The disastrous catalogues: What do they really mean for Restoration Hardware?

Maybe it doesn’t matter if the twitterverse and blogosphere are alight with fury

You’ve probably heard about Restoration Hardware’s recent infamous catalogues:  Since early May, RH has been sending out bundles of its ‘source books’, each weighing 12-17lbs, depending on the assortment.  (A 12lb bundle arrived here, though I can’t remember the last time we bought anything from RH, and in fact I’ve always hated their insistence on using US dollar pricing in their catalogues.)

Here’s an example – this is the 15lb bundle:

restoration hardware catalogue 2014 ridiculous 

Predictably – at least to anyone living in the real world, which apparently excludes everyone on the Restoration Hardware marketing team – the internets were quick to respond with derision, mostly on environmental grounds. The twitterverse has seen a more or less constant stream of ‘WTF?’ and ‘Are you kidding me?’ tweets for 6 weeks or more, and even die-hard RH fans were left dismayed and disappointed by the whole thing. There are several Facebook groups and pages calling for the abolition of RH catalogues.  In Palo Alto, residents organized a mass return of the catalogues to the local store, dumping 2000lbs of the ‘source books’.

All the catalogue bundles were accompanied by a message about how even though they seemed big, they actually had a lighter carbon footprint:

restoration hardware source books environmental message

…except Ben Elgin at Bloomberg did some research and discovered that RH’s ‘sustainability’ claims were dubious at best.

With social media buzz this bad, it’s time for damage control, right? Maybe not.

Received wisdom – well, received wisdom amongst marketing and media and innovation and ‘disruptor’ types – is that social media is Powerful and Relevant and Resonant, and that it’s imperative that when you get this kind of negative reaction, you need to start doing hard-core damage control.  You need to get a dedicated Twitter account going to respond to criticism, post a heartfelt and sincere mea culpa on your website, make a large donation to some kind of environmental charity – heck, maybe you should start a whole division dedicated to the elimination of paper-based catalogues worldwide.  Because otherwise people will Abandon Your Brand.

Restoration Hardware has done none of this.  They’ve largely ignored the social media frenzy, and have consistently dodged questions even from mainstream media.

In fact, they’ve doubled down:  In 2012 they were criticized for a 992-page catalogue – which was bigger than 2011’s 600+-page version – and ignored that criticism as well.

Negative social media doesn’t mean declining sales

With 3+ years worth of catalogue criticism behind them, and sustained outrage on various social media channels, Restoration Hardware should be seeing declining sales, as consumers flee from a retailer so clearly out of touch, shouldn’t they?

As it happens, they’re reporting a 20% growth in revenue, beating estimates.  A couple of weeks ago, TheStreet,com reported that “RH stock [was] spiking”. NASDAQ.com says they’re “[Hitting] new high[s] with grand designs”.  And they’re still getting sympathetic coverage in home decor media. (I do think it’s interesting that the Restoration Hardware site hasn’t posted any media coverage in a couple of years, but there could be any number of reasons for that. Even big companies forget to update their websites sometimes.)

What does this say about the power of social media for brands?

Look, I love social media, and I believe in it.  Heck, I get paid to help clients manage their social media and content marketing efforts – and while I may be jaded and cynical, I’m not so far gone that I’d take money from clients for social media management if I actually thought it was a waste of time.  I think social media can be a great way to increase brand awareness, improve brand credibility, deliver long-term nuanced messages, and provide great CRM.

However.

We have to admit a few things:

  • People who are prepared to spend $5200 on a sofa tend not to be spending a whole lot of time in the twitterverse or blogosphere – they have assistants who do that kind of thing
  • People who are prepared to spend $12,000 on a rug often have more than one SUV in the driveway, which would tend to indicate they aren’t necessarily all that concerned with the environment
  • Many consumers are quite comfortable saying one thing (“Restoration Hardware is terrible for sending those catalogues! I’m totally never shopping there again!”) and doing another (“Oh, I got it at Restoration Hardware on sale – I love their stuff!”) when the furore has passed
  • Social media can be a giant echo chamber: The people who are on it are really on it, but there are lots and lots (and lots!) of people who don’t tweet, blog, pin or Instagram, so these brand ‘scandals’ just don’t ever turn up on their radar

Now, I happen to think Restoration Hardware is playing a dangerous game here.  I think that in the long-term they’re going to find that a determined refusal to respond to critics – especially when that criticism turns up in mainstream media channels – is going to have an impact on sales.  Their flimsy environmental claims may prove to be their Achilles heel in a world that increasingly demands transparency and authenticity.  

However, in the meantime, I also think we have to acknowledge that perhaps social media isn’t quite as powerful as people with ‘Disruptor’ in their job title would have you believe.

HelloFlo: Best ad I’ve seen all year

I dare you not to love this

I admit that I went into this ad prepared to roll my eyes.  “Why can’t they just do after-school specials and Judy Blume books like they did when I was a kid?” I thought to myself. 

And then I laughed my head off. 

I don’t even think you have to be a woman or the mother of a daughter to love this.  

You know, I’ve secretly been making fun of all the advertising types in Cannes this week, droning on about one must always strive for The Big Idea and how we must, at all costs, be Creative, but sometimes, when it all comes together like this, you realize they’re right.

Networking in the park with moms

Just because you’re pushing a stroller doesn’t mean you’re not interesting

roslyn costanzo sarah welstead

Roslyn Costanzo of Style Forage, looking more sophisticated at the park than I ever will

Here’s something they don’t tell you about new(ish) motherhood:  It’s hard to make mom-friends.  Oh, you interact with mums of babies and toddlers all over the place – at drop-in, at the park, at baby music classes – but half the time one of you is harassed or sleep-deprived or rushing to get to a food source before baby goes nuclear.  Or, 10 minutes into a nice chat, the other mum says something like “I’ve been using fish oil as a substitute for vaccinations – I’m just so worried about Bobby getting autism”, and suddenly it’s like you’re reliving every traumatizing blind date with a nutjob you ever had.

So you can imagine how nice it was when, yesterday at the park, I met a mum who met my standards for laid-back-ness (she didn’t seem fazed when Fiona, spotting apple slices at 50 paces, took up residence on her picnic blanket until the apples were well and truly eaten). Forced to speak at some length due to the apple situation, it emerged that Roslyn – for that was her name – is, like me, doing a lot of freelance writing while she’s at home with her 3-year-old.  She does glamorous PR/bylined articles while I do a lot of (much less glamorous) ghosting, but still.  Anyone who writes for a living is fine by me.  Well, except maybe Dan Brown.

Anyhow, I checked out her blog today and found a great piece on how – and why – even the most stylish of mums so often slip into a 24/7 yoga-pants-and-tank-top uniform that can be difficult to shake.  (I myself have 4 pairs of black leggings on constant rotation at the moment, and it’s hard to believe I ever wore high heels 5 days a week.)

I may never see Roslyn again (especially now that she probably thinks I’m a stalker for Googling her after a chance meeting in the park), but in the meantime it was a good reminder that there are plenty of interesting newish mums out there, even if they’re hiding their lights under bushels of well-worn black spandex. 

Without personal branding, your career is dead

Not to be overly dramatic about it, or anything

As some of you may know, I’ve done a fair amount of work for clients in the recruiting industry, and I’ve been talking about the importance of personal branding vis a vis career growth for a long time.

But I want to be clear:  For most people – people who have regular jobs, and aren’t looking to become independent consultants or start a business – personal branding doesn’t mean you have to create your own website and blog every day or amass a legion of Twitter followers.  It’s really just about doing two things:

  1. Creating a personal narrative.  This is the ‘story’ about yourself that explains how your education, experience and skills come together to make you a perfect for X role or X career.  It’s what you say when people ask you what you do for a living or what you want to do for a living; it’s what you say when you’re networking with people who may be able to give you your next big opportunity; it’s the narrative that helps you map out a career path and make choices about your next career move. Remember:  People don’t have time to figure out how your teaching certificate, project management experience and passion for great design make you perfect for a job as Director of Training.  You need to be able to explain it to them, confidently and concisely.
  2. Making yourself visible and interesting.  Have you ever logged in to LinkedIn, seen a status update or post from one of your connections and thought:  “Gee, Bob always seems to be doing something new. He must be doing well”?  Maybe Bob has an interesting LinkedIn Summary; maybe he’s uploaded a presentation he made at a conference; maybe he just posted a link to an interesting article with a witty comment.  It doesn’t matter which – Bob’s keeping himself top-of-mind, establishing himself as someone who’s engaged with his work and his industry, and making himself look smart and connected.  All of these things are good for his career, because the next time someone has an opportunity in his field, guess who they’re going to think of first?  

(BTW, if you’re in a role where you create a lot of presentations, whitepapers or other materials, you really should be posting them on LinkedIn.  It’s not only a good way to keep track of all the great work you’ve done, it also increases the chances that a recruiter will find you the next time they have an opportunity and search LinkedIn for candidates.)

Still not convinced?  The infographic below does a good job of explaining why branding yourself is good for your career.

personal branding sarah welstead