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Woolworths fall foul of the social media after doughnut poster gaff

How should you respond to criticism when your advertising hits the buffers? Should you remove the offending advertisement, pretend everything is OK, or should you face the problem head on and try to put matters right? Well, Australian firm, Woolworths – no, not that one – Woolworths the number one Australian fresh food retailer, faced that very problem recently. It decided to put up a large billboard on the outskirts of Ipswich, Queensland, which claimed that the company had been delivered and producing fresh food to Ipswich for over 43 years.

Nothing wrong with that you might think: the problem unfortunately was that the billboard featured a large picture of a half-eaten cinnamon doughnut. Now you may love the occasional doughnut or you may hate them, but what we can all  agree on is that a doughnut is anything but ‘fresh’ food: some might even argue its not food at all. Naturally within hours there was a social media outcry and large-scale protests on Facebook and Twitter and disparaging comments:

“Woolworths, what WERE you thinking? Can you tell me when we started growing, breeding or catching doughnuts because I’d really like to see that freak of nature?”

So what did Woolworths do when it realised its faux pas? Did it bury its head in the sand, or go on the defensive? Well, actually no it did neither of those things. It did what was necessary and faced the problem head on. Obviously it took steps to mitigate the problem by quickly changing its settings so that the home page would display Woolworths’ own posts and making users click on “recent posts by others” to see the critical posts. But even that wasn’t enough to quell the social media storm.

So Woolworths took down the offending billboard and started to engage with its critics, thus turning bad publicity into good PR:

“Hi there, just letting you know that we are taking the billboard down today. Our intention was to show one of the products that we bake fresh everyday at our in store bakeries, but we appreciate that the image may have been confusing. We’re proud to be Australia’s fresh food people, offering our customers a wide range of fresh food choices. Thanks for bringing this one to our attention: we really appreciate your feedback.”

Is this what every company should be doing when its social media marketing goes badly wrong? Well, yes it is: social media isn’t just about engaging with an audience – it’s also about listening. According to Matt Barbelli, creative director of Australian advertising and marketing agency, Frank Digital, Woolworths’ response was spot on, though it might have been better to prevent the crisis rather than respond to it after the event:

“The thing about social media is that you’ve got to use it as a tool, not only [with which] to engage customers and post content but also to listen to what people are saying. Woolworths has apologised and said they would remove the billboard.”

He also added that companies frequently become targets of social media activism. If that happened they should be asking themselves why. He would never recommend deleting user posts, unless they were totally unjustified or offensive. In Berbelli’s opinion user-led social media commentary can be a chance for a brand to shine: it’s just a pity that too often companies fail to make the most of opportunities that come their way.

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