The Kenneth Cole Conundrum

Kenneth Cole #Cairo TweetToday started out relatively quiet. Here in the Northeast, we had just begun to recover from yet another snowpocalypse. I was sorting through a few emails left over from last night. My colleagues (both online and off) took part in some casual banter. All was well. And then Kenneth Cole published his now-infamous tweet:

Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is
now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo -KC

I’m not much of a fashionista, so I found out about the tweet secondhand when a link appeared in my twitter stream. I clicked and immediately cringed. My first thought wasn’t so much about how awful the sentiment is, but rather how the person writing the tweet likely had no idea of what they had done.

Within minutes, the backlash started. #KennethCole is still trending on Twitter. News outlets did their own write ups on the tweet, and some even posted parodies:

someecards parodies Kenneth Cole on Twitter

A Lesson in Reputation Management

Kenneth Cole was quick to delete the tweet and to issue an apology for it. By the looks of the comments on Kenneth Cole’s facebook fan page, it was too little too late. (Former) fans spoke of throwing out and burning various Kenneth Cole garments. Various slurs were thrown around. A few (myself included) speculated that the tweet was posted by a social media consultant. Others suggested ways that Mr. Cole might begin to make amends for this preposterous blunder. After each comment on the facebook page, Kenneth Cole (or one of his staff members) posted the same message:  ‎”I have removed this morning’s tweet. Please visit this link to see my apology. http://on.fb.me/fCSf5Z -KC” . Rather than appease the public, however, this just served to stoke the flames. As one FB-er posted:

“Instead of the cut and paste apology, why not actually engage with people? There’s real humans at the other end of these messages you know. Customers and potential customers. Talk to them.”

 

When it comes down to it, I wonder what this all means from a marketing perspective. To me, it is obvious that common sense should come into play when choosing keywords and hashtags. Using a phrase simply because it is popular is not good enough. Relevance is essential. In addition, terms that are particularly sensitive (those that fall outside of what my mother called acceptable dinner conversation: politics, money and religion) should usually be avoided, especially if you are representing someone other than yourself.

The Real Social Media Issue

I think that most of us can agree that no harm was intended here. #Cairo has been trending for awhile now, and someone (whether it be Kenneth Cole or a social media rep) thought it would be a good idea to use it to increase the reach of their promotional tweet. It isn’t the intent so much that is the problem…it’s the lack of thought.

Egypt is in the midst of a political crisis. The lives of people are at stake. There are some, including the protesters in Cairo, who have been using and following the hashtag in order to communicate, to organize themselves, and to assist in their survival. To essentially hijack that hashtag for promotion…for personal and/or corporate gain shows a lack of consideration for what these people are facing, and what the situation means for the world as a whole.

Some will argue, “but it’s only Twitter…you shouldn’t take it so seriously”. I’d argue back that Twitter started out as a serious means of communication. Back in 2008, it was the tweet of student James Karl Buck from an Egyptian jail that helped make others aware of his situation. Others have used the network to communicate during natural disasters. In fact, as I type this, I can follow updates on a 5.3 magnitude earthquake in the Banda Sea. As with any other type of communication, there are times when twitter is casual, and there are times when a more serious type of discourse is required.

Social media is often criticized because of how casual it seems. One second, you have a thought, and the next it’s on the screen, ready to be accessed by the entire world. It is because of this that many organizations are reluctant to use social media, despite the many benefits that it may have. As a marketer or a social media consultant, how do you maintain the balance between creating interesting, engaging content to share with your customer base, and being responsible to the brand which you represent?

I think the biggest lesson we can take away from this is to think before you tweet. The only thing that makes social media any riskier than any other sort of interaction is its immediacy. Once you hit “enter”, you’re no longer in control.  I don’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something that that we should be mindful of.

Questions Raised by the Kenneth Cole Tweet

As a business, what concerns do you have regarding the impact of social media? How would you deal with a situation like this? What sort of online reputation management services do you employ?

One commenter on the Kenneth Cole Facebook page said something along the lines of “you have just ensured your place forever in marketing textbooks”. Do you think this is true, or will the fast-paced medium allow for the issue to fade more quickly?

What lesson will you take away from the Kenneth Cole ordeal? Let me know in the comments.

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11 comments on “The Kenneth Cole Conundrum

Kenny Rose

Kenneth Cole generated the controversy. I doubt if he has any Social Media professionals advising him how to leverage twitter. I cannot imagine they would condone a tweet of that nature or if they did they are definitely pseudo experts and should be relieved of their company iphone immediately.

Branding is an essential of the fashion industry. It is key method used to promote a clothing line or a collection. The insensitive nature of this tweet may reduce the revenue from the Spring Collection. The Digerati are the main people raising this as an issue. There are plenty of fashion brands that have questionable practices and views.

I think in the short term it will affect sales. Some people may never buy anything again others will wait for the sale and buy the suit at a reduced price. They may rip the label out and tell friends it is Hugo Boss but everybody loves a bargain right. I do not think it will have a lasting impact with brand advocates. It was one inappropriate tweet.

However there is a lesson that has wider implications for business in general. The nature of twitter and the speed with which people jump on a mistake is mesmerising. It can be medieval and in a way is a form of mob justice akin to burning witches at the stake. I think this is the key lesson to be learned. Context is everything and humour is subjective ignore those facts at your peril.

The other lesson for businesses is make sure you employ the right people and put clear policies in place as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. In this case the humour was a little too early. He may have received a different reaction if he would have waited to tweet about the issue until next seasons collection was ready. Clearly a tweet of that nature while people are dying in the street is completely unacceptable. Hopefully by next season Egypt will finally be free from oppression and people will have access to real democracy and freedom of expression.


Allison Gray Teetsel

Kenny, thanks for your insight. I agree wholeheartedly with your point that businesses need to establish clear policies regarding what is and is not acceptable, especially when it comes to their social media interactions. If Kenneth Cole has not already, I would strongly suggest that he hire someone to manage his brand’s online reputation, since he evidently does not have a clear perspective (either that, or he just doesn’t care what others think). You are right that people love to jump on a mistake, especially when it occurs online. Still, I think some “mistakes” are more forgivable than others. If the line between humor and tactlessness is too thin, one needs to weigh the risks and decide whether it is worth the remark. As you stated, there are facts that need to be considered. Think before you tweet.
Despite the ruthlessness of some on the internet, it has been my experience that most are willing to cut you some slack as long as you are authentic, and are relatable as a human being. I think the reason so many are as angry as they are with Kenneth Cole is that his tweet demonstrated a blatant separation from the issue…it had a blase’ attitude about it. This one inappropriate tweet caused some to dig up a bunch of other ugly comments/offensive ad campaigns that Cole has run in the past. Do you think it’s really just a matter of time for the Kenneth Cole brand to get back on its feet? Is there anything that Kenneth Cole can do to rectify the situation (aside from the already-issued apology)?


Kenny Rose

I did not know he had a history of bad comments. It obviously will take time for him to remedy that mistake it showed such poor judgement for someone with so much IRL influence and with a high profile brand. Difficult to say really I suppose it depends on who he gets to help him with repairing the damage. I think he can recover but it will not be easy. Product and brand affinity will have a lot to do with it in the end but from a public relations point of view it is a massive mistake but with the right help and an authentic approach I think it can be recovered. Be interesting to see who he gets to help with the problem and how they go about it. Key thing is it has to be real. Otherwise it will compound the problem and the brand will suffer irreparable damage.


Allison Gray Teetsel

Yeah, I agree. That’s what I was seeing earlier on the KC facebook page, when they kept reposting the same stock response. People were just getting angrier…it’s insulting to not bother taking the time to address people individually….or to at least show that you’re taking the situation seriously, rather than just trying to save face. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on things to see how this develops.


Karen E. Lund

I learned of it because I’ve been following tweets using the #Egypt and #Jan25 hashtags (#Cairo is not as commonly used). It blew up there! Those who are seriously concerned about the democracy protests did not like seeing the events turned into advertising fodder.

Kenneth Cole has a history of using controversial current events in its advertising, but this was somehow different. It wasn’t until this morning (the following day) that it clicked for me: other controversies have been part of a planned campaign, thought out in advance and often linked to some kind of CSR. For example, they’ve offered discounts for customers who brought in “gently used” shoes or coats for charity drives. It takes the edge off for most people.

This was just blurted out, jumping on a hot topic but not tied to any kind of awareness (there’s plenty of awareness already) or CSR campaign.

When objections followed, KC issued a half-hearted non-apology and, worse, didn’t remove the offending tweet. (I was expecting to see “Mr. Cole, take down this tweet!” but if anyone did I missed it.)

Finally, three hours later, a real apology on Facebook–not Twitter–and the tweet was removed. In Twitter-time three hours is a long time. Too little too late. It was obvious to most readers that the original tweet was a bad idea and it should have been removed and an apology issued immediately.

I think there’s one fair analogy that can be made to the situation in Egypt: the longer KC delayed their apology, the more angered people were and the more it will take to appease them. If the company had responded within 30 minutes, a simple apology and removing the tweet would have been enough for most readers. Tone-deafness and delay increased the anger. Kenneth Cole (the person) pretty much needs to stand up and say, “I was a stupid idiot and I deserve your abuse.” Then apologize–abjectly.


    Allison Gray Teetsel

    I had heard that KC had a history of saying things that weren’t exactly sensitive…advertising that played on topics like HIV/AIDS and 9/11. I wasn’t quite sure why people didn’t seem as upset over those, but I think you hit the nail on the head. This was just a completely careless, selfish move.

    The apology came three hours after the initial post? As I said, I heard about the whole thing secondhand, after the media had already picked up on it. Most of the comments I saw were praising Kenneth Cole for acting so quickly…I thought that the retraction and apology were immediate. It seems obvious now that it came only after a certain level of backlash…meaning that Kenneth Cole is acting more in the interest of self-preservation than concern for anyone else. The Kenneth Cole camp seems to be relatively silent today, despite the fact that the debate is raging on.


kathryn

Allison, this is an excellent post! You never cease to impress me with your articulation.

My guess it that it was tweeted by someone who lacks the maturity to think beyond themselves. It feels to me as if someone was trying to be witty and fell painfully, irreversibly short.

Was it a mistake? Of course. Should Kenneth Cole be permanently pistol-whipped for it? I don’t think so. I’m confident the appropriate action was taken to relieve the offensive tweeter from ever logging in on behalf of anyone other than the immature, impulsive person they are.

Now everyone needs to move on. In the grand scheme of life, this is a blip.

Just my opinion, of course. Stepping down now…


    Allison Gray Teetsel

    Kathryn, thanks much! Initially, I was certain that it was a social media strategist or an intern who posted the offending tweet. Now, I look at Kenneth Cole’s Twitter profile, and it says “Thoughts that end in -KC are from me personally; others are behind the seams insights from my inspiring associates. “. Taking that into consideration, I’d have to attribute the tweet to Kenneth Cole himself. If that is the case, I really have to wonder what action might prevent this from happening again in the future.
    Do I think that Kenneth Cole needs to be permanently pistol-whipped, as you said? No, certainly not. But I think it IS important for people to be mindful of the way they represent themselves online. They need to be aware of what the consequences may be. And perhaps most of all, they should follow a certain level of etiquette and regard for others. The debate is turning into one over free speech, with some arguing that it is ironic to lambaste Kenneth Cole for exercising one of the freedoms the Egyptian people are fighting for. Honestly, I think that Kenneth Cole has the right to say whatever he wants…I just think that the decision he made was in incredibly poor taste, and at the very least, the timing was unfortunate. I would hope that the CEO of my company and the people representing it would make better decisions…more well-thought out decisions. I’d hope they would prioritize in a way that is reflective of my own values…that is that the lives of people and the struggle of a nation far outweigh my own need to turn a buck.

    Should we move on? Sure. But there’s no real harm (except maybe to Kenneth Cole) in pausing for a moment to reflect on this, and to consider the larger impact that we have when we are privileged enough to have our voice have a global reach.


Ashley

I read this old marketing book from the 90s not too long ago that details the beginnings of Kenneth Cole’s early adverts as part of their on-going campaign of quips referring to controversial current events. I assume they still go with the same firm, but a lot has changed since their first ads appeared in newspapers — there was no instant publish button back then. But I’m sure many of their past ads were just as offensive to many — that was the point. I doubt this was a mistake. I doubt KC considers it a mistake, in private at least.

http://www.amazon.com/Under-Radar-Talking-Cynical-Consumer/dp/0471174696/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296840867&sr=1-6


    Allison Gray Teetsel

    Ashley, thanks for your perspective. I definitely agree that Kenneth Cole intended to say what he tweeted. I don’t think it was the result of some oversight. I just don’t think that he fully realized the impact of what he was doing, and he definitely did not anticipate the backlash that he (and his brand) would receive as a result. You are right…Kenneth Cole has used similar tactics to advertise in the past. The difference is that 10 or 20 years ago, an offensive message may not have been as far reaching. I might make a personal decision to not buy Kenneth Cole…and I may even encourage my friends to do the same. However, instead of telling 5 or 10 people over the course of a few days or weeks, my disdain can now reach my 400+ “friends” on facebook with the click of a mouse. Add to that another couple of hundred twitter followers, and then multiply that indefinitely as my message is retweeted again and again. Instead of a passing mention in conversation, Kenneth Cole’s remark now becomes the focus as people screencap and repost it, and then find their way to the brand’s facebook fan page.
    Even more damaging is the fact that social media gives the public the tools to retaliate on the same level…this is the case with whoever it is that is holding @KennethColePR hostage until Kenneth Cole satisfies his/her demands, by making a charitable donation. (see: http://twitter.com/#!/KennethColePR)

    At this point, I don’t think it really matters what Kenneth Cole’s intent was, or whether he is actually remorseful. Now, it’s more about damage control, and trying to salvage as much of the brand as he can.


Ashley Drewes

But that was kind of my point –you’re going to facebook post, tweet, tumblr, whatever scathing remark about Kenneth Cole, and suddenly Kenneth Cole is uber relevant again because countless people are talking (and taking the original message and the brand even further than it would have gone). Wouldn’t have happened if he had said something non-offensive or not particularly provocative. Damage control, perhaps, is part of the campaign, or is a new advertising campaign. Post-fumble apologies get a lot of free media play.