When marketing and a crisis don’t mix!

Before eyewear, I worked in PR and marketing for the fashion sector, so I understand how essential it is for businesses to broadcast the right messages in today’s social media world because, if you get it wrong, people are quick to voice their opinion. So, I was curious, when I saw how many people were angry at cut-price, online frame and lens company Polette Eyewear. “Ooooo, what did they do to upset their followers?” I thought.


It wasn’t hard to spot the issue.


Right now, we are in the worst pandemic of our lifetime. Covid-19 is on the news every day. Different countries are tackling it (or not) in all sorts of different ways but wherever you are, there is no way of not knowing about it.



In the UK, the news regularly reported there were not enough protective medical supplies for healthcare workers as cases continued to rise. It became a top priority to source and deliver enough masks and sanitisers and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for health staff on the frontline, fighting the virus to keep their patients alive.


Riding the back of this, at the beginning of the outbreak in Europe in March, Polette thought it was a good idea to run a See clear, stay safe promotion giving away two free face masks with every purchase. The response was immediate and angry, upsetting about 95% of the company’s followers on social media.


People felt they were at best insensitive to the pandemic; at worst, helping to fuel it. Many asked, “Why give masks to ordinary people like us when medical staff don’t even have enough and they are the ones battling Covid-19,” and, “Why not donate what you have to them?” Both very valid questions!



Polette's ill-considered pandemic promotion


Was Polette insensitive?


After SARS in 2002, almost everyone across Asia adopted the habit of wearing a mask for minor things like a common cold. Wearing a mask is normal practice; it’s no big deal. But this is not the case in all cultures. Polette has factories in China and when the outbreak first happened, masks were hard to find, so many businesses in Hong Kong, for example, gave out free masks to the general public as a marketing tool.


So I don’t think Polette purposely meant to be insensitive, but their marketing team should have done more research and a lot more thinking and discussing before they jumped into grab some publicity off the back of the pandemic.


Fuelling the furore


The public reaction was so negative, Polette made two separate statements explaining its reasons for the campaign.


The first apologised for any ‘miscommunication’ then rattled on about caring for its staff in China and the self-proclaimed good work the company was doing to provide masks to all, and that the company had values and heart, “…maybe you considered it misplaced tonight but if you follow us, you should by now know where our hearts stand! We thank you for your support and sorry for hurting all of your feelings! Polette loves you.”


Instead of quelling the rage, the statement fuelled it with many lambasting the way they thought the company had responded with an ad rather than any words of contrition.


Statement number two was written by the boss, “Hello everyone, I am Pierre Wizman, I am French and the founder of polette.com. Our last communication was not an advertisement but an act of support in this crisis! I regret that our message was wrongly interpreted, and I hope you will understand our intention was never about business but to share information...”


Again, the statement was long. Again, Wizman attempted to explain why the company had run the promotion, “…It is purely an act of kindness from a country that is slowly getting out of the crisis.” But instead of apologising, he claimed the negative response was not deserved, “Polette is a brand that always puts a stress on solidarity and benevolence. All our actions express more than this message itself!” He continuing with how good the company has been and called on its followers “…to remain united… Polette is a strong and loving family and will continue to be! Love Pierre Wizman.”


He might have ended the statement with ‘love’, but again all it did was compound the situation. The company was labelled “arrogant” for blaming its audience for not understanding what the company was trying to achieve and stating it was simply trying to do everyone a favour.


This is a non-apology. The company said it was sorry, but then went on to say that it hadn’t actually done anything wrong and it wasn’t its fault it had been misunderstood. It even said its followers understood that - after it had deleted most of the really bad comments, leaving behind just the not-so negative ones in an attempt to rewrite social media history.


My advice to Polette’s marketing team is to do a lot more research about different cultures before they launch their next promotional campaign and, if they muck up again, don’t issue a statement trying to justify what they did otherwise they will lose yet more of their current and future customers. Sometimes there is simply no way to rectify a marketing disaster, except to say, “Sorry. We messed up and we will learn from it. We can now see why this may be insensitive. Please forgive us.”


How this relates to you


Polette is a big company, so perhaps you’re thinking, what can an independent practice learn from this? The key for any business of any size when it comes to your marketing ideas is to know and understand your local audience. If the area you practise in is family orientated for example, make sure you run events and promotions aimed at families, with plenty of eyewear suitable for the entire family. Be thoughtful about which topics might upset your audience, but also think about what might grab their attention. For families, children’s health is always at the heart of their parents’ interest and actions, so a good campaign idea might focus on simple tips to help protect their children’s eyes and eye health, for example.


Many independent practice owners are often a little afraid to use social media to promote their businesses. Some may even choose not to have a social media presence to avoid the possibilities of backlash and dealing with angry or unreasonable customers. But don’t be afraid to reach out to customers and potential customers through social media and, if you do get it wrong, to apologise and show empathy. Consumers would much rather deal with a business that can demonstrate these traits and, if you handle the situation well, you can actually turn a negative situation into a positive one (see link below).


So, in summary, here’s a couple of ideas for building awareness for your business online:


  • Understand your local area - is it family, older people or business orientated, for example? And what sort of things do your audience enjoy/find interesting/important? Target social media interaction appropriately
  • Follow local groups to keep up to date with what’s happening and gain an even greater understanding of and involvement in your local area, offering your help and expertise when appropriate to reach more groups within your area
  • Consider timely promotions and information for your audiences. In the summer say, run a special sunglasses promotion; during winter, when people are more indoors, on their devices, discuss blue-light lenses for example


Everyone wants to see instant results with marketing, but successful marketing is based on creating a lasting impression of your business among your target audience. All marketing should be viewed as a long-term investment, building subsequent promotions to gain a lasting, positive reputation. There is no point in having a great looking practice, top quality optometrists and dispensers, offering great products if you don’t tell people about it. But, most importantly, do your research to really understand your practice’s demographics, so whatever you do say, makes a good impression on those you’re wishing to reach and, if you do get it wrong, apologise!


For more about ‘Facing the feedback’, see https://eyeonoptics.co.nz/articles/archive/facing-the-feedback/


Siu-Yin Shing is an eyewear blogger and enthusiast. Born in Hong Kong but now based in the UK, she owns more than 30 pairs of glasses and so many sunglasses, she’s lost count!


This article was adapted from a similar article which first appeared on https://theeyewearforum.com/


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