It has become commonplace for marketers to examine cases of Social Media PR crises that are created by a company through its social media activity.
Kenneth Cole is no stranger to being the subject of countless “What NOT to do” posts and stories. This Thursday he was back at it when he sent out the following tweet:
“Boots on the ground” or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear
— Kenneth Cole (@KennethCole) September 5, 2013
The social media sphere sighed a wearisome: “not again.”
Perhaps collectively we’ve all become a tad bit exhausted with the self promotional misuse of the social media medium; we’ve most definitely become tired of specific repeat offender brands. Of course the story was covered quite thoroughly by both disgusted bloggers and the mainstream press.
Kenneth Cole himself (it was sent by his personal twitter profile, not the company’s) defended the tweet as his attempt to bring attention to important issues. You can hear it from him in this short Instagram video he posted.
This isn’t Kenneth Cole’s first rodeo
If I wanted to write another 2000+ word post, I could list for you the many times Kenneth Cole has been widely criticized for his offensive social media actions. Instead, I’ll point you to Buzzfeed’s round up of his idiocy.
Suffice it to say, the man and the brand apparently value the attention they receive when they misbehave online. We do not know the conversations that go on inside the C-suite regarding this behavior, but it must be approved of if it continues with no repercussions.
Analyzing Kenneth Cole’s Protestations of Good Intentions
Kenneth Cole commonly uses his philanthropic work as defence for his bad social media behavior, claiming that all of it is an attempt by him to bring attention to certain causes, and using the good he’s done as an illustration of his point.
To be fair, a quick check of Wikipedia lists the following truths about the brand and the man:
- Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. is active in charities and often uses advertising, publicity and other corporate initiatives to support charitable causes.
- Cole’s has been a longtime advocate for AIDS awareness and research, and he’s a longtime board member of amfAR, which he joined in 1985 when it was far from common to be outspoken about AIDS.
- Kenneth Cole stores have yearly World AIDS Day events.
- The company is a leader in the anti-fur in fashion movement.
- Kenneth Cole is involved in HELP USA, a charity to help the homeless.
- The company helped create funds for both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina victims.
So, despite the fact that Kenneth Cole’s newsjacking may be despicable to many, he has the philanthropic history to back up his claims.
Not the Same as the Last Time
In 2011 Kenneth Cole had a similar reaction when he used the hashtag #Cairo to promote his new spring collection. The uproar at the time was loud and immediate, the tweet was taken down within a few hours, with this apology posted by the designer himself:
Social Media Impact on the Financial Health of Kenneth Cole Productions
I am no financial expert, but the stories of Kenneth Cole’s financial woes have been common knowledge for some time. Vuru.co gives a quick overview of the past 10 years or so of the financial health of Kenneth Cole Productions. 2012 saw the company make it into the black with a strong 4th quarter,
Last September, the founder took over the company and delisted its stock from the NY Stock Exchange, making it more difficult to check on the exact financial health of the company at this moment. However, considering the strong end to 2012, one would think it safe to presume that this latest offensive tweet won’t impact business much.
It is not unreasonable to presume that Kenneth Cole himself believes this, and thinks that becoming a Twitter star is worth the backlash; let’s face it, he is not an unintelligent man.
Normally in these circumstances the statement ‘only time will tell’ is relevant, but haven’t we had enough time to see that the many social media offenses by Kenneth Cole and his brand have not changed much in a measurable way?
Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know – would sales have been stronger without the negative publicity?
We’ve Seen This All Before
Many weeks in this series chronicle the impact of social media negative publicity on a brand; very often these stories are really tempests in a teapot.
One of the most popular posts we’ve run in the series highlights the impact, or lack thereof, of these social media on the outcome.
American Apparel is a company with a similar social media history, and in many ways mirrors Kenneth Cole.
A brash CEO running a well known American company tweets a newsjacking, self promotional comment and the social media sphere comes down hard. The CEO is unapologetic, and, in American Apparel’s case, sales soar.
One theory for the lack of negative impact is that American Apparel has built up such a loyal following, and has done so much good, particularly in its activism within the garment making industry against sweat shops and child labor, that the CEO is given a pass built on the reservoir of good will the company has built up.
What Does This Say About Why People Purchase?
Both marketing and common sense would dictate that repeated dings to a brand’s reputation will eventually impact the company’s ability to remain financially healthy.
Much ado is often made about boycotts and backlash, but how much of the reaction to these instances is just exaggerated hand wringing and slactivism? Perhaps the people who purchase these products don’t care as much about social responsibility as they do about fashion.
Or perhaps, they don’t see a singular tweet, or even an amalgamation of reckless tweets, as a reflection of what a brand stands for.
The Kenneth Cole brand is aimed at the middle income American market; people who are impacted greatly by swings in the economy. People who work hard for every dollar and are possibly too busy to care about Kenneth Cole himself?
That last question is of course filled with conjecture, but these questions need to be asked by anyone using social media as a marketing tactic.
I believe that people do indeed want their brands to be socially responsible, and given the choice between one they are certain is, and one that they are certain isn’t, with all other things equal, the socially responsible brand will win out. But, like all things in life, marketing is contextual, and so is our decision making.
If a consumer is on a tight budget and the Kenneth Cole shoes fit it and look good, chances are that the offensive tweet won’t impact their purchase decision. Perhaps brands marketing to the more economically challenged end of the market have more leeway when it comes to social media behavior, and perhaps Kenneth Cole knows it.
With all that being said I’d like to end this post with a very specific question, and it’s not: when was the last time a brand’s bad social media behavior impacted your decision to purchase. Rather, it’s this:
When was the last time you were tight on money and still chose to not purchase a product you could get for considerably less than one made by a socially responsible company?
VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.