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Lessons learned from a Twitter gaffe

Grocers should be extra cautious when using social media to avoid pitfalls

As more grocers turn to social media to promote their stores, advertise upcoming events and talk about popular products on such sites as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, they would be wise to use caution and make certain there’s nothing in their posts that could be misinterpreted. Tim Hortons recently learned this the hard way when a Tweet backfired spectacularly.

Tim Hortons clearly was enthusiastic about the potential move to Canada by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and tweeted the following: “No pressure, Meghan and Harry, but if you do choose to move to Canada, free coffee for life. Think about it.”

Twitter users, according to the Huffington Post, jumped in to point out how inappropriate was the offer to one of the world’s most privileged couples, especially in view of Tim Hortons’ recent history of labour disputes. Said one Twitter user: “They can afford to buy the company. Your employees can’t afford rent.” And another: “Um … You have employees who have to go to the food bank to put food on the table and you want to offer an already incredibly wealthy family this perk.” One more: “You’re allowing tables and chairs to be removed from stores so paying patrons cannot sit and you’re offering royalty free coffee? Take that thought and set up a homeless free coffee/water station with a sign on it that says ‘please help yourself to our restroom’.” Obviously, these were not the responses Tim Hortons was expecting.

Tims is certainly not alone in making such a blunder. And while the fast pace of social media posting has made these kinds of gaffes a more frequent occurrence, history is full of ill-conceived communications and marketing schemes. Companies unintentionally have caused themselves waves of controversy and backlash by overlooking or ignoring faulty creative over the years.

Malaysian Airlines, for instance, launched a contest asking its passengers to share their “bucket list” ambitions not long after the tragic crashes of two of its flights (MH17 and MH370) in 2014.

The airline failed to connect the disasters with the connotations of death—a bucket list, of course, means things you want to do before you die. Another example: the CEO of LifeLock was so confident about his company’s identity fraud protection software that he featured his own social security number on its website and billboards. This backfired big time when the CEO’s identity was stolen 13 times and loans were taken out in his name without his knowledge.

Not limited to social media are all the infamous translation errors that became unintentionally hilarious. For instance, Coca-Cola’s name, when first marketed in China, was sometimes translated as “Bite the Wax Tadpole.” Coors’ slogan “Turn It Loose” was translated into Spanish, but in that language it’s a colloquial term for having diarrhea. Ford messed up when marketing the Pinto in Brazil because in Brazilian Portuguese, pinto means “tiny male genitals.” KFC left Chinese consumers wondering when “finger licking good” was translated as “eat your fingers off.” And Mercedes-Benz made a big-time faux pas when it entered the Chinese market under the brand name “Bensi,” which means “rush to die.”

Many of these were a part of larger marketing campaigns or branding initiatives that would surely have had time for thoughtful vetting, and yet they still made big errors. Social media’s instantaneous nature has made these kinds of blunders more likely than ever. So many Twitter or Facebook posts are made in the spur of the moment, with little thought to possible interpretations.

So, grocers, if you’re going to use social media for marketing and promotions, take a few minutes to make certain your post has been carefully vetted for any possible misunderstandings, poor translations or unintentionally offensive ideas. There’s nothing worse than embarrassing your brand or accidentally angering your customers!

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