The Vermont Teddy Bear Co., known for its array of themed teddy bears, became the subject of much public scorn when the company began selling a “Crazy For You” bear. The bear came complete with a straitjacket and commitment papers, and it riled advocates for the mentally ill and the governor of Vermont, among others. Under normal circumstances, this story would not be too odd, but the Vermont Teddy Bear Co.’s public relations response was anything but normal.
We all know products with names that are offensive in one language but not another, or a product just patently offensive to someone, anyone. Likewise, we’ve seen more than a few people lose their jobs because of comments they made that were considered inappropriate or offensive. Normally, what we see from the companies or individuals is some form of contrition–an apology, a product pulled, a charitable donation. The public relations department at the Vermont Teddy Bear Co., however, decided to go the opposite route.
While the company stopped marketing and producing the bear, but it did not stop selling it. CEO Elisabeth Robert–whose name, incidentally, is pronounced “ro-bear”–refused to pull the product off the shelves; instead, the company simply sold off the existing inventory. The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. apologized to anyone who finds the product offensive, but the company refused to let the public or the media dictate its business strategy.
W. Michael Hoffman, director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College, wasn’t so sure the company’s strategy was particularly wise.
“Even though it has that kind of cutesy flavor, it brings up issues about corporate behavior and how corporations should be sensitive and interact with society,” Hoffman told the Associated Press.
Public relations guru Howard Rubenstein agreed, saying the company has hurt its reputation and that the resulting punishment may be deserved.
“That’s a lesson in poor public relations. They violated every rule in the game on public relations,” Rubenstein told the Associated Press, saying the company’s reaction to the public outcry “should have been dramatically different.”
Rubenstein suggested that the company’s stance will be seen negatively because of the amount of information flow in today’s world.
“In today’s media environment, a lot of people can tell you what to do and you better analyze what they’re saying. People will forgive a mistake but they won’t forgive arrogance.”
The Vermont Teddy Bear Co.’s stance brings up some interesting questions, the most important being what role public relations plays in corporate decision-making. Because the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. is a public company, we do know that total bear orders for the first 13 days of that February–leading up to the all-important Valentine’s Day holiday for the company–increased 29 percent compared to a year before. We know that the “Crazy For You” bear sold out by February 3 of that year, all due to media-driven pre-orders. From a sales standpoint, the “Crazy For You” bear was a smashing success, but was the bear a business success?
The negative attention the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. received may have actually helped spur sales, but the company’s reputation was undoubtedly damaged. In the short-term, the issue continued to crop up when the company’s name wass in the news; in the long-term, the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. now has a serious public relations misstep on its permanent record. Was it worth it?
The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. made a serious mistake. The “Crazy For You” bear may not have been as offensive as Abercrombie and Fitch’s pedophiliac-esque catalogs, but the public backlash should have caused concern. I understand the sentiment that the media shouldn’t dictate product, but the public is a company’s market, not the media. Despite robust sales for the controversy-inducing bear, a segment of the public decided the company is doing something wrong.
What’s particularly interesting is that the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. is an important company within the context of small Vermont’s limited manufacturing industry. Robert was on the board of the state’s largest hospital but resigned due to the “Crazy For You” controversy. Because of the company’s stature in its home state, and the fact that it uses the state’s name in its branding, the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. hurt its image at home, something the local media will remember when the company visits the statehouse. To have the governor come out and publicly attack the company was an ominous sign.
As it stands, the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. took a myopic, bottom-line view that only helped the company in the short-term. Public relations does not need to drive strategic decision-making, but it should be one of the components in the process. The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. probably had little recourse, as the bear was at the main thrust of its Valentine’s Day promotion, and sales from the holiday drive the company’s financial results for the first half of the year. Nonetheless, the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. should have recognized that there is more value in long-term results than two weeks worth of controversy-driven sales.
The public relations damage the company has inflicted on itself began with the decision to market a product that is offensive to a segment of society. It continued when the company refused to bow to market pressure–and will continue as consumers like me decide to blacklist the company. While I have mixed feelings about the actual product, I simply can’t support a company that practices such poor public relations.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.