Dumb and Dumber: Walmart’s awful social media response to “Fat Girl”

When Wal-Mart faced a true social media and brand communications crisis, it took three days to apologize for its rude, stupid and 1950’s-like branding standards. Its horrifically offensive depiction of a ‘Fat Girl’ costume for Halloween wasn’t even the most offensive part. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone is entitled to correct them. In my opinion, as communication professional, here’s what Wal-Mart did wrong that made it dumb and dumber!

1. Wal-Mart showed that perhaps Big Box retailers still don’t get that their web sites and social media content is part of their brick and mortar business. There is no more “It’s online or on a blog post, so we don’t really handle it in-house”.

Lesson: Everything you put online counts and matters. Moreover, you can delete it, but it’ll still be screen-captured!

2. Wal-Mart took three days to take down the offensive imagery and fighting words. In today’s digital age, you need to respond in seconds and minutes, not days and weeks. What Content Management System do you know in 2014 that takes 3 days to update a piece of content? Were they using chisels and stone tablets to artfully correct the mistake?

Lesson: In the age of digital, your response time must be as close to real-time as possible. You’re going to screw up when you have multiple content contributors, but the biggest screw up is not correcting it in a timely manner.

3. Despite multiple tweets that clearly showed that people were offended, Wal-Mart failed to listen to its social media feeds, which was flooded with outcry by customers. Adding insult to injury, the replacement image now claims a PLUS SIZE outfit, which reinforces their distinction based on one gender and size as they didn’t have a “Big Fat Guy” online.

Lesson: Unless you have a strong conviction about something, do the right thing and listen to your audience. Even if you disagree with it, pay attention to it. That’s especially true when most of your audience is the one you’re offending.

4.Wal-Mart didn’t digitally engage its audience to fix the problem. Instead it came up with a tin eared corporate marketing response. The apology was too late, too corporate, and was issued without a spokesperson that the audience could identify with. Why couldn’t big Wal-Mart issue a video apology and connect with its audience in a better way?

Lesson: It’s not the message alone, you need to have the right messenger.

The Bottom Line: Wal-Mart isn’t at fault for hiring an idiot that made a rude entry in their e-commerce cart. They are, however, responsible for how backwards they appear in a year where most consumers will be going online first to shop. It’s 2014! Welcome to the new age.

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Mr. Gal Borenstein is an expert and strategist in digital branding, marketing, social media, advertising, online reputation management and public relations matters. He is the founder and CEO of the Borenstein Group, a digital marketing communications firm in the Washington DC metropolitan area that serves clients locally and globally. 

He is the author of new business leadership book, ACTIVATE! How to Power Up Your Brand to Dominate Your Market, Crush Your Competition & Win in the Digital Age, available in premiere bookstores and on Amazon.

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