Communications Done WellBy Gini Dietrich

In January 2013 OXO, the innovative consumer products company that makes Good Grips and other cool kitchen and laundry tools, was accused by one of its largest competitors of stealing designs from some of their inventors.

The competitor, which has offices down the street from OXO—and whose CEOs know one another fairly well—took to the streets with billboards, as well as employees holding up unflattering signs in front of the OXO offices.

Rather than calling the OXO CEO to discuss the issue, the competitor instead made it very public. And, because human beings love a good fight, it quickly became a movement that spread throughout both the online and offline worlds.

Not one to take it squarely in the jaw, though, OXO wrote an open letter to their customers. 

It began like this,

Earlier this week a consumer products company located two blocks from OXO started a very public campaign accusing us of stealing a product idea. After thoughtful consideration, we decided we need to clarify the situation. It is not our practice to defend ourselves publicly. In fact, this is the first time in the history of our company we have ever taken a public stand like this. But sometimes, you just need to set the record straight.

They go on to tell the story of how Quirky accused OXO and their design partner, Smart Design, of stealing a feature from a product called the Broom Groomer, which was submitted to their community in 2009 by an independent inventor and launched in 2010.

Their product includes:

…rubber teeth on the back of the dustpan [that] … quickly and easily comb out dust bunnies.

The story continues by explaining where rubber teeth on dustpans come from, which dates clear back to 1919 when Addison F. Kelley applied for—and received—a patent for the very thing.

His patent expired in 1936 and, to this very day, when a dustpan has a “teeth” feature, it is relying on that patent.

They then explain—directly to Quirky—how the inventor community works, they show some photos of product features the company seems to have stolen from OXO, and then they talk to the people who submit ideas through the Quirky crowdsourcing platform.

Communications Done Well

This is a great example of communications done well for six reasons: They weren’t defensive, their response was well-researched, it engaged customers both personally and emotionally, it was educational, it was fact-based, and it was timely.

  1. Not defensive. It’s human nature to get defensive in communications situations like this. Perhaps this wasn’t the first draft, but what eventually came out was laid out very well and not defensive in the least. In fact, it’s so calm and level-headed, you can almost hear someone telling you this story, dare we say bedtime story?
  2. Well-researched. They describe the story of the “rubber teeth” inventor and then go on to show images and captions of features Quirky uses in their products that are similar to OXO. Their only point? Everything is derivative of something else—there are rarely new ideas, but only new ways to use what already exists.
  3. Personal and emotional. While they did not get defensive, they still were able to hit your emotions by describing how the Quirky offices are only two blocks away from them, they have the same number of employees, some of the employees know one another, and their leaders run in the same circles and have spoken before. They appeal to your emotions by asking, “Isn’t it a little strange Quirky didn’t think to pick up the phone and call first? Wouldn’t that have been the right thing to do?”
  4. Educational. By reading this, you receive a great lesson about inventor Kelley, how patents and inventions work in the real world, and what you should consider if you submit an idea to a company they end up using.
  5. Fact-based. The letter is long, but they were very careful to tell a story based on facts. They cited 13 sources so as not to leave the argument up to chance.
  6. Timely. It took OXO four days after the first Quirky billboard went up to issue this letter. While that may seem like an eternity in today’s 24/7, fast-paced, digital world, because it was so well researched, it works.

When Quirky responded, their communications was none of these six things. It was written (and posted) quickly, and it comes across as extremely defensive:

We do not plan on further engaging in a tit for tat open letter writing campaign.

Whether or not this would have legs in court is another thing, but in the court of public opinion? OXO wins.

Today’s Exercise

Set the timer for 30 minutes because you’re going to use all of it…and then some.

We used to have the perception of control over our brand because our customers didn’t have a voice. Today, of course, communications relies on our ability to be open, honest, and fast.

  1. Be vigilant. Today we have such a great opportunity to know exactly what people are saying about us.  If you don’t already have them set up, go to Talkwalker right now and set up alerts for your name, the company name, and your three biggest competitors. You will harness the information that comes in your daily emails to massage your messaging, tweak your offerings, or even create new products.
  2. Be honest. Write down three to five areas where you have product or service issues…the things customers can (and will) complain about. These are the things you’re going to create content around to keep your communications open and customers updated.
  3. Be open. This one is so hard. It’s difficult for human beings to keep open minds about many things, and not get defensive. Review your internal policies and figure out where the are holes. Do they prevent your communications from being honest and transparent? Change them.
  4. Be active. Create a list of your top 10 prospects (individuals are better than companies) and figure out where they participate online. Then get active on the one social network that prevails. If they’re not hanging out on Twitter, don’t waste your time there! your communications should be focused.
  5. Be consistent. Review your organization’s vision, elevator pitch, and supporting messages and tweak them. Then re-launch them internally so everyone is saying the same thing. Communications should be consistent. You shouldn’t have five employees saying you do five different things. We did this last September. Every organization needs to do it consistently.
  6. Be proud. Now create signs of your vision and top three to five messages for everyone to hang at their desks. Have a sign made for your entryway. Include it on your website. Some organizations even include it in their email signatures. While it will eventually be something people are accustomed to seeing, no one will have any doubt about where you are going. Be proud of what you are doing and don’t be afraid to tell the world about it.
  7. Be creative. There is a sandwich shop in New York that had a bad review. One bad review. The person posted on Yelp that the sandwich they’re famous for was disgusting and uninteresting. The next day, the sidewalk chalkboard sign in front of the restaurant said, “Stop in and try our daily sandwich. The one @djinto thinks is disgusting.” Go through your reviews right now and see if there is a creative way to respond to any of them. Think the sandwich shop or the fun way Bodyform responded to a Facebook comment.

You won’t be able to accomplish all of this in 30 minutes, but it will give you a great head start. So set your timer and get to work!

The Scavenger Hunt

If you are participating in the Spin Sucks scavenger hunt, today you will visit Carrie Morgan’s blog.

The secret word is in her blog post, “Ten Awesome Free Digital PR eBooks to Put on Your iPad Tonight.”

Just write down the secret word in Carrie’s box on your scavenger hunt card (if you don’t have a card, download it here).

We have through March 3, so keep playing along (and you can work backwards, if you’re just starting out).

And don’t forget…if you buy a copy of Spin Sucks between now and March 8, we’ll send you a fun package full of goodies to use in your office, including a Spin Sucks computer sticker, a Spin Sucks Sharpie, and more. I’ll even personalize and sign a nameplate for you to put in the front of your book.

Just email the receipt to [email protected]. Please include your mailing address so we know where to send the package.

Now get to work!

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich