On March 10, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article claiming that Honest Company, a consumer goods company that emphasizes non-toxic household products, had laundry detergent products that contained chemicals. The chemical in question, sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is contained in everyday household items, and Honest claims SLS can irritate skin. To differentiate itself, Honest has built its brand on the value proposition that its products are “Honestly free of” chemicals, including SLS; as such the WSJ’s independent lab tests that showed “significant amount of sodium lauryl sulfate” in Honest’s detergent became highly controversial and presented a serious crisis for the nearly-four year old company.
Honest Company fired back at the WSJ and issued a statement: “Rigorous testing and analysis both by our internal research and development teams as well as further testing by external partners have confirmed this fact. The Wall Street Journal has been reckless in the preparation of this article, refused multiple requests to share data on which they apparently relied and has substituted junk science for credible journalism. We stand behind our laundry detergent and take very seriously the responsibility we have to our consumers to create safe and effective products.” Interestingly, though, the company’s social media accounts did not proactively address the controversy. On March 10, Honest published the following post on its Facebook page:
We're celebrating the launch of our Spring Diaper Collection by donating up to 1 MILLION diapers! Every Thursday this…www.facebook.com
Similarly, Honest’s Twitter page called attention to the diaper donation campaign and made no mentioned of the WSJ controversy. Yet predictably, customers started complaining. Honest Company chose to respond to each of these complaints with the same scripted company line, as seen below:
Interestingly, while Honest Company took a strong “denial” position with its public statements and response to the WSJ, its social media accounts took a “do nothing” approach before seemingly realizing it needed to respond to the criticism posted on its pages. And its responses essentially summarized the company’s public response before directing consumers to the official blog. This response strategy was not the most effective, as it allowed angry consumers to control the narrative on Honest’s social media accounts. Honest was constantly put in a reactive position and its default response felt stilted, with the same paragraph copied and pasted over and over again. The tone felt impersonal, especially given Honest’s brand. Looking back, a better approach would have been to publish content on its social media pages proactively to address the WSJ article. While issuing a formal company statement is appropriate, Honest Company should have leveraged its social media pages to produce relevant content explained the difference between SCS and SLS in a less textbooky-fashion, perhaps with infographics or animated video. By evaluating the crisis objectively, Honest Company should have known that the charges were severe enough to tarnish the company’s credibility and that backlash was invariably going to happen on its social media pages. Taking an “ignore” strategy on social media was infeasible, and rather than having to scramble to respond to each individual post with a scripted statement, Honest should have taken a more proactive denial strategy to mitigate the crisis by shifting the narrative from being accused to being educators.