and PR promotions can be an effective means of broadening a company’s customer base and enhancing its brand image.

They can, however, go disastrously wrong, engulfing the promoter in a wave of public anger and costing millions to put right.

A recent promotions train wreck involved the US-based company Build A Bear which offered, for a day, bears at a price based on the child customer’s age. Given that its most expensive bears retail at above $100 NZ it was an attractive offer – in fact too attractive.

Mile-long queues formed at several of its toy stores in the UK and US. Parents, with their children, often had to wait five hours to get to the counter only to be told the store hand run out of bears. Children cried, people scuffled in their frustration and police had to be called in.

Horrified Build A Bear executives stated: “we could not have predicted this reaction.” The problem, with this excuse, is that they could.

History suggests that sales, marketing and PR promotions ‘go south’ for two broad reasons. Either the promoters disastrously underestimate the public demand the offer engenders or the promotion is viewed as in bad taste by the public.

The bear promotion is an example of the first category of which there have been some other notorious instances. Here are three.

The vacuum and white goods giant Hoover offered two free European or US return flights free to any customer who spent over £100 (Around $200 NZ). The aim of the campaign was to highlight the Hoover brand and shift the stock of vacuums and washing machines in the company’s warehouses.

What happened was that customers flocked to their stores, generally bought the cheapest vacuum cleaner and demanded flights in their 10,000s. Hoover became ensnared in costly legal battles with angry flightless customers and the whole sorry affair cost the company £48m.

In Singapore McDonalds offered Hello Kitty dolls fee with their burgers, badly underestimating the toy’s allure. Demand was massive and at one outlet, seven customers were injured when a plate glass door shattered.

In France, the store chain Intermarche innocently offered a 70 per cent discount on Nutella, apparently unaware of the country’s obsession with the chocolate spread. Fights broke out at the counters and the police were called in as stock rapidly ran out.

Taste can be another commercial minefield.

The American footwear chain Just for Feet offered a Hummer vehicle in a prize draw. To enter customers had to view a 30 second commercial. This featured ‘hunters’ in a Hummer tracking down a barefoot, black, Kenyan athlete. The human ‘prey’ was brought down by a tranquiliser dart. When the victim came-to he found that his kindly pursuers had shod his feet in the company’s finest trainers!

Mastercard scored a terrific own goal during the recent World Cup signing-up players Messi (Argentina) and Neymar (Brazil). Every time the soccer super stars scored, Mastercard pledged to distribute 10,000 meals through the World Food Programme to starving children in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Thousands of disgusted tweeters compared the promotion to the dystopian savagery of the Hunger Games films.   Things did not improve when both Messi and Neymar turned in unimpressive performances helping both of their teams to an early exit from the contest.

So, how can elephant-trap marketing and public relations promotions be avoided and what issue management steps can you take if things do go wrong? I would suggest there are five important rules to observe:

1)      Promotions ideas should not depend entirely on intuition or a flash of imagination. They should be thoroughly researched both as to their execution and impact. This must involve professional public relations advice, from outside or in-house experts.

2)      A crucial part of the campaign planning must be an exercise that envisages possible failure and cost and the ability of the company to financially survive failure. If survival is in doubt, drop the campaign.

3)      If you mucked up, then don’t try and put a positive spin on it because appearing evasive will only give oxygen to the issue.  Instead, admit the company got it wrong, apologise and – vitally – say what will be done to rectify the situation.

4)      Research shows that people, frustrated and angry when a campaign goes wrong, get even madder when there is no immediate plan – and action - to put things right. Every campaign must have a detailed plan to ameliorate the dissatisfied public. Build A Bear went some distance towards this goal by admitting their mistake and offering £12 vouchers immediately to customers who did not get the bear they wanted.

5)      Think carefully and deeply about the issue of taste and ethics. Race, gender, the possible exploitation of disadvantaged groups are danger zones to be avoided.