Lesson of Lowe’s: Your Competitor Royally Screwed Up. Don’t Just Sit There.

Attention, Head Media Buyer for The Home Depot. Can we talk? You’ve got an opportunity for yourself handed to you on a silver platter if you’re intelligent and I’ll bet you are. So here’s what I want you to do.

I want you to pick up the phone and start placing ads on “All-American Muslim” like no tomorrow.

Don’t overthink. Don’t overanalyze. Just do it. I don’t care what your demographics are. I don’t care what marketing research tells you. I’m as big a fan as anybody of market research but when your competitor shoots themselves in the foot so badly by blowing their nose on an entire race of people, you’ve got to seize the moment and welcome those people with open arms.

For those who haven’t heard, Lowe’s did a royal screw-up by caving to outside pressure and pulling its advertising from TLC’s program featuring the lives of five Muslim families in Michigan. The backlash has been swift and the outrage intense, not just from Muslim groups but many others. Russell Simmons even offered to buy up all the airtime on the program that advertisers voided.

To me, the danger isn’t so much associations like the Florida Family Association, which urged people to engage in an email campaign to pressure brands like Lowe’s that advertised on the program to pull their advertising.

The danger is when brands actually listen to these fringe groups, tuck their tail between their legs and run for the hills instead of acting like intelligent brands that weren’t born yesterday.

Lowe’s justified the move like so: “Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result, we did pull our advertising.”

Ah. I get it. So the loudest voice in the room wins, no matter how bigoted and divisive their opinion may be. Just making sure that’s how you make your decisions.

Lowe’s acts like this came out of the blue and caught them by surprise. Nice try but I don’t buy it. Running from lightning rods is what big companies tend to do when they want to appeal to everyone under the sun. Ironically, that’s the opposite of what Lowe’s did anyway in the end. But why does controversy have to be a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be and can be a good thing. Lady Gaga is controversial. And massively successful. I doubt she’s hurting from controversy.

Let me replace all of the official public statements from Lowe’s, probably written by their PR firm or internal marketing people with the only two words that people really hear: We’re afraid.

Memo to brands of America: Beyond what you see on marketing analytics, the people who buy your stuff will be gay, Muslim and mixed racial couples.

And last I checked, their money is still as good in this country as a white person’s.

It’s too bad that showing these types of groups in advertising or advertising on programs featuring such groups beyond the white American family is seen as “progressive.” It shouldn’t be. It should be off the table as something advanced for us to talk about as a brand differentiator. It should be common sense that this reflects modern reality, so we can make marketing decisions based on deeper, more important factors.

But I digress from my mountaintop to speak purely on a marketing level so you can apply the lessons learned from this situation to your own:When you have a scenario like the Lowe’s one where a competitor does something stupid, you have two choices:

1) You can be lazy and have a nice laugh at your competitor’s expense. You may say you’re not going anywhere near the situation with a 10-foot pole and believe the customers will naturally trickle over to you.

2) You can get off your butt and move quickly to cater to the disenchanted audience. It’s called being proactive because it’s the right thing to do marketing-wise and in some cases, morally as well.

You buy media where they dropped media. You use social media to target the voices that are angry. You issue releases and blog posts speaking to the pains people are expressing. And it’s not really about the competitor at all as much as heavily amplifying how much stronger YOUR principles are. Don’t waste any time retelling their story – the disenfranchised are already doing that for you. Tell yours in a way that helps the audience connect the dots easily on how you’re different regarding that particular issue.

This window of opportunity can happen at the most basic local level too. Not all that long ago, a auto dealership in the Chicagoland area fired a man for coming into work wearing a Green Bay Packers tie. Now, I bleed Bear blue and orange, but obviously that’s just a dumb move. The media picked up on the story and the auto dealership that formerly employed him got some massive and unwanted attention.

At this point, other dealerships nearby could have just reveled in a competitor screwing up. But one had the initiative to seize the moment while the story was still hot. They hired the Packer-wearing tie salesman almost immediately. Not only was that the right thing to do, but the focus shifted from one stupid dealership to how the new dealership did something heroic. THEY became the new focus of the story.

My point is, when events like this happen to a competitor, don’t run from the chatter. Dive into it. You want to talk about how you can engage a community? You’re looking at it. Put up or shut up time.

There’s one thing Lowe’s got right in separating itself from a program with the words “All American” in it: When brands are this easily swayed by the agendas of extreme groups that they forget their own values, whatever it is they’re building together is anything but All American.

Have you ever capitalized on a competitor’s mistake to acquire new customers and become the hero? If so, how did it happen and what did you do? Share away, hero.

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