Villing & Company

There Are Worse Things: Questions of legitimacy are a far greater threat to Groupon than a Big Game gaffe

Now nearly two weeks removed, let me be among the last to comment on a Super Bowl ad. Thankfully, right? However, my perspective is not based on the entertainment value or even the broad strategic effectiveness of any campaign or message itself. The discussion I find myself most attracted to is the damage (or value, depending on how you look at it) that can be caused by airing a message that is controversial or insensitive to 111 million people in the US. But even more importantly, it’s the idea that any negative fallout from tripping up on such a big stage can actually pale in comparison to a lesser known, but potentially more dangerous, outside threat.

Of course, I’m specifically referring to the furor Groupon caused with their Tibet ad and, to a lesser degree, their Rainforest spot.

First off, I’m not sure that the spots in question might not even help Groupon in the long run. While perhaps distasteful depending on your perspective, was Groupon’s message really so offensive that the negative residue will outweigh the long-term benefit of the buzz and awareness created for Groupon among those previously unaware of this fast growing company? In other words, I’m willing to bet that, in 3-4 months, the stain on the brand caused by this campaign will have diluted to the point that only those who maybe felt personally offended by the campaign itself will remain “unsubscribed”. In the meantime, the attention this campaign garnered will have been enough to raise the awareness level of the company to the point that new Groupon subscribers will outweigh those who continue their subscription boycott.

To further soften the long-term fallout, it has come to light that the Groupon ad campaign is actually part of the company's Save the Money campaign, where the company matches donations to select charities, including the Tibet Fund. However, without this explanation accompanying the initial ads, the commercials came off as tasteless to many. For others, they were just viewed as bad spots because the intended humor missed its mark – regardless of the sensitivity issue.

In spite of this, if I were Groupon, I’d be more concerned about public perception of the legitimacy of my business and less about the Super Bowl snafu. Just a week following Super Sunday, the company again came under fire – but this time from consumers who claimed that their Valentine’s Day flower deal through FTD was misleading. Specifically, several Groupon customers claimed the flowers they bought were discounted from a higher price base than the sale items on FTD's own website. They complained on the Groupon site and the Internet that FTD was making up for the Groupon discount by raising the prices.

While Groupon denied this was the case and stood by its policy that the coupons do not apply to sale items, they nevertheless credited the customers’ accounts to give them the full sale price to avoid an all-out PR assault on the company.

This latest public trial may not have garnered as much attention as the Super Bowl spots but, to me, they are much more of a threat to the company than questions of poor taste. What we’re talking about here is a question of legitimacy. Is Groupon actually saving people money on their purchases – or enough money – to really matter? And without acceptance of legitimacy – that building a personal relationship with an organization is worth the effort – a business is left with nothing.

Surely it will take much more than this one misstep with FTD to slow the meteoric rise of Groupon. However, the long-term threats to the organization are more closely tied to avoiding such customer experience blunders than by well-publicized gaffes that do not directly affect consumers. To use another Super Bowl analogy, it will take more than botching the words to the National Anthem to cause fans of Christina Aguilera to stop going to her concerts or buying her music. However, if these same fans ever feel cheated or unsatisfied with their experience while dropping $100 to attend a concert, it’s a different story.

Obviously, the last ten days have not gone well for Groupon. Maybe it’s part of the growing pains of a company that may not have been ready for primetime. But in our forgiving society, I’d argue the Tibet ad will soon be forgotten. For Groupon’s sake, let’s hope that questions of legitimacy don’t cause the company to suffer the same fate.

Filed Under: public relations

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