Clean Up In Aisle 5: Lessons From Lowe's And KAYAK's Consumer Controversy

Young Women Clean Up After Vancouver Riot

By now you’ve probably heard that both Lowe’s Home Improvement and KAYAK.com have pulled their ads from The Learning Channel’s All-American Muslim, the reality show about five Muslim families in Dearborn, Mich., that airs Sunday nights. According to TLC, each episode is said to serves up a wholesome portrait of the community that includes "an intimate look at the customs and celebrations, misconceptions and conflicts these families face.” 

Bending to pressure from the one-man fundamentalist group known as the Florida Family Association, Lowe’s yanked their spots from the show. Shortly after, KAYAK took the same route, but defended its decision, saying in a blog post that it pulled ads because the show “sucked.” 

The backlash was swift, ranging from intelligent discourse to hostile comments. And the conversation continues on social media from Twitter #loweshatesmuslims to Facebook’s “Boycott Lowe’s” fan page to this parody commercial on YouTube. 

Fast Company spoke with Lisa Mabe, founder and principal of Hewar Social Communications, which spearheaded the collaboration between Saffron Road and Whole Foods for a campaign featuring Halal foods during Ramadan, about lessons we can take away from the All-American Mulim dust-up. 

lisa mabe hewar social comm

That initiative came complete with its own controversy, including false reports that Whole Foods cancelled it. Mabe says that in contrast to Lowe’s and Kayak, Whole Foods stepped up quickly to dispel the rumors. “We managed to leverage the false reports to have a wider platform to both correct our message and reach thousands more consumers,” says Mabe.

The Muslim consumer base is approximately 7 million strong, and collectively spends around $33 billion on housing and housing services alone, according to DinarStandard. What’s more, Mabe says, an Ogilvy Noor study found 86% of American Muslims believe that American companies “need to make more of an effort to understand Muslim values,” yet are largely ignored. 

Mabe shares her pointers for companies and brands that want to avoid losing customers from America’s growing multicultural communities because of a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease.

Weigh your options before making a hasty decision

Big companies like Lowe's are used to controversy and are the subject of boycotts and pressure from special interest groups every day. Though I can’t speak to how much thought went into the decision to pull the ads, one lesson here is to carefully consider the credibility of the individuals or companies doing the complaining in the first place. Often times we see a lot of noise from groups who aren’t even shoppers at the company in question. Corporate America must determine who of their diverse customer base may be affected by their decisions and what implications those may have.

Communicate early and often

Communicate with your customers and let them know that you sincerely regret having disappointed any individual or group, and value each of them. Keep reinforcing that message whenever possible.

Don’t claim ignorance

You no longer get a free pass. Get to know the Muslim-American community. As evidenced by the rapid-fire response on social media, it is obvious that Muslim voices are worth paying attention to as they are influential and can drive a national conversation quickly and aggressively.

Be a good corporate citizen in word and deed

Understanding that companies are in business to make money and they can’t please everyone, doesn’t mean that they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. As Rep. Chris Murphy of Connecticut stated recently, companies need to take care not to contribute to or even be perceived as “rubber-stamping basic foundational bigotry against a major American religious group.”

We can't allow this type of xenophobia to be tolerated within corporate America. In an effort to do more than just pay lip-service, demonstrate by your actions that you are in fact a company that values diversity and welcomes customers of all faiths and lifestyles. For example, partner with Muslim or other ethnic groups around the country who are dedicated to socially-responsible programs such as building homes for families in need or collaborate with initiatives that foster diversity and interfaith understanding. 

Create a crisis communications plan before a crisis happens

Contingency plans are a crucial tool as they can enable companies to act quickly and effectively.

[Top Image: Flickr user Vancouver]

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