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Congratulations. You've Tarnished Your Brand.
By: Christine Slomski
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Etsy.com, the beloved social commerce website-turned-brand created for purchasing handmade art and handmade vintage treasures, has been caught in the latest PR snafu. Valued at $100 million, Etsy is a big deal. I personally think of it as the online Mecca for out-of-this-world handmade art to wear, to admire, or to gift for literally any occasion. It’s a pretty sweet brand that has come to be loved and trusted by millions worldwide.
Earlier this month the site came under fire by its customers, as well as the general public, for allowing a vendor to sell greeting cards on its site with highly offensive messages written on them. Under the category taglined “Greeting Cards for Awkward Situations,” the cards congratulate recipients on being raped, having a child with Down Syndrome, contracting AIDS, getting cancer and more. One card—supposedly meant for a sexual assault victim—depicts a naked female squatting in a shower stall, burying her head in her hands next to the words “Congratulations. You got bad touched.” Another card depicts a crude drawing of an individual with Down Syndrome next to which says “Congratulations. Your kid has Down Syndrome!” and another similar card saying “People with Down Syndrome are awesome but their parents are a**holes.” It’s unquestionable that these messages are highly offensive. The product line falls far from the Etsy brand we have grown to love and especially trust as a credible marketplace for giving incredibly talented artists an outlet for commerce and exposure.
Repeated email complaints and requests for removal as well as a 16,000-signature petition originating from Change.org asking for the removal of the offensive cards weren't even enough to get Etsy to react to the concerns of its customers. It’s puzzling, because even Etsy’s Terms of Service state: “Use of mature, profane and/or racist language or images in the public areas of your Etsy shop is not permitted. This includes your username, Public Profile, item titles, tags, avatar, banner and/or shop selections.” Confused yet? I am, because these cards and even the vendor’s name seem to be just that. Despite all the requests for removal, Etsy has done nothing.
So there goes another one—a good brand gone tarnished, because Etsy is failing to take into consideration the most important piece of the puzzle: its customers and the relationship it has with them. It’s a bizarre PR case too, because this incident brushes lightly against the public relations and branding disasters of BP and Tiger Woods. You know, they (Woods and BP) still look shiny and have recovered as best as possible, but each of their missteps have permanently fractured their brands. We won’t ever forget.
The part that really gets me is that Etsy fails to see that its customer base is largely female (by a landslide), and by not taking care to listen and respond appropriately to a female-focused issue (rape and humor do not ever go together, nor does having a child with a disability), the company is really shooting itself in the foot. Etsy has totally missed the opportunity to recognize its audience and the effect this ordeal will have on it down the line. Females, as we all know, talk. We spread the word. We’re the greatest channels for word-of-mouth marketing, news, advertising, endorsing, naysaying, etc. We’re a population you can seriously tick off, too. Had Etsy recognized this right off the bat—that one piddly vendor out of thousands was causing a great offense to its customers, resulting in a national uproar—they would have been able to see the value and opportunity that lies in showing concern for managing and tending to this relationship. That’s part of “Branding 101”!
For me, it will be a challenge to look past the brand to see only the artists, who are really the heart and soul of Etsy and whom I’ve spent hours wandering through their online stores. I debate between wanting for Etsy to be boycotted enough to feel the blow of its actions (or lack thereof) or wanting for the company to get past this smoothly for the sake of the vendors who, I learned after further research, will be the ones who would actually suffer the most if Etsy were to suffer a big enough financial blow.
As consumers, we have a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for. That’s the power to make or break a brand. I’d say that the Etsy brand is not quite broken, but certainly fractured.
So, Congratulations, Etsy! You’ve tarnished your brand. I’ll send you a card.
Note: To sign the official petition, visit the page at Change.org. For the CNN news clip, click here.

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About the Author
Christine Slomski is the brains and beauty of brand strategy at True Perception, a branding agency in Phoenix, Arizona. Follow Christine on Twitter.
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