Honest[ly] in Need of Empathy

Why The Honest Company needs to bring a human brand voice to its PR crises

One of my favorite brands in the consumer products business is The Honest Company. I’m a hardcore advocate of the company’s mission (“to empower people to live a healthy, happy life” by “creating effective, safe, delightful, accessible, responsible products.”) Based on every conversation I have with Honest’s employees, I’m convinced their culture is fantastic. I can’t imagine a better place to live and work than along the beach in Los Angeles. If all goes well, I’ll end up working at The Honest Company in the next 5 years — provided the company doesn’t get crushed by the weight of another social media communications crisis.

The Honest Company has gotten hit with three “fire drill” scenarios in the last nine months stemming from questions about the “natural” labeling of its products and their overall efficacy. From a social perspective, the second of the three crises — the one involving its reformulated sunscreen — was probably its worst.

Source: Emily Young, “Honest Company Sunscreen Warning,” Young Love Story, June 28, 2015, http://younglovestory.com/2015/06/honest-company-sunscreen-warning/

After complaints about the original product being thick, greasy, and hard to rub in, The Honest Company set out to improve the texture and feel of their SPF 30 Sunscreen. One way they achieved this was by altering the concentration of zinc oxide in the sunscreen, lowering it from 20% to 9.3%. Since sunscreens are FDA-approved, the new sunscreen went through the requisite 3rd-party testing to ensure its effectiveness before hitting the shelves again on Honest’s own website as well as in retailers like Target and Amazon. According to TODAY, Honest was transparent with customers about this reformulation on its website in early 2015.

But clearly the sunscreen wasn’t working for everyone. Images like the ones below of people getting sunburnt after using Honest’s product began making the rounds on the internet, largely on Twitter and Amazon:

Image from “Most Helpful” Amazon Review of Honest’s Sunscreen

Because The Honest Company was founded on the premise of creating “not only effective, but unquestionably safe, eco-friendly, beautiful, convenient, and affordable” products for baby and home, the images that circulated of sunburnt children, in particular, risked severely damaging Honest’s brand credibility and reputation.

By the beginning of August 2015, a full-on social media crisis had ensued, leading to widespread negative coverage by a variety of national news outlets, including TODAY, Forbes, and TIME, among others.

The Honest Company responded to the crisis in three ways with varying degrees of success:

  1. Typical of many brands with dissatisfied customers who take to the internet to air their grievances, The Honest Company encouraged customers to email them or directly message them in order to sort out the negative product experiences. This appears to have been effective on Twitter, but was more challenging on Amazon: given the nature of Amazon’s ratings and reviews, the company could not step in to rescue its credibility with a “message us for help” when a customer negatively reviewed the sunscreen.
  2. The Honest Company issued a blanket statement “stand[ing] behind the safety and efficacy of [its] product” in response to all press queries. The second strategy was effective in that it offered a consistent message (and a well-crafted one, legally speaking) to all news outlets, but part of the statement — that “when used as directed,” the sunscreen was effective — was interpreted as condescending by customers. The general sentiment of customer responses to this statement can be summarized in two questions: “Are you saying I’m stupid and don’t know how to apply sunscreen?” and “Are you saying I’m a bad parent who doesn’t know how to apply sunscreen on my children?” Still, given that Honest was already in the midst of a lawsuit, I would not have changed much of this strategy if I had been charged with managing this situation.
  3. Third, about a week after the brunt of the social backlash began, the founders, Jessica Alba and Christopher Gavigan, wrote a post on the company’s blog to address the negative sentiment of their customers in a slightly more personal way. They highlighted how they wouldn’t create a product they wouldn’t use on their own children (showing pictures of their kids on the blog post and Alba’s own social media for extra impact) and how the company would do everything possible to “make things right.” The approach was “textbook PR” but the content was too little, too late, and the tone was relatively generic and detached. Jessica Alba already faces the challenge of being easily relatable as a celebrity — the absence genuine, personal feeling for customer suffering made matters worse. If I were her, I’d have produced a video speaking to my customers instead of settling for Instagram and a blog post. In that video, I’d been explicit in ways the company and I were taking steps to investigate and solve the problems with the sunscreen in order to really “make things right.”

The five most important things in addressing a social media crisis are transparency, timeliness, corrective action, voice, and empathy. Honest was transparent on its reformulation, could have done better in timeliness in responding to angry customers, and did what it could in taking corrective action via Twitter. But for a brand that has such a strong relationship and rapport with parents, Honest’s voice in responding to the crisis — especially on its own social platforms — were surprisingly lacking in empathy.

It’s worth noting that the situation is not completely Honest’s fault. Even the best-intentioned sunscreen appliers may not be putting on the full “shotglass” worth of sunscreen recommended for protection, or may not have shaken the tube to ensure the distribution of the sunscreen’s active ingredients. (Given Honest’s formulation, it’s likely the zinc oxide settled in the bottle, meaning that a customer could get an adequate amount of active sunscreen in first applications, and not in later ones.)

However, in the future, Honest needs to bring its personal brand messaging as much into managing its PR crises as its does into its product marketing. Financially speaking, with a valuation at nearly $2 billion and an IPO or sale in its future, The Honest Company needs to do better in managing its social crisis communications. Otherwise, more than just its customers are going to get burned.

Curious about the implications of social media for “business” in my final semester of my MBA, I decided to enroll in a class called “Social Media Management.” This is the seventh of ten posts I am writing as a part of this course analyzing the past, present, and future of social media.