When Promotions Go Un“Bear”ably Wrong


During the course of the past week there’s been hyper focus on a promotion which epically failed – according to those who matter most – the consumer. This is not to condemn promotions gone badly because most marketing professionals can relate personally to a great idea that goes south.

In fact, to put myself on the “in-all-transparency block,” very early in my career I represented a community in Texas seeking to attract restaurants to the city. We coordinated an awesome party with lavish food and had secured RSVPs from key community, business and governmental leaders. We also invited realtors who represented key pieces of properties perfect for incoming restaurants. The date was set, invitations were mailed out (way before the day of Facebook!) and the location was beautifully decorated. And we waited for the restaurateurs to arrive. And we waited. And we waited. Two people showed up. Our epic fail? We held it on a Thursday night at 5 p.m. Guess when restaurateurs are the busiest? Yep, just about that time. So again, it happens to all of us. The best we can do it learn from the mistakes we (and others) and apply those lessons to future promotions.

Now, let’s talk about bears, shall we? As a parent, I can appreciate the sheer angst when your child is let down. I understand why many children and their parents were disappointed with the recent Build-a-Bear Workshop promotion. Build-a-Bear sells stuffed animals and involve children in selecting, assembling and tailoring each animal to their own preferences. For those of you without children or without a news outlets or access to any social media, last week the retailer held a “pay your age” promotion in which children could build their stuffed animal for the cost of their age (a 7-year-old pays $7; a 2-year-old pays $2) which is a really good deal. (Full disclosure, we have three Build-a-Bears in our home.)

As you can imagine whenever there is a good deal on something for kiddos, the promotion is popular. Very popular. Immensely popular. Which is where it then all went wrong. Thousands of people (parents and children – both of which can be challenged with patience when together too long) lined up at their nearest Build-A-Bear store and waited for hours. The lines were so long that the stores were running out of products and not-so-nice behaviors were taking place between individuals waiting in lines. The promotion was forced to end early (by 11 a.m. EST) to preserve the safety of shoppers and employees. Those who were still in line were eligible for $15 vouchers.

Parents took to the social media (and media) airwaves/outlets sharing their frustrations, showing their crying, heartbroken children in viral videos and demanding answers.

This is where a company can own the situation and manage the crisis or defend and prolong the torture of a promotion gone wrong. In the case of Build-A-Bear, they had smart people and a CEO who delivered a message quickly and empathetically to mitigate any further damage to the brand.

If your promotion has gone wrong, here are some tips we provide in our training sessions or when we’re called to support crisis communications work:


Stop and identify the issue for what it is. In the case of Build-A-Bear, it was a great opportunity for families to have a fun experience together and buy a product at a much-reduced price. The response was overwhelming. As much as consumers want to believe that the retailer “should have expected this turnout,” they underestimated the appeal and resulting foot traffic.


Authentically. Taking ownership for a miscalculation (in this situation, underestimating the turnout) and apologizing to the affected parties is critical. There is no time to defend the idea of the promotion or challenge the unknowns. People are upset. Let me be clear – parents with small children are upset. It doesn’t get much more real than that. To her credit, Build-A-Bear CEO Sharon Price John took to the media airwaves to apologize for the situation and said it through the eyes and words of a mother who understands what it’s like for a child to be disappointed. I believed her. It was a good move. Why? She could just as easily have sent out a press release or posted to social media (which the company also did). Instead, she directly faced mothers all over the country who were getting breakfasts ready for their children on a morning television show. She related to them and was relatable in return. You can forgive a friend much more easily than a faceless corporation.

Give Your Team Tools

While senior management usually gets the praise when things go well, it’s the front-line, customer-facing staff who receive most of the criticism. If this is true of your organization, give your team the tools to effectively deal with the situation. Provide them scripts, talking points and insight on how to handle difficult circumstances. Most importantly, make sure each team member knows “how” to deliver information. It’s likely hard for a young person who works part time to understand the intensity of letting a child down until they become a parent themselves. Help them understand the complexity and emotions at play and they will, in turn, share that with sentiment your customers.

Conduct an Autopsy

After every promotion, make plans to conduct a post-event audit (e.g. autopsy) to discuss what went right and what could be improved. In Build-A-Bear’s situation, maybe a longer timeline would reduce lines and panic. Could they use the promoting as a loss leader and upsell add-ons? (I know from personal experience my daughter’s Build-A-Bears each have impressive wardrobes and “family members.”) Could customers register online for times – collecting valuable customer data in the process – to reduce long lines? Could this have been a limited, in-store promotion? The ideas are endless.

Move On

Don’t let any promotion – good or bad – define you/your organization. Do the right thing by and for your customers, communicate clearly but then move on to determine how to better serve them and appreciate their patronage.

And as consumers, give grace to those organizations or businesses trying to do the right thing but for whatever reason, failing in their delivery. The right ones will learn and grown from their mistakes. The others, well, we’ll likely see closing signs outside of their doors in the future.

Things can and will go wrong, even with the best of intentions. But they sometimes go epically right. Taking chances should never be condemned and we should recognize those that do try and give them credit for trying to do a good thing.

(Full disclosure neither I nor my company represent Build-A-Bear.)

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