Why Build-A-Bear Can Grin and Bear It

by Belfort Group | Consumer , Thought Leadership
July 19, 2018

The disastrous “Pay Your Age” Promotion Isn’t All Bad

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately – Build-A-Bear should have known better.

This is a company that pulls in annual revenue of $357.9 million and has been around for 20 years. Build-a-Bear routinely hosts large-scale promotions, knows its audience and has the resources to launch effective global campaigns. When CEO Sharon Price John says “there was really no way for us to have estimated those crowds,” it rings hollow.

I say that not as a public relations professional, but as a father of three.

It’s summer, it’s sweltering, and little cubs (warning, bear puns ahead) are free from classroom confines and climbing the walls. Growling abounds with the familiar “I’m boooooooored.” Frustrated parents need relief, and what’s better than Build-A-Bear offering teddy bears that cost their kids age?

These bears can run upward of $50 if parents choose to include all the bells and whistles, so savvy moms and dads who bring their 1-year-old knew they’d be getting great value by just paying $1. And because Build-A-Bear did a legitimately great job of creating a moment in time, advocating an in-store experience, and making the promotion available only to members of its rewards program, they must have known their customers would brave the long lines for a great deal.

Unfortunately, as Tom Petty aptly pointed out, the waiting is the hardest part. How hard? Waits in many places were four hours long, and up to eight hours at the most crowded spots.

Build-A-Bear should’ve been better prepared for long lines of harried parents and impatient small children. Plans should’ve been made with mall officials at each location, aid stations set up to provide food and drink. Also, a contingency plan should’ve been at the ready to avoid offending people who stood in line for hours but only received a $15 voucher.

But despite all these setbacks and talk of epic fails, the news isn’t all bad for Build-A-Bear.

The phrase “there’s no such thing as bad press” is certainly true in today’s media climate. And if you judge success by column inches, live shots on network television and how much a company is being talked about in the public sphere, then what Build-A-Bear accomplished in terms of earned media is nothing short of incredible.

Everyone heard about this promotion which became a global story. It takes a lot to rise above the political noise that leads every newscast, but everyone from CNN to The Guardian to the Today Show was suddenly beary (#dadjokes) interested in Build-A-Bear. Not to mention Build-A-Bear knows parents are a ridiculously active demographic on social media, which means Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were abuzz with talk about the company.

Was the conversation positive? Not really. But honestly, when is the last time any of us had Build-A-Bear on the tips of our tongues? It’s eerily reminiscent of IHOP going from pancakes to hamburgers, providing new life to a known but dormant brand. The only thing worse than being discussed negatively is not being talked about at all.

What Build-A-Bear must do now is capitalize on the opportunity that’s been afforded by this mishap.

While $15 vouchers and offering the “Pay Your Age” discount on a child’s birthday is nice, it’s not enough. My advice: Host another event but this time be prepared logistically, perhaps allowing customers to book times online beforehand and staggering the crowds throughout the day. Identify parents of heartbroken kids on social media and do some strategic surprise and delight special deliveries, playing them up in the media and on social media channels. Host community events in bigger markets around the country as a mea culpa and give away free bears to kids in attendance.

The bottom line is parents don’t want to stay mad at a company that delivers joy to their children in the form of cuddly teddy bears. Build-A-Bear should leverage the human penchant for forgiveness, lean into the unassailably cool and heartwarming nature of selling teddy bears, and turn a PR headache into a truly positive series of fantastic public relations opportunities.

Even in the midst of turmoil, it’s possible to find your bearings (last one, I promise).

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