Trademarks and Social Media: What We Can All Learn about Branding From Abercrombie & Fitch and Amy’s Baking Company.

imagesLast week, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries admitted he didn’t make A&F clothes in larger sizes. His reasoning: beautiful – read thin – people attract other beautiful people to wear A&F’s clothing; and unattractive – read fat – people detract from his stores. Then came the immediate firestorm of fury on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, encouraging people never to shop there. One consumer even bought A&F merchandise and handed it out to the homeless (his idea of a brand readjustment).

For A&F’s part, it remained silent. No doubt Mr. Jeffries got a tongue lashing lecture on tact from his board of directors, but nary an official comment came from HQ, and Mr. Jeffries is now noticeably out of the press. Regardless of what can be gleaned from the company’s silence, it probably did the right thing. A brand owner’s response to its detractors can become part of the brand if not deftly handled. Worse, attacking the messengers, no matter how unfair the criticism, is liable to bring out the worst in all of us. Amy’s Baking Company learned that lesson this week.

Like thousands of people across the country, many at this law firm were riveted this week by the story of Amy and Samy Bouzaglo, whose bizarre television appearance and on-camera behavior on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares catapulted them to infamy overnight. Although the buzz on the couple has not died down, and the lessons learned are still trickling in, one thing is sure: in the social media age, more than ever, a brand embodies the personality of those at the helm, and social media magnifies their warts and, thereby, those of the brand. How you respond in a digital world is as important as the product you put out.

Amy and Samy Bourzaglo appeared on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares, asking for help from television chef and restaurant turnaround king, Gordon Ramsey, to rejuvenate their failing restaurant. At the outset, the couple believed all their problems stemmed from some unfair and vicious reviews on Yelp! It didn’t take long, however, for the cameras and Ramsey to light on the real problem: poorly prepared – and often bizarre – food, a painfully slow kitchen, abusive owners who admit to stealing tips from the wait staff and serving store-bought food, and who verbally abuse and eject customers who complain about undercooked pizza or long wait times.

Watching the married restaurateurs make one public relations blunder after another on national television, in newscasts, and on social media sites made most of us wince and laugh at the same time. No doubt, the Bourzaglos episode will be among the highest rated. Yet, it’s not likely the couple or their brand will recover from it, largely because in the face of harsh criticism it chose to lash out. Here’s what their gaffes can teach us.

Social Media Is Difficult To Control: Companies cannot always control the messages of consumers and should not try.

Numerous websites and news organizations have covered what has now become known at “The Meltdown, ” in which Samy and Amy, owners of Amy’s Baking Company, lash out at Facebook users’ messages that take issue with them for bad food and stealing their servers’ tips. In response, Samy and Amy hurl vitriol at their users, calling them losers, haters, morons, and liars, hurling epithets, and using profanity and shouting (through the use of ALL CAPS) to punctuate their points.

When it became clear they were on the losing end of a media battle, the couple removed their vitriolic postings (which also removed the 10,000-plus comments), and claimed their page had been hacked. This significantly slowed down the hate-traffic on Facebook, but it did something worse, it moved people to Yelp!, where Samy and Amy could not manually remove the posts.

While Facebook has some tools that allow internal management of one’s online presence, other sites, such as Twitter (in which individual users can aggregate tweets using hashtags) do not allow for interference from third parties. Companies should recognize the potential damage that can be caused to a brand before trying to quash bad press with censorship attempts. In the end, it could leave them playing “whack-a-mole” with other, less controllable sites. And leave them explaining not only their comments, but their attempts at censorship.

The Dog Catcher Shouldn’t Call the Vet a “Hairball:” People will stop at nothing to undermine your message if you undermine them, so don’t.

When Abercrombie’s CEO dipped his foot in the holier-than-thou water of beauty, he probably realized people would call out his own lack of attractiveness, but people dug deeper still to hurt the brand that hurt them. For example, former employees responded by revealing A&F’s policy to intentionally damage clothes with scissors rather than make them a available for donation to the poor.

Similarly, when Amy Bourzaglo began a flame-throwing digital tirade against the criticism she received for stealing her employees’ tips, calling online fans fakes, morons, frauds, and thieves, they struck back with a vengeance. It didn’t take long for the public to learn she was the fraud. The deep-digging public was quick to disclose Amy (her real name, Amanda) was convicted of using a fake social security number and sentenced to 14 months in prison. Soon after that revelation, likely in response to Amy’s continuing sound-off,, one concerned member of the public started an online petition to have the federal government investigate her for illegally taking the tips of her waitstaff. Query whether a simple apology from Amy for her objectively bad behavior rather than an attack might have left her in a better position.

Perhaps Amy should have taken a page from the PriceChopper book. In 2010, a shopper at Price Chopper sent out a negative tweet and photo when she saw a pile of garbage in one of the aisles. The PriceChopper social media employee might have replied to the tweet with an apology about the store’s condition, but instead, in a move that makes one wonder whether Amy was at PriceChopper at the time, called the tweeter’s employer and demanded disciplinary action. Unthinkable. Finding itself in the midst of a customer relations nightmare entirely of its own making, the company got wise and issued an apology, going so far as to agree to participate in a social media conference to discuss how the situation escalated. Amy has yet to have such a revelation and make any attempt to make up for her objectively inappropriate actions.

The digital age, the easy availability of decidedly personal and embarrassing information, all coupled with the ability to disseminate the information through social media should be warning enough that defending oneself online by attacking the messenger is a bad idea.

Whoever is at the Helm is at the Heart: Social Media Means Every Action Affects the Brand.

There was a time when a comment from a spokesperson might be isolated to a tiny news story that only a handful of people saw. The scuttlebutt about “last night’s comments” would end at the water cooler, and at worst, the company could issue a statement distancing itself from whatever embarrassment happened the day before. In all likelihood both would go unnoticed.

Today, a company spokesperson IS the brand and the likelihood than anyone will not have heard whatever faux pas he or she uttered is zero. Moreover, because social media has the tendency to amplify a statement, perhaps beyond its original intent, a brand can quickly go from riches to rags over the smallest infraction.

Consider the 2010 case of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, in which Karen Handel became the face of the organization after she announced the Foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Although it was a decision she was not solely responsible for making, she became the brand identity overnight. Against a stream of bad press, Handel was forced to resign in order to offer the brand any hope of rehabilitation. 20 years ago, her comments might have been a blip on the radar. Social Media has changed the intensity of the spotlight.

Mike Jeffries’ recent statements are not likely to destroy the Abercrombie brand, largely because his brazen manner and off-the-cuff remarks are not foreign to consumers and Abercrombie has not fanned the social media flames to push consumers away. Some might argue his comments – which were global in nature and not personal attacks – are even consistent with a brand whose goal is to remain patrician and elite. Amy and Samy may not be so lucky. Amy’s Baking Company – through its owners’ words and actions – is now synonymous with deceit at best and mental illness at worst, forcing would-be restaurant patrons to consider whether a visit is worth the predicted abuse. If the company is to come back from the disaster the coupled fomented, their contrition should come quickly.

The World Loves a Comeback: Social Media Can Be a Brand’s Salvation.

Contrition goes a long way. Just ask Gilbert Gottfried who got a second chance after a heartfelt apology for making insensitive jokes about the Japanese after its horrific earthquake. While AFLAC quickly terminated his duck-spokesperson contract after the incident, his apologies got his fan base to urge the insurance company to bring him back.

Similarly, when a rogue tweet made the Red Cross appear as if its volunteers were drinking on a disaster site, the Red Cross took quick action. The company’s quick response (which included a humble note that it had confiscated the keys) was so heartfelt and human, the guffaw went from a PR nightmare to a compassionate call to action, with consumers using social media to call for and collect donations to support the nonprofit’s mission.

Time will tell whether Amy and Samy will admit their mistakes – social media and otherwise – and seek forgiveness from their fan base. That the company claimed the horrific comments made on their Facebook page were the result of being hacked when clearly they were not does not bode well for their turnaround. That said, if they decide on brand rehab, the very tools that brought them down could make them stars.

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