Social media analysis: Woolies brand takes a knock

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Woolworths’ squeaky clean image has suffered serious damage as a result of the Ubuntu baby saga, an analysis of almost 20,000 social media posts shows.
BrandsEye, which uses specialised algorithms to find and analyse tweets, examined posts tweeted from January 1 to 14.
Out of about 2,200 negative posts, Woolworths was widely labelled as having acted unethically.
In January, Cape Town designer Shannon McLaughlin in a blog post accused Woolworths of stealing her baby carrier design – and selling it for almost R1,000 less. McLaughlin even published records showing Woolworths staff ordered her product and had it delivered to the retailer’s head office.
She detailed how they ignored her e-mails querying this.
Woolworths met her after the huge outcry and then withdrew the product.
BrandsEye found that almost half of all social media conversation about Woolworths for the first two weeks of January was about the Ubuntu baby carrier incident only and most of it was negative.
“What’s really interesting and potentially concerning about this incident for Woolworths is that a large portion of the negative conversation pertains to unethical business practices. It is also part of a seemingly bigger issue for the brand, with 14% of the Ubuntu Baba conversation citing how Woolworths copied other products in the past,” said BrandsEye CEO Nic Ray.
“The danger for a brand like Woolworths is that this is not seen as a once-off incident, but rather part of a pattern of how they conduct business. This could make their reputation, in the eyes of the public, harder to repair.”
BrandsEye analysis found that “consumers also expressed their negativity towards Woolworths’ own brands. Many accused the retailer of creating ‘knock-offs’ of other products.”
Brand expert Sarah Britten explained why social media sentiment about a company matters to the business’s bottom line.
“Reputation matters for two main reasons. The first is that intangible value – the value of your brand – is increasingly part of the overall value of a company. A good reputation is literally worth money, and even accountants understand that,” she told Times Select.
Secondly, if consumers lose trust in a brand they will take their business elsewhere, she said.
Britten said that incident could have been even more damaging for Woolworths because it involved babies – a highly emotive issue, “where trust matters even more than in more functional categories like home care”.
“Woolies competes against specialist retailers like Baby City and the boutiques, as well as Takealot when selling baby gear.
“So if Woolies come across as bullies, they might well lose potential sales in that particular product category. And that eroded trust can carry over into everything else they do. It has a knock-on effect. It is probably not huge, but not insignificant.”
Britten said incidents where a retailer might be seen as bullying the small guy could “affect stakeholder relationships such as suppliers, shareholders and investors”.
Asked for comment, Woolworths referred Times Select to its response on Monday, where it apologised after admitting there were striking similarities between their carriers and the Ubuntu Baba ones. It also committed to giving away several Ubuntu Baba baby carriers to under-resourced communities.
It said the incident went against its values.
The Woolworths statement said: “While there are differences in our baby carrier, there are striking similarities which we acknowledge and take responsibility for. This is not in line with our values and goes against the very clear policy and creative guidelines we have in place for our design process. We are intensifying and strengthening the training of our people … on our values-based approach to the design and sourcing process.
“We have sincerely apologised to Shannon personally and we would like to offer our heartfelt apologies to our customers who expect more from us.
“We remain deeply committed to the development of small businesses in South Africa.”..

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