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Year in Review: Lessons from American Apparel's Social Marketing Miss

Social marketing missteps

Despite the proliferation of social media “gurus” and over eight years since the start of Facebook, many companies still find themselves in crisis mode following social media snafus. These missteps come in the midst of increasing consumer preference for connecting with brands on social – Nielsen’s State of the Media report found that over half of social media users compliment brands on social at least once a month – meaning our social presence should have a positive impact when managed strategically.

Some of last year’s social marketing misses were unpredictable, some were avoidable, and some were done in horrible taste, but all negatively affected the brands involved. Keep reading for one social marketing miss, along with lessons learned so we can avoid similar pitfalls in 2013.

Failure using seasonal marketing: American Apparel

During the Olympics this past summer, countless brands hopped on the bandwagon to sell their merchandise and services with tie-ins to the games to grab consumers’ attention. Events like the Olympics, Halloween, and Christmas represent opportunities for brands to sell to their customers by creating relevant connections between their products and the events.

Unfortunately for companies like American Apparel, Hurricane Sandy wasn’t a catch-all event like the Olympics, meaning it needed more finesse to properly utilize its potential.  The night Hurricane Sandy hit, American Apparel advertised a special deal for affected areas: “In case you’re bored during the storm, 20% off everything for the next 36 hours.” While Gap, Urban Outfitters, and other companies held similar sales that elicited negative reactions, American Apparel’s sale sparked the greatest controversy.

Image 1: Overtly taking advantage of catastrophic events for monetary gain rarely turns out wellImage

American Apparel alienated their customers by assuming the majority of them would be lounging by their computer, comfortable and safe inside. For targeted consumers who would soon lose power and suffer flooding and property damage in New York, New Jersey, and all along the North East, the sale backfired on Twitter and other social channels, with common sentiments including disgust, shock and calls to boycott.

Instead of apologizing to remedy the situation, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney responded to the backlash by saying “We’re here to sell clothing. I’m sleeping well at night knowing this was not a serious matter."

The lesson:

Anticipate how your audience will react! Especially with scenarios as severe as Hurricane Sandy, framing a marketing message in a way that makes it clear the company is trying to help consumers rather than take advantage of their plight will help companies avoid backlash for potentially controversial campaigns.

Marketers can take advantage of disastrous situations, but their messages will require a different angle. This Hurricane Sandy tweet from Sears, with a call to action to buy from them to prepare for the storm, placed the CTA in the context of helping consumers, creating a collaborative feeling rather than one of cheap selling tactics.

Image 2: Sears demonstrated how to sell to consumers during Sandy by helping them prepareImage

Social marketing in 2013

While the road to successful social marketing contains many potential pitfalls, its importance – and your investment in the space – should and will increase in the coming year. With social media use continuing to grow, and companies increasingly investing in social media, you need to perfect your framework for maximizing social marketing management and returns. How do you currently measure the value of a ‘Like’? What campaigns have resonated particularly positively or negatively with your customers? What goals can social marketing help you achieve in 2013?

To learn how top social marketing performers answer some of the questions posed above, download our white paper Top Social Engagement Lessons from JetBlue, Zappos,, and Kirkland’s.

What takeaways do you have from 2012, and where do you see social marketing heading in 2013? Leave me a note in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter.

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