PR Failure #7: Build-A-Bear “BEARmageddon”

Aaron Blank / August 7, 2018

 

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You know the drill.
This year, The Fearey Group has been all about learning from failures, because as humans, it is expected that we will fail, pick up a learning experience from it and persevere. We’ve taken this to our friends and partners by sharing a monthly PR blunder and picking them apart to share key learnings, and telling you how we think it could have differently. Our goal isn’t to rub noses in failure – it’s quite the contrary. 2018’s big idea is to learn from these mistakes, so they don’t get repeated, becoming a better community one blunder at a time. (Read about June’s PR misstep here.)
While we’ve talked about Netflix, the NFL, and Apple in the past, this month’s PR failure took place right in our own backyard, and in stores around the world. Welcome to Build-A-Bear and its PR team’s worst nightmare.
The Story:
The store known for smiles, cuddles and teddy bears of all kinds! took a turn for the worse on July 12 when it didn’t fulfill on a promised promotion, resulting in disappointed children and angry parents around the world.
The promotion was called “Pay Your Age Day,” a one-time offer allowing children to pay their age for any stuffed animal at all Build-A-Bear Workshop locations. With normal stuffed animals ranging between $12 to $65 before customization, families jumped at the deal.
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But, Build-A-Bear was severely unprepared for the vast numbers of people that lined up at each of its 400 stores around the world. In Tacoma, Wash. alone, parents dealt with huge crowds and crazy lines, waiting for hours, only to be turned away empty-handed. Yes, empty-handed. Talk about disappointment. And perhaps a PR failure?
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Source: KIRO 7
KIRO 7 reported that crowds at the Tacoma Mall were estimated at more than 5,000 people, and there were also huge lines at Alderwood Mall in Snohomish County and Westfield Southcenter. This was happening at every Build-A-Bear store across the country.
Check out the line at Mall of America – yikes.
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Demand simply exceeded supply and Build-A-Bear couldn’t follow through. On Thursday they released the following statement online:
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They closed lines and turned everyone away – game over.
Our own Chris Guizlo, director of The Fearey Group, told local news station KIRO 7 , “It’s a little like a trip to Disney, where you’ve got the three-hour wait, but come away with nothing,”
And in this case, the wait was more like 5-7 hours.
The Reaction:
As you can imagine, it wasn’t pretty for anyone. Parents were torn up about it. Just look at a few tweets here – you can feel their rage emanating off the screen.
Build-A-Bear
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To make it right, Build-A-Bear offered a $15 voucher to online customers and to those who were turned away from the stores. CEO Shannon Price John went on TODAY to publicly apologize the day after, saying:
“I am sorry that we were not able to provide the service that we wanted. We are doing our very best and we are staying very focused on making sure that we do the best we can to make it right for people.”
After Build-A-Bear tweeted that stores were shutting down for the day, it went dark until July 19 – not a word. Then, they fired the channel back up and began posting again as if nothing happened, business as usual. A similar tactic was taken on the company’s other social channels like Facebook and Instagram as well.
The Lesson Learned:
Oh boy, where to begin?
On the TODAY interview, John said, “There was no way for us to have estimated that kind of impact and those kind of crowds, it far surpassed anything we ever could’ve known.”
Okay, there were more people than they thought there would be, but it seems like Build-A-Bear went into this promotion with eyes wide shut. And where was the PR prep for all of this?
Chris Guizlo put it best, saying “Build-A-Bear failed to accurately anticipate customer response, failed to plan a worst-case scenario and failed to respond to criticism quickly enough on social media.”
That’s crisis prevention 101. Determine your worst-case scenario and plan for it. Employing a “try it and see” model for a promotion of this magnitude has dire consequences.
Mistakes are bound to happen, and this was a big one, but own it. Air it out, say you’re sorry, then say it again. Take the time and steps needed to mend the bridges burned. Turning off social media notifications the week after and hoping everyone forgets “Bearmaggedon,” then charging forward as if nothing happened sends the wrong message. Instead of shoving the problem under the rug, engage in dialogue with your customers for as long as it takes to fix the problem, and maybe give them a little bit more than a $15 voucher.
Time will tell whether this incident has any long-term impacts on the company; it really depends on how much it does to repair customer relationships. Those bears are pretty cute, but will a $15 voucher do the trick?
If nothing else, the positive in all this is that we’re talking about Build-A-Bear. The company is relevant on social media and in media outlets around the globe. And the bears a roaring all around us! Congrats on the buzz but let’s be better prepared the next time someone does this kind of promotion.
Be Fearless! Sincerely,
Aaron Blank, CEO & President
The Fearey Group
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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!