Figging Up

Amy T.
Amy T.
Oct 26, 2020 · 6 min read

Lessons learned from the FIGS flub

Preface: The FIGS brand appears to have deleted various pieces of content related to this story, including the offending ad and initial brand apology on Facebook (along with thousands of comments posted to it). You can still view the ad here.

“Scrubs brand FIGS comes under fire for “insensitive” ad featuring female physician”

“Scrubs Ad that insulted women and DOs pulled after outcry”

“Company apologizes for sexist medical scrubs ad”

ICYMI…FIGS had a bad week.
FIGS figged up.

Medical scrubs company, FIGS, recently released a sexist ad featuring a female DO in pink scrubs holding a “Medical Terminology for Dummies” book…upside down. Rightfully, the medical community was quite upset.

Long before the term “cancel culture” had been coined, I remember a presenter at conference warning, “It takes years to build a brand, and only one tweet to destroy it.” It’s hard to believe that any brand — let alone a brand led by two women — would let something like this happen. Thousands upon thousands of people have taken to social media to share similar sentiments. Brand blunders happen, but in an era of cancel culture, the way a brand responds makes the difference between crisis resolution and the demise of a brand.

As the wisdom of the ages never ceases to remind us, fails are an opportunity for learning. Let’s dig in to explore the things FIGS did that contributed to worsening their brand crisis rather than making it better:

Weaponizing humor.

Once upon a time, Wendy’s social media put itself on the map by throwing Twitter shade. Since then, many brands have set their sights set on replicating Wendy’s approach without considering whether it really works for their brand.

Humor is hard. Your customers might not mind a burger brand telling them they are a #fail after they post a photo of a competitor product to Instagram, but that doesn’t mean they will appreciate your brand invaliding their expertise, education and dedication, especially when they are risking their lives on the front lines of a global pandemic.

Not knowing their audience.

FIGS has a history of questionable choices when it comes to portrayal of their customers — especially female customers. This user-generated cut features FIGS models portraying female medical professionals seductively donning surgical gloves, bunny hopping down stairs and eating bananas. (Credit: @kayladawnbowden)

I think we need a commercial showing a female doc doing a bedside thoracotomy. Really highlight that when you’re dying, it doesn’t matter what genitals your doc is rockin’, it’s their training and abilities that matter most. -@zjepsonmd

As a general rule, the better you know your audience, the less likely you are to insult your audience. This can be challenging when your audience includes groups or cultures that go beyond your marketing team’s personal point of reference. In many instances, these necessary learnings and pivots get bypassed and the brand ends up instead talking solely to people who think, act, believe, speak and operate just like you. What may be funny in the eyes of a millennial social media manager might come off as tone deaf with an older audience — or vice versa. This can quickly become a problem if the majority of your brand audience differs from your content team in their priorities, values and point of view.

Enter the value of diverse teams, gut checks and balanced perspective. As an agency partner, you must train and grow your content teams to think, communicate and create beyond their limited personal perceptions, likes, tendencies and patterns. The challenge is not just creating content, it’s creating content that works for the audience.

It’s also essential to outline the voice and tone of your brand. Maybe you’re humorous, but not snarky. Maybe you’re nurturing, but not saccharine. Are emojis appropriate for your audience or will they drive them bonkers? What constitutes enthusiasm vs. excessive exclamation points? Define it all. It may seem tedious, but outlining all of these bits helps create guideposts for content. These guideposts ensure that yourcontent and content teams are aligned, on-brand and relatable to your audience.

The wrong kind of apology.
To FIGS credit, they did quickly move to social to respond with an apology. In times of crisis, timing matters more than ever.

“A lot of you guys have pointed out an insensitive video we had on our site — we are incredibly sorry for any hurt this has caused you, especially our female DOs (who are amazing!) Figs is a female-founded company whose only mission is to make you guys feel awesome. We dropped the ball and we are so sorry. We love you guys and we’ll always listen to what you have to say!” (FIGS initial apology post on FB, since removed)

When this first apology fell short with their audience, FIGS issued a second apology and explanation. This is a series of the screen grabs FIGS posted to Facebook page:

Dispersing blame rather than taking personal accountability.

Let’s break this down into sections since there is a lot to think through here:

Apology 2, post 1
The language here is good and appropriate. It recognizes the mistake, acknowledges the community input, offers an apology and suggests they are taking steps to improve and move forward.

Apology 2, post 2
FIGS never actually addresses how the ad got made. Based on previous content, it is clear this type of content is a pattern for the brand rather than an isolated incident.

Apology 2, post 3
Connecting with the AOA and putting a substantial amount of money where their apology is was an appropriate move to show positive intent moving forward. The matter of FIGS being female-owned may have been more impactful had a statement come from the actual founders themselves, ideally in video form, in order to connect on a human level. In times of crisis, people want to see and hear from those at the top as human beings. Doing so can go a long way in communicating that the brand is taking action at the highest level in order to learn, grow and do better.

Apology 2, post 4
Instead of leadership taking accountability, FIGS decided to pivot and place future responsibility on healthcare professionals (in the form of an advisory committee) while distributing blame for this flub across their entire internal team. In addition, by proposing full-team sensitivity training as a response/solution to this incident, the brand seems to be suggesting that every member of their team shares an equal amount of responsibility for the creation and distribution of the offending content.

Facebook comment on FIGS apology post

Again, it would have been better to have the founders issue a personal response as company leaders, taking accountability and outlining planned steps for improvement at a top level.

They needed a creative partner willing to raise a flag.
The truth of the matter is that we all FIG up. Choosing a partner who is willing to raise a flag may be the difference between what you perceive as a funny tweet and the tweet undoes all the years you’ve spent building your brand reputation. It’s important to build a team that not only knows how to respond in times of crisis, but can also keep a watchful eye on things through a lens to help your brand circumvent it.

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