It’s bananas – Woolworths’ thoughtless PR debacle

Messing with people's bananas can have significant long-term consequences and Woolworths, normally one of Australia's strongest PR and marketing machines should have known better. Nick Albrow explores where the supermarket giant went wrong.

Shoppers are remarkably sensitive to changes to their fruit. Indeed, the myth that the European Union banned British supermarkets from selling straight bananas has been put forward as an explanation for Brexit.

So perhaps Woolworths, usually one of Australia’s strongest PR and marketing machines, could have better envisaged, and responded to, the backlash when one of its Queensland stores used plastic to pre-pack its bananas (despite the fact, as one online commenter pointed out, ‘they come already pre-packaged by nature’).

Pre-packaged bananas fail the pub test Source: Reddit

The issue, first posted on Reddit, quickly went viral, fuelled by increasingly antagonistic sentiment towards food packaging and plastic more broadly. Remember, it was only in July last year that Woolworths committed to phasing out single-use plastic bags in 12 months.

Despite the online uproar, Woolworths, surprisingly, stood by its decision with a statement claiming its Queensland customers preferred packaged bananas. Not only was this contrary to the prevailing social media commentary, it also fails the pub test in an increasingly pro-environment Australia.

The incident is yet another reminder of the power of social media and how a seemingly innocuous decision at one of thousands of a company’s sites can quickly escalate and threaten a carefully nurtured brand.

It is also a reminder of some of the principles of crisis PR.

First, make sure you are prepared for a crisis and have the systems in place and right people on call to effectively handle any issue that may arise. The folks at Woolworths Towers were nimble in their response, important in a crisis, but badly misjudged the message.

Second, when you make a mistake, acknowledge it quickly, apologise, and move forward stating the actions that will be taken to resolve this issue. Adding humour to the response can also be well-received – think of KFC’s response to its chicken shortage in the UK – although it’s a strategy that can backfire so err on the side of caution.

Third, stick to your brand values. Woolworths describes itself as the ‘fresh food people’, already an often criticised strap-line. Wrapping fruit in unnecessary plastic for a few Queenslanders does not conjure images of clean, natural, fresh produce.

Finally, when responding to a crisis, never do it in isolation but keep in mind the broader context. Excessive food packaging and plastic pollution are now environmental issues of global significance. From Kenya to France, countries are banning plastic bags, and every Australian state except NSW has vowed to introduce similar measures.

Woolworths’ initial decision, and its subsequent response, failed to capture the public mood.

The furore over the incident has died down for now, but, as the UK found out, messing with people’s bananas can have significant long-term consequences.

Nick Albrow is an account director at WilkinsonButler



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