-- with apologies to E.L. Thayer
“Spring Awakening” says the headline on the latest Lands' End e-catalogue, to which one can add merely: “You can say that again.” The Dodgeville, Wisc., mail outfitter of preppy clothes and accessories has been awakened to a couple of indisputable marketing realities:
1) A company’s deepest-held convictions may not correspond with those of the entire customer base, and, therefore, sometimes it is pragmatic to keep your pie-hole shut.
2) No matter how easy it may look, content marketing can be a bitch.
The saga begins with a four-page spread in the catalogue featuring an interview between Lands' End CEO Federica Marchionni and one of her heroes: Gloria Steinem, the publisher and feminist icon. Now, because you still possess the sense you were born with, and know anything at all about the state of American politics, I most likely will not shock you with what happened next:
Because a lot of the American population is virulently ant-abortion, and because a woman's right to choose is perhaps the central tenet -- ahead of even wage equality -- in the feminist movement, many a pro-life recipient of the catalogue did not see this marketing piece as the Spring Awakening catalogue. They saw it as the Let's Murder Babies catalogue. Courtesy of the MilwaukeeJournal-Sentinel, allow me to pass on some customer comments:
"What are you thinking to glorify a pro-abortion feminist when you are trying to sell clothing to families?!"
"How could you not understand that your family-friendly customer base does not want to see a rabidly pro-abortion woman honored as a hero?"
Gosh, who would have seen that coming?
That wasn’t a rhetorical question. The answer, I’m pretty sure, is “every sentient being in America except Federica Marchionni.” It was also entirely predictable that obliterating the Steinem interview from the Web site -- which Lands' End did with an effusive apology approximately nine seconds after the complaints starting pouring in -- would lead to a backlash from feminist customers who believe the company was silenced by the religious right.
Remember the Susan G. Komen controversy, when right-to-lifers objected to the cancer charity’s contributions to Planned Parenthood? It was exactly like that. Except that Susan G. Komen is dedicated to women's health, and so is Planned Parenthood. Lands' End is not dedicated to women's health. It is dedicated to “clothing that sets the highest standards for enduring quality, style and value.”
Now, as an author of a book that celebrates marketers who project their core values in all they do, I cannot fault Lands' End institutionally for seeking common cause with their mainly female customers. But you'd better be sure you're willing to stand by those principles come what may. You'd also better be sure, if you are a public corporation like Lands' End, you are not flaunting your values at the expense of your shareholders.
I mean, I'd bet the farm that Apple's C suite is unanimous in support of aggressive gun-control legislation. But I'm sure that in its marketing Apple will keep that to itself. Because gun nuts buy phones, too.
One hopes this episode is a teachable moment for would-be content marketers. Here's a pretty solid rule of thumb:
That content needn't necessarily explicitly advertise the good or service; providing info or entertainment on matters of common interest with the customer base and prospects is reason enough. The key words there, though, are “common interest.” If your content gives them reason to hate you, I promise you, they will.