In our office, most conversations revolve around our own clients and how to best engage journalists, consumers, and partners on their behalf. However, there are times when a brand will violate the basic tenants of our practice enough that it ends up as watercooler conversation. This week, that included Macy’s latest lapse in judgement around plates, and a partnership where Forever21 sent weight loss bars in packages to customers (woof). 

These actions hurt sales, received outrage across social media, and damage control may cost the brands even more in the long run. For large global brands like Macy’s and Forever21, one wrong move affects thousands of customers. And while negative reviews used to be delegated to customer service lines, consumers are now taking their complaints directly to the public through social media. 

So what happened?

Let’s start with Macy’s: the brand recently received strong backlash online after it included “portion control plates” in stores. The plates, made by POURTIONS, feature concentric circles that have phrases such as “foodie” and “food coma” corresponding to the amount of the plate that is circled. 

The plate that sparked the most negative response featured circles that read “skinny jeans,” “favorite jeans,” and “mom jeans” as the circles got bigger. Shoppers are heavily criticizing Macy’s for featuring the body-shaming brand in its stores. Macy’s has since removed the plates from its stores, but both Macy’s and POURTIONS continue to receive criticism for the insensitive slogans. 

Just the week before, Forever21 was blasted across the internet for including free Atkins diet bars in shipments to customers. Plus-size shoppers were the first to respond, directly asking the brand on Twitter if they were trying to send a message that plus-size shoppers needed to lose weight. While it later came out that the brand had sent the free bars to all online shoppers, the damage was done. Similar to Macy’s, Forever21 has ended the partnership with Atkins and issued an apology. 

Why is this such a problem? 

The first amendment means brands like POURTIONS can continue making these products – and their own brand following is built on doing so. The backlash Macy’s is witnessing isn’t just in response to what was written on the plates, but to the broader disconnect between the brand and its customer base. Macy’s showed a lack of customer understanding – most of whom are women and many of whom are moms – by featuring these plates. 

Similarly, Forever21 showed a strong lapse in judgment by sending diet bars to customers – regardless of the size they ordered. Their customer base is geared towards younger audiences who already experience a slew of body dysmorphia. Sending diet bars along with its items gives the impression that these young customers should also think about their weight. Whether or not that’s true on the individual level, it’s clear that message shouldn’t be coming from the same place where they buy their bandeau tops or bodycon dresses. The brand failed to step back and ask how this partnership might be received by their shoppers. 

How can you avoid it?

Partnerships between brands are – when done correctly – a fantastic opportunity for both brands to extend their reach. If the match isn’t ideal, customers will push back. Both Macy’s and Forever21 violated customer trust by partnering with organizations that don’t necessarily support their mission or values. I’m sure Macy’s would balk if they read the headline, “Macy’s body shames moms,” just like Forever21 probably wanted to rewind time after seeing all the feedback from their plus size shoppers. 

These instances have probably cost these brands customers, public opinion, and cold hard cash in cleaning up these messes. So how can you avoid a similar snafu? 

  1. Common sense. Perform the good old fashioned gut check. Take a step back and think of how you would react if you saw this from a brand you support. Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes can help have a new perspective on your idea or decision. 
  2. Customer first. It’s just as true in marketing 101 as it is in the real world: the customer is king. If your decision or creative idea insults one of your main customer bases, it’s probably not worth it. 
  3. Brand relevance. Partnerships will be most effective if they align with the overall mission and feel of your brand. In the case of the Atkins/Forever21 deal, it should have been clear the audience didn’t match up. Thinking about how other brands align with your core audience (if at all) will help you make the right decisions about the company you keep. 

In today’s digital world, brands are constantly trying to think outside the box to find ways to stand out to their customers. As consumers are more willing to share good – or bad – feedback with their social networks, it’s important that brands consider all possible response before making a hasty decision.