Why Cotton On should watch Network: “I’m as mad as hell!”

Why Cotton On should watch Network: “I’m as mad as hell!”

It’s been 33 years since Network was released by MGM and went on to win four Oscars. Yet it seems strangely prescient for how social media and the internet have changed everything – with a particular warning for business. Cotton On recently found themselves on the receiving end of their own Howard Beale moment with consequences for their brand.

Although the Network of the title refers to 1970s big business television, the central premise could now easily be applied to social networking and the power of the individual. View this short scene – the speech that won Peter Finch his Oscar.

Finch’s Howard Beale character is able to share his anger with the audience because he has the power of the broadcast network behind him – something that, back then, was open only to a privileged few. But consider how, today, anyone with an internet connection has a similar ability to broadcast their anger, share their complaint and virally whip up dissent and this film becomes particularly relevant.

The marketing and PR departments at Cotton On – the Australian clothing manufacturer and retailer – were taken completely by surprise when one complaint turned into a public outcry and media circus. For the full background, I advise you read Mia Freedman’s post – Cotton On – are you on CRACK – over at Mamamia.com.au. There, she describes how a complaint from a customer about their offensive baby clothing range was met with indifference.

After all – what can one complaining customer do – right? Ignore the whingers, right? There’ll always be one, right?

“Go to your windows and shout I’m as mad as hell”

I’m not debating here the issues about a t-shirt poking fun at child abuse – the topic is better discussed elsewhere. What I am discussing here is how this story grew and how Cotton On completely failed in their reaction to it.

When Freedman (@miafreedman) blogged the story and pushed it into Twitter, others who had never seen the offending clothing range became involved. Freedman became a modern Howard Beale and broadcast her anger to a wide audience in seconds. Within hours, #cottononaresick became a popular Twitter hashtag conversation with more Twitter users – and as a result more bloggers – leaping onto the cause. (An especially strong post was posted by Caroline Overington at The PunchCotton On thinks child abuse is funny: meet Lincoln)

As the anger grew, and one voice turned into two, then five, then a tumult, Cotton On remained silent. Their Twitter page was quiet – not a single tweet to engage and discuss with those demanding a response. (Over a week later, Cotton On have been notably inactive on Twitter, with only one new tweet promoting Father’s Day.)

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Now hundreds of people were commenting on the story. Customers were calling for a boycott and sharing details about how best to lodge complaints, pooling resources to create the maximum noise. This was an angry crowd determined to be heard and using social networking to organise and band together. Yet, Cotton On seemed to be praying that if they ignored them long enough, it would go away.

After all, it’s just Twitter, right? These are just a few angry people, right? We’re way bigger than they are, right? No one takes these over-reacting bloggers seriously, right?

The bloggers get taken seriously

It wasn’t long before journalists came across the story. Soon after, it made the front pages of many newspaper websites – with the added observation that Cotton On wasn’t currently commenting to journalists. A few hundred people on Twitter suddenly became thousands upon thousands exposed to the story. A complaint from a single consumer, championed and broadcast by another (Freedman), had now made it to the major news websites with a massive following of outrage in just a few hours.

By late afternoon, the inevitable back-down occurred. The Australian reported it first – Cotton On Vows to Withdraw Offensive Tshirts.


So what should Cotton On have done? What lessons can be learned from this case study?

Primarily, it illustrates that treating consumers as a mass market and working the percentages is no longer an appropriate business model. The prevalent idea that a small number of unhappy customers is acceptable as long as everyone else keeps spending money, fails to recognise how that small dissatisfaction can now grow virally into a real business threat. Now that customers can also reach thousands of people as quickly and easily as corporations, the relationship with each and every individual becomes important. No one can be ignored or dismissed or fobbed off. You never know just how influential they may turn out to be online.

This isn’t to say that every customer should be able to hold a company to ransom and that every complaint has merit – but an intelligent business should be able to recognise the difference. Yet, even when a complaint cannot reasonably be dealt with, many disgruntled customers can be appeased merely by being shown that they have been heard, and their opinions respected. Above all, responses should be swift and human – not an automated form letter or legalese. Preferably, this response should happen where the complaint or conversation is happening. If the outcry is on Twitter, engage with them there. If in the press, engage there. Comment on the blogs, reply to the emails. Don’t simply send out a carefully worded press release vetted by five departments to a couple of newspapers when the heat gets too much.

Cotton On’s Twitter page is a perfect example of a big brand missing the point of social networking. By merely using it as a broadcast platform for promotions, and never to respond or engage with customers, it demonstrates that they have yet to discover that the internet is a two-way medium. By failing to realise they are no longer the sole voice in the conversation, Cotton On could easily repeat the same mistake again.

Like Howard Beale, we will continue getting mad and continue to shout our anger out of windows. We have our own Network now and we know how to use it to be heard.