How H&M forgot 1.4 million Facebook fans

Mar 3, 2013 | Best practice, Corporate culture, Digital marketing, retail trends, Social Media

On the morning of Jan 6,2011 the New York Times New York edition ran an article claiming that the world’s 3rd largest fashion chain had intentionally and systematically damaged and dumped unsold stock outside its 34th street outlet.

In a city where the economic crisis remains a painful daily reality to many Americans, a third of the population is poor (according to the New York Times) and temperatures are particularly harsh, a story about corporate greed, senseless waste and neglect of the poor and homeless will always galvanise opinion. It also sells newspapers.

Not surprisingly, the story spread swiftly through the social media networks, picked up by bloggers and online news services looking for content. The story began to generate its own heat, and by the end of the day H&M was in the midst of a social media-fuelled public relations crisis.

But H&M are no strangers to social media. Actively developed networks on Facebook and multiple twitter accounts mean that H&M have more than 1.4 million individual Facebook fans – each with their own network of friends – and around 22,000 Twitter followers globally.

To put this into perspective, H&M’s primary audience dwarfs the New York Times daily circulation and exceeds the population of Dallas. H&M have some serious social media clout at their disposal.

But its not just about the numbers. Its also about the relationship. In times of crisis, it is that relationship of trust between the brand and its fans that gives brands with social networks enormous advantages. It allows senior personnel to talk directly with the brand’s loyal customers, to discuss and address their concerns, and to put H&M’s case rationally, intelligently and without fear of media distortion. They can humanize the issue and engage customer support in a way that was unimaginable in a web 1.0 world.

As the issue gained momentum and the term “H&M” became Twitter’s number 2 trending topic, H&M were well placed to tap into their vast network of established relationships, arm their brand advocates with correct, timely and regular information, present its story honestly and openly and enlist its fans assistance to help champion their side of the story.

That’s not what happened.

Things had started off well enough. When the issue found its way to H&M’s Facebook page, the response was swift and direct…

“H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect both people and the environment. Our policy is to donate any damaged usable garments to charity. We’re currently investigating an incident in a NY store that is not representative of our policy. We will follow with more information as soon as we are able. H&M’s US sales operation donates thousands of garments each year through Gifts In Kind Int’l.”

This pre-empted the concerns of H&M’s fans, reinforcing the values of the brand, defining and limiting the scope of the issue to one isolated store and acknowledging H&M’s obligation to keep their loyal fans informed.

Armed with this expectation, H&M’s highly valued, socially connected brand loyal customers waited in the midst of increasingly negative sentiment for “more information”.

And waited. And waited.

They waited for H&M to do what is expected of a brand that actively develops its social networks – to engage in honest dialogue with their fans and communicate openly about issues that affect their relationship with the brand. Unfortunately, this was to be the last post that directly addressed the issue for nearly 22 hours.

Despite its formidable social media resources, meaningful dialogue between H&M and its fans stalled. It seemed that somewhere inside H&M the social media team seats were quietly removed from the table as H&M switched to the old PR terrain of guarded wording and indirect communication.

After the initial holding statement above, H&M made three related posts. They also posted 3 marketing promotional posts like “Want to be featured on an H&M t-shirt? Visit hm.com/blackbook for your chance” that sent a message about priority to those waiting for more information and stood out starkly amongst the growing number of posts from outraged fans. Meanwhile, the issue continued to gather momentum.

The next post, which appeared 3 hours after the initial post directed visitors to a “statement” on the CSR section of H&M’s website…

“H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect people and the environment. Visit www.hm.com/csr  for an updated statement. Please contact H&M via www.hm.com/csr to specifically address this situation.”

This standard statement was then posted repeatedly as a brand response to some of the increasing number of negative comments appearing throughout the day. One fan picked up on this curious practice…

“You know whats funny? that you are just simply pasting the same response to every comment about this shameful situation you are in. Why dont you post something where you actually admit and explain…”

Instead of providing a genuine update – if only to let fans know that they had not been forgotten and that the investigation was continuing – the statement on hm.com.csr was so general that it left some readers wondering if the “statement” was actually a response to the clothing destruction issue or a generic press release about H&M’s community initiatives.

H&M donates clothes to charity

“H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect people and the environment. We donate garments that do not meet our quality requirements to organisations such as UNHCR, Caritas, the Red Cross and Helping Hands. When possible, we also donate faulty garments that have been returned to our stores. However, we do not donate clothes that do not meet our safety requirements, chemical restrictions or are damaged. We have agreements with reputable aid organisations in most of our sales countries. In total, more than 500,000 pieces of H&M garments were donated during 2009”

Readers were left to extract the relevant information – presumably that the clothes in question must have somehow been damaged, unsafe or somehow chemically compromised.

If this was the intended message then there was a problem.

During the course of the day, a spokesperson for H&M contacted the New York Times. Toward the end of the day, the NYT City Room released an updated story containing quotes which seemed at odds with the distributed statement…

According to the New York Times, “H&M promised on Wednesday that it would stop the practice of destroying new, unworn clothing that it could not sell at its store in Herald Square…, and would instead donate the garments to charities”. “It will not happen again,” said Nicole Christie, a spokeswoman for H&M in New York. “We are committed 100 percent to make sure this practice is not happening anywhere else”.

Whilst the condition of the damaged clothing wasn’t all that clear, what was clear was that whilst H&M were discussing the issue with journalists, information was not being passed to their loyal fans – who were left to discover this recent development for themselves. As a result, the issue surged again that night as awareness of the NYT update grew and fans became increasingly frustrated with H&M ’s apparent unwillingness to engage directly with them.

H&M’s next post did nothing to ease this frustration. H&M changed its blanket response slightly – instructing Facebook fans to “Please e-mail info.us@hm.com for questions or comments concerning our H&M stores in NY”. Cynical Facebook fans viewed this as an attempt to take the conversation out of the public eye. One fan asked why comments and questions were not being dealt with openly on the Facebook page. Senior H&M personnel had still not sought to engage directly with fans within the Facebook environment.

But someone else did.

In the void created by H&M’s continued silence, H&M staff took up the cause. Many responses provided information that H&M arguably should have been providing officially. Others, whilst well intended, did little to help the situation. This may have been avoided if H&M had been prepared to engage with its fans directly.

28 hours after Tim Lynch’s post first brought the article to the attention of the Fan Page admin, the long awaited outcome of the “investigation” was posted…

The final statement was …
“We have examined the situation surrounding the garments found outside of our 34th Street store. It is important to note that these garments were already damaged, and did not meet our safety standards or had been used for in-store display. Going forward, we are reevaluating what we categorize as “damaged” garments and we continue to be committed to donating as many of these items as possible to aid organizations. H&M annually donates hundreds of thousands of garments to charity and aid organizations, and will continue to do so. For a list of organizations and more information regarding our corporate social responsibility, please visit www.hm.com/csr”.

H&M failed to understand that their fans processed this response with a skepticism borne of more than two days without meaningful information…

I Don’t Believe That For A Min…..If it took u this long to come up with an excuse, U should have made it MUCH better than the one u have given us. If u think anyone will believe that, then they are just as dumb as your company

It’s hard to trust that “reevaluating what we catagorize as “damaged”” doesn’t just mean, “In the future we will try not to let members of the public find all the clothes we throw out.” Former staff members from various stores across the country have confirmed it was standard to cut up and throw out garments.

I think everyone should speak their voice by removing themselves as a fan.

H&M appeared in the media later the same day, providing their detailed response to the issues raised by the New York Times – but to Fashion Week Daily. Whilst drawing largely from content previously released, this was the most detailed response to date. However, H&M did not post the same detail provided to Fashion Weekly to its waiting Facebook fans. Instead, H&M provided the non-specific link below to the Fashion Week article…

“H&M responds at fashionweekdaily.com”. In essence- go find it yourself.

Thereafter H&M responded periodically with “ H&M responded at Fashion Week Daily” to negative posts related to the issue.

Facebook fans aren’t the only ones left wondering what happened.

With such a formidable social resource at its disposal, one can only wonder what motivated H&M to inform the trade press but not its fans, why senior H&M personnel chose not to communicate directly and frequently with its facebook fans and why 1.4 million loyal customers were treated as a liability to be managed rather than a power to be engaged.