Luxury: Guerlain's Painfully Slow Response To Racial Slur May Cost Dearly.
Oct 25 2010
"Time to update your communication strategy perhaps?"
They say "silence speaks volumes" but what are we to make of French brand Guerlain's painfully slow response to the foolish, insensitive, hurtful utterings of Jean-Paul Guerlain, a descendant of the founding family and the "nose" behind the brand's iconic Samsara fragrance? While the historic French maison may not have been silent exactly, they weren't exactly quick to respond either. The racial slur was uttered on French national television on October 15 but the Guerlain brand waited until October 19 to issue a press statement condemning the incident and waited until October 22 to post a message on their Facebook page. Why?
In principal, their press and Facebook statements hit all the right notes. In fact, the combined statements would probably have been the correct thing to do on October 15 or, at the very latest, on October 16 but by the time they got around to formulating a response, CNN had already picked up the story and posted an English translation of the racist remark on their website, a boycot of the brand had been organized via Twitter and the brand's flagship boutique at 66 avenue des Champs-Elysées had been picketed by a French anti-racism group. Jean-Paul Guerlain himself at least had the good sense of issuing an unmitigated apology just hours after uttering the odious statement. In fact, it seems that just about everyone understood that time was of the essence except for the party who stood the most to lose: Guerlain the brand.
As a consumer, there are only really three possible ways to interpret the brand's painfully slow response. Maybe the Guerlain brand is insensitive to the hurtfulness of the remarks and believed that their weak attempt to distance themselves from their author ("he no longer works for us and is not even a shareholder") would suffice to smooth over any ruffled feathers. Or, perhaps the Guerlain brand is arrogant to the point of believing that they didn't need to make a greater effort to address the situation. Or, perhaps the Guerlain brand's public relations executives and communications team are simply ignorant of the ways of the Web and failed to grasp how powerful social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and the vast network of blogs can be in disseminating an incident like this. Who knows what actually transpired behind the scenes at Guerlain but to quote noted communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, "perception is reality". Call me crazy but as a consumer, insensitivity, arrogance, ignorence and/or incompetence are hardly characteristics to look for in a brand.
Were it not for the fact that luxury brands are so skilled at the art of manipulating imagery and communication, I might be more inclined towards forgiveness. But the reality is that luxury brands understand the power of communication and image management better than virtually any other industry currently in existence. In fact, so skilled are they at the art of manipulation that they can get us to routinely part with obcene amounts of money for products that we don't even need, at least not objectively. At their best, these brands are able to tap into our deepest, most visceral emotions and unleash powerful desires. Is it unreasonable therefore to expect them to have a timely reaction to an objectively offensive incident such as this one? To borrow a popular colloquial expression, this should have been a "no-brainer".
The saddest part of this fiasco is that I personally don't believe that the utterings of Jean-Paul Guerlain reflect the values of the Guerlain brand, its management or employees. I truly don't. However, their response to the incident in question was so ineffective, so slow and so completely inadequate that the real damage to the brand's image doesn't come from the initial bêtise so much as from their pitiful lack of any real communication strategy to contain the fallout. I suspect that any lasting damage from this whole sordid affair will have been primarily self-inflicted. C'est triste.
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