It seems there’s nearly a daily occurrence of individuals and employees behaving badly or dangerously, and big-name brands marketing or selling products that are questionable, degrading and potentially harmful.
Burberry is the latest luxury retail brand to make such a faux pas (to put it mildly). The brand faced backlash following its London Fashion Week show, where a model walked down the runway wearing what is now being referred to as a “noose hoodie” -- that is, a hoodie with rope positioned in a way that strikingly resembled a noose. The runway stunt resulted in public outrage for glamourizing suicide and evoking images of lynching, prompted in large part by a social media complaint from a model who appeared in the runway show herself.
Meanwhile, Gucci was recently caught up in a controversy of its own over a degrading balaclava sweater that resembled blackface and was briefly available for sale online and in select retail stores. It sparked public fury over the racially insensitive design, rightfully so, and the brand responded by quickly pulling the sweater off the market and issuing a public apology.
Google is also in the headlines again, this time for failing to disclose to customers that its Nest security device has a built-in microphone. Needless to say, consumers are concerned about threats to their privacy.
These are just a few examples that have left people scratching their heads in disbelief, wondering how and why a brand could have signed off on some of these initiatives to begin with.
So what can companies learn from these high-profile missteps, with their inherent potential to cause irreparable reputational harm?
Be accountable. This one’s a given. Whether your company is facing backlash for a bad idea stemming from the C-suite or by a rogue employee, it’s imperative to take ownership over the incident, and quickly. Fess up to your misdeeds, and show that you’re willing to take responsibility for your actions. A recent example of a high-profile failure to take responsibility for bad behaviour is “Chair Girl” Marcella Zoia, who claimed “peer pressure" as a defense for hurling chairs off a high-rise condo balcony onto the Gardiner Expressway below. That’s just petty. A claim of “peer pressure” might be believable when you’re out for dinner and your friends encourage you to order dessert, but certainly shouldn’t stand as an excuse for an action that could have killed people. Brands can learn a lot from this example of what not to do.
Apologize, and show remorse. Issuing an apology is only half the battle. The other half is being sincere and expressing remorse for your actions. Burberry did issue an apology, albeit only after model Liz Kennedy voiced her concerns publicly and amid the resulting media frenzy. Kennedy also called out the brand for not addressing her concerns over the hoodie backstage before the show. The brand’s creative director, Riccardo Tisci, indicated the hoodie was nautical-inspired and not meant to be insensitive. That may be true, but his remarks seem like a case of making excuses after being publicly chastised rather than genuine sorrow.
Meanwhile, flashing a huge grin at reporters as you're escorted out of the police station after being charged with mischief endangering life? That is not a way to express your guilt and shame, but rather appears to show your excitement over your newfound (and short-lived) notoriety.
Take action. When you do wrong, you need to take prompt steps to show how you will change. Many brands like to “talk the talk” but too few “walk the walk” as well. Show your company, employees, stakeholders and the public how you've learned from the situation and how you plan to grow and be more responsible moving forward. This is a critical piece that must be seen to fruition, long after media and public attention has waned, in order to have a lasting impact that can help to rebuild your reputation.
In the end, common sense, and an innate sense of right and wrong, must prevail. Unfortunately, some brands and individuals take the stance that any publicity is good publicity. But that’s certainly not the case; bad publicity can seriously threaten your reputation and your bottom line. Learn from these blunders and act with greater consciousness and accountability moving forward. Ignorance isn’t a valid excuse -- companies and citizens alike must do better.