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D’oh! Are You About to Commit a PR Faux-Pas?

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Word reached me early last week about a rumpus over some dolls that had been stocked by US retailer Costco in a number of its stores. Baby dolls boxed up with stuffed animals wore headbands stating they were “pretty pandas” or “lil monkeys.” All very cute and not worthy of note until you realise that the “lil monkey” doll was black.

This is not the time or place to go through a rehash of racism and pejorative language in America, so I’m going to approach this from a business angle.  To their credit, once they began receiving customer complaints, Costco removed the dolls from the shelves and withdrew them from sale on their website before issuing an apology. Aside from a few localised kerfuffles on the east coast, what could have been a public relations nightmare  was quickly dealt with and damped down.

To be fair to the retailer, the racially insensitive wasn’t actually their idea or their fault. Brass Key, the manufacturers of the dolls, issued their own apology stating that the potentially racist undertones of the contentious doll were not part of their “realm of thinking.” This is not up to the same standard as Costco’s action, and may have done Brass Key some long-term damage.

Without saying so explicitly, the Brass Key statement implies the following: there are no black people involved in a managerial capacity at the company, nor in its product development team. It has a tin ear when it comes to race relations, and does not consider black consumers to be part of its target market, despite manufacturing dolls to appeal to them. Harsh? Possibly, but it is inconceivable that the most basic market research would not have shown up the Lil Monkey dolls as problematic.

Luckily for Costco and Brass Key, both companies are large and established enough to ride this out piece of bad PR. Sadly, there are too many other businesses that behave the same way, forgetting that their terms of reference are not going to be universal for society at large. While they shouldn’t be afraid of launching new products, even those that might be considered non-PC or controversial,  it is important to consider potential adverse reactions.

Focus groups, if correctly balanced, can be useful gauging consumer reaction. If Brass Key had talked to just a few black consumers before sending their dolls into production, they may have avoided this recent embarassment. They would also have been saved the cost of manufacturing the dolls, which they now cannot sell.

Retailing, subject as it is to the changing whims and priorities of consumers, is difficult enough at the best of times.  Taking a tone-deaf approach to the manufacture and marketing of your products is unlikely to help. While only Brass Key’s management could answer the question for who the Lil Monkey doll went from concept to product without being flagged, this incident does serve as a good example to others for why testing products before launch is a stage that should never be overlooked in your haste to get something on the shelves.

[Image by DaveNeukirch]


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