3 brand-creator relationships gone wrong: how to avoid high-stakes mistakes

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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The Age of the Creator is here. 

People have never had as much choice as they do now when they’re deciding what to buy. Americans see an estimated 4,000–10,000 ads per day. Likely as a result of the swelling influx of ads, 45% of people in North America are using some sort of adblocker. 

The path to buyer conversion in any category is non-linear and complex, but you’re a lot more likely to choose what’s top of mind––which just means “something you’ve heard about a lot and within recent memory.” 

Top-of-mind brand awareness is why direct-to-consumer marketing teams invest so heavily in partnerships with creators. They’re a great way to generate word of mouth and increase the likelihood that someone will search for your product, click on an ad, or refer your product to someone else. 

But what happens when a creator uses their platform to slam your product? Or what if someone of influence takes issue with a creator campaign you’ve launched? Further still, what if one of your brands makes a mistake with a creator who has a massive following? 

Keep reading for the good, the bad, and the ugly in crisis communications involving creators. We’ll tear down what happened and where brands and creators went wrong––so you can learn from their mistakes without committing as many of your own. 

Dr. Jen Gunter vs. Vagisil

On February 4, Dr. Jen Gunter went to war with Vagisil.  

As one of the most well-respected OB/GYNs in North America––she wrote the book on the vagina, called The Vagina Bible––Dr. Gunter sent a message to her 330,000+ followers: Vagisil is profiting from the shame teen girls feel about their bodies. 

On February 5, Vagisil posted a response. 

The response fell flat with many who saw it, but no one was more incensed than Dr. Gunter. She’s since made it her mission to pressure Vagisil to discontinue their OMV! The product line and science are on her side: a 2018 study conducted by the University of Guelph found that women who used similar products were three times more likely to experience an adverse vaginal health condition.

At the time of this writing, Vagisil still promotes their OMV! line on their website, but Dr. Gunter has said publicly that she won’t stop until Vagisil discontinues their teen line.  

Teardown: How Vagisil could have improved their response

Where did Vagisil go wrong? Here’s where we think they could have done better:

1. Vagisil reduced a serious issue to “online chatter.”

In crisis communications, word choice is everything, especially when referring to marginalized groups such as women, people of colour, etc. Vagisil’s use of the words “online chatter” comes across as dismissive, which is especially egregious when the person they’re dismissing is a respected gynecologist.

One of the first rules of crisis management is a solid mea culpa. If your brand has committed a misstep, take responsibility and don’t attempt to reduce the impact. Your audience will see through your attempt, and the situation may escalate. 

2. Vagisil failed to address the root of the problem. 

Dr. Jen Gunter’s main beef with Vagisil is that their OMV! line sends a clear message to teens: they should be ashamed of the way they smell, and they need potentially harmful products to fix it. 

Vagisil’s response fails because it reinforces Dr. Gunter’s original message: “Thousands of teens feel OMV! gives them cleansing products just for them…” With this statement, Vagisil demonstrates negligence to think deeply about the problem at hand: teen girls think they need cleansing products because they are made to feel bad.

What should Vagisil have done instead? They should have acknowledged the harm they caused, then immediately taken action to solve the root problem. 

According to Leila Lewis of Be Inspired PR, “Following a public apology, the company must offer a call to action. They must do something substantial to show that they are changing their ways moving forward.”

Jameela Jamil vs. Flat Tummy Co

Best known for her role as Tahani Al-Jamil on The Good Place, Jameela Jamil has also named herself a body positivity influencer. As the creator and host of the podcast I Weigh, Jamil has made it her mission to let women know they can be beautiful at any size. 

Jamil’s message peaked in 2018 when she aimed at the Kardashians and Cardi B to promote a brand of “tummy flattening tea” called Flat Tummy Co. 

Credit: Bored Panda

Within three days of her original post, Jamil got personal about her motivation behind the campaign: she suffered from disordered eating when she was a teenager. She wanted to prevent other young girls from suffering the same fate. 

As other influencers responded to Jamil’s criticism––Cardi B had some choice words about public bathrooms––Flat Tummy Co chose to ignore the backlash entirely. You can still buy their products, and they’ve expanded to include Apple Cider gummies and a fitness app to their product line. 

Their product line expansion, however, may also be seen as a response in and of itself. While their tea is still their flagship product, they also sell meal replacement powder, apparel, fitness accessories, etc. The best way to mitigate against risk, after all, is to diversify your portfolio. 

Teardown: How Flat Tummy Co could have responded

Flat Tummy Co may have chosen to ignore Jameela Jamil, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine a world where they did the right thing. Here’s where we think they could have done … anything: 

1. Flat Tummy Co can pivot on its brand and product line.

As body positivity becomes a mainstream cultural norm, Flat Tummy Co risks becoming obsolete. With the rise of body positivity influencers who reinforce a narrative of acceptance at any size, more women reject the old school narrative that they need a flat stomach to be beautiful. 

Flat Tummy Co may soon be seen as old school if they don’t change. If they don’t keep up, their audience will force them to. 

Elissar Hajj Zarwi of Comma Hub notes, “The most important thing is to build the new brand based on a brief that has the customer in mind—what the customer needs and why the brand, in itself, answers such needs—and not from a company perspective. When the brand is built around customer expectations and needs, it comes with an authentic value proposition. The messaging also needs to speak the customers’ language and bring the value they expect from the brand.” 

2. Flat Tummy Co can look for new creator partnerships after a rebrand. 

Body positivity creators are thriving in 2021. Creators like Jessamyn Stanley and Tess Holliday have millions of followers because they crave representation beyond unattainable body ideals. 

As part of a pivot, Flat Tummy Co can lean into existing body positivity trends and embrace messaging that mirrors the real relationship women want to have with their bodies.  

Kendall Jenner and Pepsi vs. 2017

It’s the commercial no one needed or wanted: Pepsi’s attempt to “join the conversation” during the Black Lives Matter movement with Kendall Jenner, a white woman, at the forefront. 

The three-minute ad sought to position Pepsi as a BLM advocate. Still, the result was nothing short of an alternate reality: smiling protesters, breakdancing, and police officers who need nothing more than a Pepsi from Kendall Jenner to end police brutality.

Credit: @BerniceKing

People expect brands to take a strong political stance because of their immense power and reach. Creator partnerships, when done right, can help brands communicate actual initiatives that are trying to make the world a more equitable place. But when your chosen creator doesn’t represent the people you’re trying to connect with, things can go south quickly.

Teardown: How Pepsi could have gained self-awareness

After intense criticism, Pepsi removed the ad and issued a response: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. We missed the mark and apologized. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

Pepsi did what they could to fix the damage––but here’s what they could have done to prevent the mistake in the first place. 

1. Pepsi should have consulted people with deep knowledge of Black Lives Matter.

You can’t be part of a community you don’t know. Pepsi’s biggest mistake was attempting to capture the complex reality of BLM in a three-minute ad. 

Elle Hearns, founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and Black Lives Matter organizer, said, “No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest. That’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action.”

Pepsi’s mistake is simply what happens when people disconnected from a movement try to emulate what they think it’s like. As a result, the authenticity is lost or was never there, to begin with.

2. Pepsi should have partnered with Black creators.

We’ll never know every decision that led to Pepsi’s partnership with Kendall Jenner, but if someone had spoken up to point out that Jenner wasn’t the right choice, the team at Pepsi should have listened.

Creator marketing works when it’s authentic, and that means partnering with someone who can deliver your message based on lived experience. It’s safe to say Kendall Jenner doesn’t have experience with police brutality and systemic racism. 

It’s been more than three years since the ad, and Pepsi has since partnered with Shaquille O’Neal as part of their “Pepsi Stronger Together” initiative. In October 2020, Pepsi had committed to investing in local charities in Miami, Orlando, Memphis, and Washington, D.C, to support student mentorship programs, domestic violence counseling, and conversations between communities and local law enforcement. 

Results from the initiative have yet to be reported, but it’s a step up from their 2017 disconnect from the Black Lives Matter movement.

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