J. C. Penney Company recently released a girls' shirt that sparked an uproar among consumers, who vetted their displeasure throughout the social networks. The shirt read: "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.”
By the midday on Wednesday, more than 1,600 people had signed a petition on Change.org to get the shirt banned, saying the statement is sexist and sends the wrong message to young girls.
J.C. Penney did, however, respond proactively. The company pulled the shirt from its website, promised to discontinue it, and issued a formal apology to consumers. That's exactly what Harlan Loeb, EVP and director of US crisis and issues management at Edelman, said he would recommend for any company to do in this type of situation.
“They are a very strong brand and I think they are a responsible brand,” he said. “Any company in that position has the opportunity to say that in the future they'll do batter, but the bottom line is that they have to acknowledge the mistake and own it.”
A “fail-proof” way to ensure that a company knows the risks it's taking with a new message is to test it first and make sure it will resonate properly with target audiences, Loeb said, adding that “trust and relationship building” are two of the most important principles for companies to remember when it comes to consumer engagement.
It'll be interesting to see whether J.C. Penney gets any blowback from the episode. On Thursday the company announced its store sales, for the four-week period that ended on August 27, decreased 1.9%, compared with a 2.3% increase last year during the same period. However, the company blamed Hurricane Irene for cutting into its sales this year.
Perhaps by acting fast and apologizing, J.C. Penney will stop seeing negative backlash stemming from the release of the shirt, especially on social channels.
With store sales not as robust as they used to be, the company should focus on online shoppers. After all, its online audience was strong enough to get a shirt pulled in one day, showing that J.C. Penney has a popular following in digital channels.