Finding the Warm and Fuzzy in a Promotion Gone Bad

 Build-a-Bear’s “pay-your-age” marketing promotion drew huge crowds, long lines and eventually disappointed kids at many of its stores when the company failed to anticipate the popularity of its event, forcing it to shut down.

Build-a-Bear’s “pay-your-age” marketing promotion drew huge crowds, long lines and eventually disappointed kids at many of its stores when the company failed to anticipate the popularity of its event, forcing it to shut down.

Build-a-Bear CEO Sharon Price John saw a dream promotion turn into a chaotic nightmare, leaving lines of angry customers and their disappointed children locked out of oversold stores.

Then John had the guts to do something most CEOs shrink from doing – she went on national TV, owned the fiasco and apologized, while still managing to work in the Build-a-Bear brand story. She either has great instincts or a good communications coach.

Whether instinct or coaching, John gave a pitch-perfect demonstration of an effective mea culpa that other CEOs should study and emulate when they face a crisis situation. Here are the lessons taught by John and her PR team:

Lesson #1 – don’t dawdle.

The Build-a-Bear “pay your age day” promotion-gone-bad occurred on Thursday. By Friday morning, John’s PR people had arranged an exclusive on-air interview for her with NBC’s Today show. The pure-gold interview lasted nearly five minutes on a network show that generates $500 million in annual advertising revenue.

Lesson #2 – show remorse and empathy.

John didn’t hide behind her CEO desk. She sympathized with the families and their crying, confused kids who didn’t a get a bear, regardless of the price and long lines. “It’s heartbreaking. I’m a mom of three. I know the most disappointing moment is when a kid is super-excited and something doesn’t happen.” That’s about as close as you can get to convert a crisis into something warm and fuzzy.

 “CEO Sharon Price John wasted no time to go on national TV to apologize for a marketing promotion gone bad and use her apology as a platform to reinforce her company’s brand mission.”

“CEO Sharon Price John wasted no time to go on national TV to apologize for a marketing promotion gone bad and use her apology as a platform to reinforce her company’s brand mission.”

Lesson #3 – create realistic context.

John apologized and squarely placed the blame on her company’s failure to anticipate “unprecedented crowds” to take advantage of the promotion. While not totally satisfying, it was at least a somewhat credible explanation. John went on to explain that Build-a-Bear has offered its iconic customizable bear for a pay-your-age price as part of its ongoing “Count Your Candles” promotion.

"[The promotion] was based on the creation of a pay-your-age, count-your-candles birthday program because up to one-third of our sales are actually associated with kids' birthdays. It's their most special day,” John said. “And the birthday program for our birthday treat bear, that's an ongoing, all-year-long promotion where you come in during your birthday month and pay your age. And this particular day was just the day to kick it off and to introduce it to people. So we had actually put the information out there."

Lesson #4 – offer something tangible.

John said $15 vouchers were distributed to families who were unable to buy bears and Build-a-Bear “Bonus Club” members were able to go online to obtain a voucher. She added the “Count Your Candles” promotion would continue and the $15 vouchers would be good through August. She snuck in a commercial plug wile applying some salve to the self-inflicted marketing blunder. "We were not able to provide the service we wanted ... and we are doing our very best ... to make sure we can do what we can to make it right," she said. 

Lesson #5 – state your values.

John took advantage of her self-created opportunity on the Today show to remind people of what Build-a-Bear stands for. "First, I want to say that we are in the business of making sure kids have the best experience possible,” John said. “Our entire mission is about adding a little more heart to life. And our objective was to actually just make sure we could increase the accessibility for kids to make their own furry friend and take it home."

Too many CEOs – and PR professionals – forget a crisis is more than just a mess – it is an opportunity to tell your brand story, preserve your reputation and build trust.