How a blog took on a bully. And how the bully should have responded.

The Ubuntu Baba Woolworths saga, through the lens of a digital marketer.

When Shannon McLaughlin, owner of Ubuntu Baba, discovered that global retail giant Woolworths was selling Chinese-made copies of her original baby carriers, her heart must have sunk right down to her boots.

I feel like I’m out of my league. I call an emergency meeting with my team, I need help on what to do next about this.

– Shannon McLaughlin

She tried various avenues to get to the bottom of what happened, but was passed from department to department with slow to no response. Finally she sat down behind her computer and wrote a heartfelt yet sober blog. She focused on the facts, while touching all the right nerves. After sharing her blog on Twitter and Facebook, it went viral to the point that her website was struggling to keep up with all the traffic.

Waking the social media beast

When the Ubuntu Baba Woolworths story initially broke, Woolworths remained dead silent and ignored any and all calls for a public response. They continued to treat their social media platforms with a business-as-usual attitude, posting normal updates showcasing their products as if nothing had happened.

However, McLaughlin’s blog had stoked the fury of South African social media users, and they started bombarding Woolworths’ social media platforms with messages in support of her.

ubuntu baba woolworths

Whether Woolworths was posting about a 20% sale on tomatoes or about Egyptian cotton sheets, the comments and responses were filled with righteous anger and trolling aimed at forcing them to respond. Spare a thought for the poor soul who manages their social media platforms.

In response to Woolworths’ online silence, one social media user wrote:

Why is it taking you so loooong to respond? Where is your crisis management team when you need them – still on the beach at Plett? It’s no longer acceptable to duck behind the parapets at head office and hope this thing will blow over. What is required now is LEADERSHIP. And it’s nowhere to be seen.

– Andrew

When they finally broke their silence with an official statement, it was almost two days after McLaughlin’s blog was posted. Given the circumstances, they were never going to say much, but the delay in responding, and the scant details it included, just stoked the fires.

From a branding point of view, the Ubuntu Baba Woolworths saga was a disaster for their brand on social media. Everywhere their content was posted was immediately full of vitriol and accusations of thievery, especially bad for a brand that prides itself on the quality of its products. Woolworths surrendered the narrative almost immediately and did far, far less than was required to regain control of it, let alone the trust of the social media public.

When dealing with a social media crisis, a very different approach is called for.

How Woolworths should have handled it

  • Respond as close to immediately as possible. Big corporates’ internal processes and social media move at two very, very different wave lengths. Corporates also tend to go to great lengths to obfuscate and hide any sniff of wrongdoing they might be involved in. The knee-jerk reaction is usually to stall, keep silent or deny any knowledge of wrongdoing. The white noise of business-as-usual might sooth your shoppers in your stores, but the lack of response on social media leads to anger and frustration. The second something like this happens, someone should be working on a statement and it should go out ASAP.
  • Don’t talk down to people. Woolworths’ initial response was a reply to a Facebook comment, stating that they are taking the issue seriously, but that they deemed the platform inappropriate to go into further details until they’ve met with Shannon. This opened a can of whoopass on them. People saw the response as arrogant and nonchalant, and an unearned attempt to claim the moral high ground by not taking part in a social media comment war. Now, no brand wants to get bogged down in the comments or feed the trolls, but in a situation like this, you cannot afford to treat their grievance as anything less than legitimate. Simply saying instead that they would have a comprehensive response ready as soon as possible would have been enough to change the tone.
  • Be prepared for this in advance. Companies like Woolworths are always getting trouble for stealing designs from small businesses. Sometimes it’s a genuine mistake, sometimes it’s an unscrupulous internal product design team, sometimes it’s good old-fashioned corporate greed and predatory practice. This isn’t even the first time this has happened to Woolies, and it probably won’t be the last. You would expect a more agile and responsive approach to their social media platforms. When something like this happens, the role of your social media changes. People are not interested in sales jargon and posts for the sake of posts. Once the official statement was made, all other scheduled content should have been ceased, and the social media team retasked to responding to the hundreds of angry comments.
  • Come clean and fix the problem. It is possible to apologise publicly without compromising the internal investigation. The sooner you acknowledge the public outcry and take ownership for your company’s role in it, the sooner tempers will calm down and sobriety will kick in. If the internal investigation turns up evidence that this crisis was the result of unethical sourcing practices, which it certainly seems like it is, then something fundamental in how the company operates needs to change and these changes need to be laid out and explained publicly. No firing a scapegoat, or just promising to do better, will cut it. An apology is only as good as the concrete changes in behaviour that follow it.
  • Remember, you’re the bad guy. At least, that’s how social media sees you. So your brand needs to do all the work to change that view. Behind the angry comments are real human beings standing up for their beliefs. Respond with kindness and humility, and avoid feeding any narrative that paints the picture of you being a big corporate bully. You won’t please everyone, or maybe even anyone, but this approach at least lends you the benefit of the doubt.

The damage is done?

Looking at the response to the apology from Woolworths, the damage to their brand seems to be done. They lost the ethical higher ground and their unique claim on sustainable, pro-local business philosophy. Like they did the last time this happened.

The truth is the long-term damage of the Ubuntu Baba Woolworths saga to a brand as big as Woolies is probably minimal. Within a week or two, the storm will blow over and someone else will be the target of social media anger. But if you want the storm to move on faster and position yourselves as a company that takes their ethics seriously, then following the most open, humble and rapid approach possible is the only way worth going. Digging in, and sticking to business-as-usual, only makes yourself more of a target and will only feed the anger.

A Stories & Science blog, written by Fourie Rossouw and Stuart Lewis.