Gini Dietrich

Lands’ End in Crisis: What They Should Have Done

By: Gini Dietrich | March 1, 2016 | 
66

Lands' End in Crisis

By Gini Dietrich

Well, it’s been an interesting few days.

First, Lands’ End really stepped in it first by featuring Gloria Steinem in it’s catalog and then backtracking so fast, you could see the smoke coming from the Internet.

Then, during the Oscars on Sunday night, Total Beauty tweeted, “We had no idea Oprah was tatted, and we love it. #Oscars”

Except…it wasn’t Oprah. It was Whoopi Goldberg.

TotalBeauty Tweet

Aye, caramba!

I can actually see how the Whoopi/Oprah mistake happens. You have a young and overly eager community manager, super excited to have the opportunity to tweet during the Oscars.

And whoops!

I mean, we all know that isn’t Oprah, but for someone who didn’t grow up with her, I can see how that might happen.

But the Land’s End issue is where I want to focus today. Because what happened totally could have been avoided.

The Lands’ End Legends Series

Lands’ End has a new CEO, as of about a year ago.

Federica Marchionni, who joined the company from Dolce & Gabbanna, has voiced ambitions to expand Lands’ End into a global brand.

To begin that process, she launched a new feature called “Legends” and, for the first issue, interviewed Steinem, a writer and women’s rights activist (who also has long maintained abortion should be accessible).

The idea is a really good one: Bring in women who have been active in fighting for women’s equality to attract the younger generation.

The problem?

When the catalogs hit mailboxes late last week, the company was met with swift reaction.

Anti-abortion activists and bloggers freaked out.

Some schools that recommend Lands’ End products for their uniforms threatened to cut ties with the company.

On its Facebook page, women threatened to boycott the company .

Lands’ End had two choices: Stay the course or cave.

They chose the latter.

It’s Not a Political Issue

The company said in a statement, which was posted to its Facebook page,

It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense

This, of course, created new boycott threats. This time from women who believe women’s rights is not a political or religious issue.

A Facebook fan wrote in reply,

What a terrible message to send to all the women and girls who wear your clothes. I’m sorry you see equal rights for women as a divisive issue. I see it as a human issue.

And she’s right: It is a human rights issue.

This all is happening at the same time that Chris Rock went on a fabulous rant about how not a single black person was nominated for an Oscar.

These are human rights issues.

For any human being not to be treated the same as everyone else, because of gender, color, or sexual orientation, is not political or religious.

Human Equality is About Human Rights

And yet, the company backpedaled very, very quickly.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about an experience I had with gender and pay inequality and the comments were alive with disgust.

Sure, I know we attract like-minded people through our content, but at the same time, I’d like to think we are all more focused on equality for women, not because of the political issues—such as abortion—but because we all deserve to be treated the same.

The interview with Steinem did not directly address abortion.

She and Marchionni discussed the challenges women face in the workplace and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

The feature also told shoppers, if they opted to select a certain logo for embroidery, the company would donate 50 percent of the fee to the ERA Coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality.

Lands’ End has since decided it will not move forward with that program.

What They Should Have Done

As a woman—and one who experiences inequality in the business world nearly daily—this is very disappointing.

Here is an organization that has ambitions to move to a global stage and to become not-your-mom’s rain boots company.

To do that, their “Legends” series seems very, very smart.

That said, every organization must sit down and carefully think about the people they align themselves with before they do it.

The conversation internally should have been, “We know Steinem is perceived as someone who supports abortion. Is this going to make any of our customers angry?”

Because a good majority of their business are schools that require uniforms, you can assume they are Christian-based and also assume they are pro-life.

Then the conversation moves to Steinem and her stance on abortion. And, even though the interview won’t touch abortion, will your customers see this as a stance for pro-choice?

Probably.

There are plenty of other women who have made great strides for women’s equality—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sheryl Sandberg, Patricia Arquette—who don’t create such a wide divide.

That is where the company should have begun. Steinem could have entered later.

But now?

The “Legends” series is dead before it began. The really great idea to donate half of the embroidery fees to the ERA Coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality is also dead.

The lesson here is to think through every possible bad thing that could happen before you do it.

Then weigh the pros and cons.

I guarantee if Lands’ End had done this before featuring Steinem they either would have chosen someone else or had a very smart, very strategic reason to not back down, no matter the consequences.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • Gini while I always respect your viewpoints (and actually said something nice about you recently to someone who was looking for a PR person in Chicago) I have to disagree about the whole idea of a company trying to make some sort of statement via their Legends program or similar initiatives. Whether is is selling clothes or the moronic things Starbucks has done like having baristas engage customers on important issues, I don’t care. If I am going into a Starbucks I want my coffee and not the server’s opinion on any political or social issue. Likewise on the odd chance I would be shopping for any clothing item I want to know that Lands End has what I want, how much it costs and how to buy it. I don’t care about their position on anything and as long as they are not supporting some extreme political candidate or exploiting their employees I could care less about any of this stuff. If they do want me to notice something give money to a worthy cause, fight hunger or homelessness, but don’t tell me what you think about any issues or engage others to do so because I just don’t care!

    • BUT…you are not the target audience. Millennial women are the target audience. And they DO care. They want to know not only that a company stands for something, but that they also give back in a significant way.

      We are all trying to figure out what that looks like, as business owners. I even think about it as a PR firm/service provider.

      • Fiona

        I could not agree more–and while I am not a Millennial, I was really PISSED when I saw Land’s End had apologized. However, I couldn’t believe that they hadn’t somehow anticipated the opposition, either. Badly handled all around.

        • They created a time bomb that could have totally been avoided. No matter what they did, someone was going to be mad.

      • I will have to ask my two daughters (ages 27 and 25) if they care about this type of thing, who knew? Me I just want to buy stuff occasionally and not have to think about it.

        BTW (unrelated) check out the new Buzzfeed video app, my oldest was a project lead (she is a Buzzfeed techie), OK proud clueless dad here.

        • No way! That is super cool! I’ll definitely check it out.

  • I agree 100%. As soon as that happened, I saw people swearing off Lands End for featuring her and then when they backed down, as many said they would never shop there because they backed off. You’re never going to please all the people so you need to figure out what is best for you or your company. Now I view Lands End as a company that caves on important topics. I, for one, do not associate her with abortion but rather someone who did a lot of amazing things so that my generation of women could do things like… lead companies and voice that we weren’t going to go away quietly when it comes to things like gender equality.

    • That’s how I associate her, too, but I do know she also is perceived as a bad word to some. She’s very divisive.

      This is why I don’t comment on political issues either here or on social media. I know who our clients are and they don’t always agree with my personal stance. So I’ve made it a rule to not comment because I don’t want to alienate someone. But that’s different than human rights issues…and that’s exactly what this is.

      • I agree that roll model or not, she’s a divisive personality and that fact should have come into consideration for a brand as large and defined as Land’s End. This was a misstep, no other way to look at it. In choosing her for their first Legends issue, they were setting themselves up for failure. And that’s exactly what happened.

        Regardless of your agenda or where you WISH your brand was, you have to know everything you can about your current buyers — because they’re the ones parting with their cash right now. And I’m not privy to their sales demographics, but I don’t think it takes much intuition to guess that uniforms and ‘conservative moms’ make up a large percentage of their current sales!

        It’s a shame because the idea WAS a good one. And like you said, could have been executed by featuring any number of amazing women that aren’t as politically divisive. I hope they’re able to regroup on this and figure out a way to still achieve their goals.

        • I tried to find a stat on how much of their sales are school uniforms. I couldn’t quickly find it, but it sounds like it’s a good majority. It’s not hard to think “pro-life and Gloria Steinem don’t go together.”

          It makes me sad because I agree that the idea is a good one and they could make a huge change with their platform if it’s executed well.

          • It’s interesting because (by the way — hi! I’m back!) … this article talks about how she was a Lands End customer FIRST because she has a child in a school for whom she had to buy LE uniforms. Hmmm. http://fortune.com/2015/07/27/lands-end-marchionni-strategy/

          • Well, that pokes a hole in my theory!

          • I don’t know if it pokes a hole so much as adds an additional factor to the discussion. I doubt her purchase of LE for her kids was necessarily an ideological faith-based thing, just a utilitarian thing. :-/

  • sorayamangal

    Not being rude but it’s Whoopi Goldberg, not Whoopi Goldberg.

    • Thanks! I caught it right before you commented. 🙂

      • Kevin

        That’s worse than thinking it’s Oprah! j/k

        • I was so concerned about getting Federica Marchionni right that I didn’t self-edit the rest.

  • It’s hard to believe they’d make such a basic error. Communication strategy should align with business goals and this clearly didn’t. And it looks like any thought of strategy went out the window for the ensuing crisis. What a mess.

  • Bill Dorman

    So, are you saying they can’t have a mulligan? Kind of like shooting a gun, once the bullet is gone it’s pretty hard to bring back, huh?

    A good PR firm would have asked those questions, right?

    • A good PR pro would have asked those questions. It’s pretty easy to armchair QB, but it could be their PR team never was brought into the loop.

  • Both of these situations feel like there was a young person driving the execution, without adult supervision. Anyone over the age of 30 would know who Whoopi Goldberg is, and anyone over 30 would know that Land’s End’s primary customer is over 40 (and if they want to change that, they should do it strategically and own the consequences).

    • The Whoopi one definitely was a young person. And not a crisis, but I thought it was funny in relation to everything else that is going on.

      But I think the Lands’ End issue was the CEO going with something she wanted to do and not consulting anyone in the company. She’s 43. Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like she just ran with it and din’t really think through the consequences. It also could be a cultural thing, as she’s Italian.

  • Sounds like Lands End paid for garden variety content marketing when they should’ve shopped around for higher-level strategic PR. They must’ve missed the memo about “global”. Global content marketing ambitions require worldly PR teams, no pun intended.

    • I love the pun, intended or not!

      What’s interesting is the CEO is Italian. She’s been there only about a year so it could be a cultural thing or it could be that she just ran with an idea and didn’t ask anyone internally what they thought.

      It’s risky and it would have worked, had they had a strategic reason for doing it and not backed down. It makes me sad to watch.

  • I kind of feel like their communications team wasn’t brought into the loop. Based on what I’m reading, it sounds like the CEO took the reigns and didn’t consult with her internal teams.

    • Agreed.

      Sherrilynne Starkie Executive Vice President Thornley Fallis Communications Office: 613-231-3355 ext. 225 Mobile: 613-400-3654 starkie@thornleyfallis.com http://www.thornleyfallis.com Twitter: @sherrilynne

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    • While reading your post, I kind of imagined how the CEO had a great idea (and felt pretty good about it), so wanted to put it in practice…yesterday.

      Their answer also shows the lack of previous preparation. It’s kind of the answer of a scared child, not a brand trying to get a message out.

      Unfortunately, these type of actions without a previous plan, without the PR team involved, do more damages to the overall brand. It’s a stain on their reputation.

      Too bad, a beautiful project hurried to be put in practiced, had died even before it started.

  • Gary Karr

    Though I like the worldly, my hunch is that if Lands’ End just talked to people who live near the HQ in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, they’d have uncovered the potential for controversy pretty quickly. Good marketing/comms teams have people who are at least aware of a wide variety of viewpoints about issues. That doesn’t mean Lands’ End has to pick sides in the abortion debate but having people on the team with broad awareness of how people on a different side of the issue might react — especially if those people are a core part of the customer base, as Gini points out — would have enabled a much better outcome.

    • Someone on Twitter, who lives near there, said, “We love a good boycott in Wisconsin!” So I venture to guess you are absolutely right.

  • Katherine

    Here’s the problem: sometimes these types of things work and sometimes they backfire and it’s all about which way the court of public opinion blows. I think an even bigger consideration is: how willing people are to give up shopping at a favorite store for their principles?

    JC Penney- Ellen Degeneres. JCP didn’t back down until Million Moms boycotted the company, sales plummeted, the CEO was fired and (I believe) an apology ad was released.

    Target – donated money to anti-gay officials. Were boycotted. Target scrambled and now feature ads with same sex couples AND their children. Also, many gays were quoted as saying they were hugely conflicted and didn’t want to stop shopping at Target.

    Starbucks – red cup. Boycotted for a singular stupid reason that I doubt anybody at Starbucks could have anticipated. Didn’t hurt sales a bit though.

    Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby – I still see long lines at the CFA drive through so I guess their business wasn’t hurt. Except one person – me – wouldn’t eat there if I was starving. I doubt that hurts them much but I feel better. And my 11 year old knows she’s not allowed to eat there and why. She told a babysitter just that. 🙂

    I really wish Land’s End had stuck to their guns. I don’t know the numbers but a HUGE number of parents buy uniform clothes from them – on-line or at Sears. I do. Better quality than French Toast or Target. Having the Legends campaign would have made me even MORE happy to buy LE’s uniforms and the ERA charity would have prompted me to get shirts embroidered, which I never do. What a shame.

    • Fiona Taylor

      Just chiming in–from what I’ve read, Ellen DeGeneres was the least of JCP’s issues. The CEO decided to have no sales, and their customer was NOT on board with that. He also said the customer wasn’t “educated” about his pricing decisions, and that didn’t help.

      Sorry for chiming in–just didn’t want Ellen to take all the blame. And I’m totally with you on Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby!

      • Kind of like the Lululemon CEO who said their pants are made only for skinny people.

  • Tracy Corral

    I’m so sorry to read about the debacle that is Land’s End. Was it a matter of not really knowing who made up the existing customer base? That is, not knowing who their market really was?

    Also, how could Land’s End come back from this? I’m interested in how you, Gini, would suggest Land’s End handle this situation going forward, if you can? Or more generally, how would a crisis manager deal with it? I’m genuinely curious because I can’t imagine how any company could come back from these missteps.

    • I would do some research and figure out which women leaders empower and inspire their customers. Then I would announce the line-up for the next 12 months. If they can crowdsource, they should do that, but they also should be careful not to listen to the vocal social media minority who are not their customers.

      Before tactically executing, though, they need to figure out what they’re trying to achieve, strategically. That makes it A LOT easier to stand up for what you’re doing if you know why you’re doing it.

      • I think one of the challenges of crowdsourcing (currently) is …… the “crowd” gets quickly and summarily overpowered (sometimes) by the vocal minority. This Lands End thing seemed (to me) so utterly parallel to my stupid fight at my child’s school — the one that resulted because 20 parents (at a 1800-kid school) “expressed concerns” and it scared the heck out of the administration. Meanwhile the reasonable 1780 of us were caught playing catchup after the knee-jerk reaction. More to come on this … just saying. Crowdsourcing these days is fraught with the challenge of finding a representative “crowd.”

        • You know, that’s like the Gap logo redesign. The social media vocal minority forced them to change it back. It didn’t even matter, but they had that same knee-jerk reaction.

          Where I think this differs slightly is they had schools say they weren’t going to keep buying from them…and least one dropped them.

  • It seems to me that no matter what women they would have selected to be profiled, a segment of their target demographic would have been upset. Even those that you listed as examples could potentially spark a controversy.

    We may never know exactly what the conversations were surrounding the launch of this campaign. My disappointment is in how quickly they backed down and the lost opportunity to make a stand for equality.

    • Katherine

      Abbie, that’s what makes me so angry; nobody can do/say/advertise with a spokesperson without someone/ somewhere taking offense. I’m exhausted by the outrage – Even MY outage!

      • I agree Katherine.

        But there will always be naysayers, no matter what. That’s why a previous preparation and bringing the whole company on the same page, it’s a must.

    • alex.yong.nyc

      Hi Abbie. All the more reason to begin with a more benign person in that editorial pipeline. I get wanting a strong launch, but let this be a lesson to all other companies not named Lands’ End.

    • It’s like my mom said when I got married: You won’t please everyone so just do what you want to do and please yourselves.

  • It appears that Land’s End was trying to create a new market for their products while ignoring their existing market. I see this a lot in companies who offer special deals to new customers but leave their existing customers with the same-old-same-old.

    I am disappointed that they didn’t stand by their guns and defend their position instead of the “We didn’t mean to offend anyone” insincere apology.

    • OMG. The cable companies are the worst at this. Why do new customers get three months free and I got squat?

  • Well stated and well reasoned commentary on this very topical issue. Will add this: Identifying, and hopefully mitigating, potential treats to an organization is — or should be — a paramount task for public relations counsel. This is especially true today. I wonder if the Lands End PR team addressed the potential for backlash or were even part of the conversation behind the Legends initiative.

    • I think the latter part of your last sentence is what happened. My feeling is the CEO had a great idea and ran with it…without bringing in her team or thinking through consequences. The knee jerk reaction to pull it down, though, is interesting.

  • Travis Peterson

    Other option – roll out the campaign announcing several “Legends” of varying viewpoints and contributions who have all been trailblazers for women. Gloria Steinem, Condaleeza Rice, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Sandra Day O’Connor, Helen Prejean, etc….

    The same point though – just no thought put into the campaign as it relates to customers, target market, and *positive* PR value.

    Great post, Ms. D .

  • While I agree with your thoughts, the challenge is that we all come to things with our context and the way others will react will be missed. Maybe they should have seen the abortion issue, but I can also see how they missed it with the context being that Gloria Steinham is a legend and a pioneer – two attributes it appears they wanted to connect with. From that context you could miss the pitfall (even when it’s obvious after the fact).

    The bigger issue from my perspective is that while every company what’s the love, few are willing to deal with the hate that comes with it. The question should be, “Do we want to stand for something?” If the answer is yes, the next question should be, “Are we willing to deal with the consequences – both seen and unseen – to stay with what we stand for?” If the answer is not an emphatic “Yes” that don’t do it.

    Sure the alternative for standing for something is standing for nothing, losing relevance and the revenue results that come with that. But that beats offending everyone while you prove that you really stand for nothing.

    • Totally agree, Doug! The issue is that they don’t know what they’re trying to achieve. The strategy wasn’t clear. If it were, they would have stood up and said, “We know this is going to make some of you angry, but we’re doing it for XX reason and we stand behind our support of women’s equality and the ERA.”

  • Aly

    Influencer relations: it’s what’s for breakfast.

    We’re going to see more of this as brands invest more resources into both paid and earned programs with influencers. These aren’t unbiased journalists, the expected outcomes are more varied than just “write article,” and consumers are responsive in ways that we never imagined even a few years ago.

    May we all learn from these mistakes.

  • The question that also must be asked is “who was involved in the initial planning?” Get the input from your target demographics. And be willing to ask the hard questions first. “The best laid plans o’ mice and men…”

    • Based on everything I’m reading, it feels very much to me like the CEO had a great idea and just went with it. I have to believe a communications pro/team/agency would have spotted the issue as soon as the idea came out of her mouth.

  • I was so excited to see you address this, because I knew you would have a thoughtful and insightful take on it. Because of my full schedule at this summit, I have not (gasp!) been hovering over the comments section but I plan to come back to this one especially. Loved your thoughts.

    • I was wondering if you were heads down in the summit! Have a great time!

      • I am. It’s a great experience. Everyone should visit Capitol Hill as a constituent at least once if possible. There’s a college student with me who is a sophomore and I think it has been a huge eye opener in a positive way.

  • Heather Kunz

    I agree with all your points about Land’s End but was completely stalled by your dismissal of the Whoopie/Oprah gaff as understandable and forgivable. But your dismissal of it was a stark and uncomfortable reminder that white privilege exists and is a rose-colored lenses through which we interpret the world. When I read your post the first time, I paused when you waved off the tweets and my first thought was, “Really?! Because all black people look alike?” I “knew” that’s not what you meant and second guessed my first reaction because I respect your work and experience. I thought you must have been concerned about the length of your post or in a hurry to make your points, personal and professional. Like you, I believe women’s issues are human issues. But I couldn’t get past the nagging feeling that you had ironically committed your own gaffe. Lest you think I’m judging you from up here on my high horse, I made exactly the same mistake. In a hurry to pass along your column, I posted it to my personal Facebook page with a short intro echoing your point that we need to consider our culture when planning programs. A great friend of mine, a woman whom I respect and admire, commented that she had to stop reading after you dismissed the tweets because she was so annoyed at your tone. She pointed out that it’s only excusable if you accept that all 60+ year old black women look alike and that being young is no excuse for being wrong. By not acknowledging my similar reactions when I posted your article, I made myself complicit in that subtle racism. I feel ashamed and have apologized to my dear friend who is unfairly burdened by having to explain these things to me and others. I’m sharing this because I believe we must do better. We can’t talk about women’s rights or human rights and turn a blind eye to our own role in discrimination.

    • Clearly that was not my intention. Not in the least. My only point is that it was a crazy weekend full of dumb moves, both on social media and in communications. We are in a world where young professionals are in charge with the outer-most facing communications of our brands and to make a mistake like this one is horrendous. There has to be some oversight: Both when a CEO makes a decision to run an article with a woman who is extremely divisive and when a community manager tweets during the Oscars.

      In hindsight, perhaps I should not have included it at all as it didn’t add to the point I was making and was unduly offensive, which is the very last thing I want to do.

    • Heather, I would email you privately, but I can’t find an email address for you. Will you please apologize to your friend for me? I feel terrible.

      • Heather Kunz

        Gini,

        I’ll pass along your apology. I felt terrible, too, and I sat with that feeling for a while before I reached out to my friend. I absolutely believe it wasn’t your intention, just as it wasn’t mine, to offend. While I think that counts for a lot, I also think it was a great lesson for me to honor my gut, use my voice (while I am a frequent reader of your posts, I have never commented before), and acknowledge my role, intentional or otherwise, in our society’s culture. It just reinforced that I need to be the change I want to see. Thank you for your own activism, your thoughtful and engaging analysis of our industry and your kind words.

  • Keena Lykins

    Oh..where do I start? Do I talk about abortion being a McGuffin for the Far Right to whip conservatives, many poor and underemployed, into a frenzy so they don’t notice the corporate collusion and their own economic erosion? Do I talk about ‘pro-life’ as an anti-woman movement and that most supporters don’t give a crap about the baby (unless, it’s healthy, white, and available for adoption) or do I talk about every company needs someone whose job is to poke holes in their strategic plans and tactics, the person who starts at worst-case scenario? Seriously, every company needs the person who can find the weaknesses, and most don’t because no one wants to be hear their idea has problems.

    • You’re right. We’re told to surround ourselves with people smarter than we are, but how often does that happen? Not often.

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