And Somewhere Men Are Laughing, And Somewhere Children Shout

"There is no joy in Dodgeville. Mighty Marchionni has struck out.”

                                         -- 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:



A shitstorm.

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.

14 comments about "And Somewhere Men Are Laughing, And Somewhere Children Shout".
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  1. Kurt Ohare from ohare & associates, February 29, 2016 at 9:45 a.m.

    Bob -
    Interesting and informative as always but I wonder why you needed to label 31% of the population "Nuts"?

  2. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, February 29, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

    Because I'm not selling them anything, and not publicly traded,  so I'm free to express my convictions.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 29, 2016 at 10:29 a.m.

    Gloria Steinam helped allow women to keep their power to earn their own money and positions to buy what Land's End sells. She helped those families thrive directly and indirectly. Odds are that the complainers have no idea and the women forgot big time what it was like before women like Ms. Steinam gave them a voice to be heard.

  4. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, February 29, 2016 at 11:07 a.m.

    To me a bigger issue is that of the three most recent items I ordered from Land's End, two had to be returned for poor qaulity and the third didn't match the size chart, (but I kept it anyway).

  5. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, February 29, 2016 at 1:35 p.m.

    Gosh, Bob, aren't you advocating the kind of self-imposed political correctness that Donald J. Trump and his supporters attack? Ironically, it may well be the some of the same evangelical Trump or Cruz supporters who attack Ms. Marchionni for expressing her admiration for Gloria Steinem and her efforts to help women achieve something closer to the rights and respect they deserve! 

  6. Tom Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, February 29, 2016 at 1:42 p.m.

    While I agree with pretty much everything written here, the thing that really gripes me is the loaded term "pro-abortion." Nobody is "pro-abortion," it's misleading by design, in the same way most use of "pro-life" is abused by self-righteous scolds who will gladly send criminals to lethal injection and our soldiers off to this decade's war. "Abortion rights" is an appropriate middle-of-the-road term, but of course that suits neither agenda, both of which need emotion to trump reason.

    Lost in the endless skirmishes of rage, indignation and boycott is the UPLIFTING FACT -- no matter where you come down on the issue, I would hope -- that abortions have fallen to their lowest rate since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.

  7. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC replied, February 29, 2016 at 1:56 p.m.

    You're right to point to the facts, Tom, but the politics of division practiced by some do not acknowledge facts.

  8. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, February 29, 2016 at 2:01 p.m.

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall whilst Ms Marchionni and the good burghers of Dodgeville, Wisconsin were courting one another.  

    "I always visit da Giacomo during fashion week, don't you?"

    "No, ma'am, but we have a Godfather's Pizza and Olive Garden is only 20 minutes away."

    The headhunter who sold the Land's End board on that hire deserves a Nobel Prize for BS. 

  9. brad berger from aim high tips, February 29, 2016 at 2:29 p.m.

    Bob I appreciate all you say and you are correct. I have my values on what I know to be the best and non offensive wisdom for the world both children and adults. My AIM HIGH! Tips avoid hot button topics. This is wisdom for children and adults to have better lives and is absolutely FREE. Without the Tips most children will never learn the wisdom they need for life. The Tips are universal and are the best content platform for discreet ads with an owner like FB and Google. There is no content available today that can do so much for peace and goodwill. The content is 4 sale. The Tips have 1.8 million FB Likes Please look at the Tips thanks 

  10. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC replied, February 29, 2016 at 5:20 p.m.

    Paula Lynn, while I respect Steinem's role in the women's movement, I'd discount her for the recent comment explaining Bernie's popularity with young women: "Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie."
    The point is that marketers should stay away from topics or individuals who are divisive or controversial.  It rarely helps the brand, unless that person is directly identified with the brand lifestyle.

    Levi's is a great example of a brand that has eschewed any kind of celebrity association to protect the brand from the potential for celebrities to go off the rails.

  11. William Barbot from Threespot, March 1, 2016 at 10:36 a.m.

    Maybe the world would be a better, far more interesting and real place if more marketers did "flaunt their values at the expense of their shareholders." I would love consumers to know more about the values of the companies behind the products they buy and whose stock they hold. Then perhaps we could have a real sense of what moves markets in the 21st century. Hint: it's more than just what we learned in Econ 101. Go ahead, Land's End, piss off your dissenters, but then don't backpedal for hurting their feelings. Take a look at Target and their phasing out of gender-based signage. Lose some customers in the near term, but, I truly hope, build much more substantive—and valuable—brand loyalty in the long term.

  12. Elle Mac from Not Applicable, March 1, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    Two thoughts:  1) I wish we had more backstory.  Does Land's End typcially do editorials on people they admire? Or was this a one shot deal?  and 2) The biggest tragedy/marketing error I see is that they removed the story from the web when they received a few complaints.  I have to believe they debated running the story. And at some point, the decision was made to "Go for it.  This is what we believe".  The reality is, in this day and age, EVERYONE has an opinion and a keyboard.  The whining on the web has become white noise.  It's always there.  It gives the media and bloggers something to talk about. From a marketing perspective, I think if you believe it, stand behind it.  Allow your customers (and detractors) to voice their opinion then issue a statement indicating respect for all viewpoints while standing behind your actions.   If you were doing it "just because" and offended your customers in the process that's another story. Then yeah, you made a mistake, apologize and hope for the best.

  13. Tony Tissot from eTrigue replied, March 3, 2016 at 12:33 p.m.

    Well gosh! We all know that Mr. Donald J. Trump and his supporters don't actually mean "political correctness" when they use that phrase.

  14. Bill Harrison from Imagination, April 1, 2016 at 11:49 a.m.

    I think this is actually more a case of celebrity endorsement or at least celebrity association gone wrong than a poor choice of content.  From what I gather, the shitstorm was not generated by the content of the interview but by the mere appearance of Ms. Steinhem in the catalog.

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