Last month, the Advertising Standards Authority said an ad sent out by the online fashion retailer Boohoo was ‘socially irresponsible’. The ASA said a marketing email sent out by Boohoo in July contained the subject heading ‘Send Nudes’, followed by the ‘heart eyes’ emoji. In the body of the email a model wearing a beige jacket was pictured, and emblazoned across the image were the words ‘Send nudes. Set the tone with new season hues.’
We didn’t need the ASA to tell us all that Boohoo had found the line dividing ‘know your customer well’ and ‘creepy’ and sailed right over it. Stories such as these make you wonder who was in the room when the suggestion was first raised. Boohoo, for its part, said that it used the word ‘nude’ solely to describe a colour resembling that of the wearer’s skin but it’s blindingly obvious that no one who reads the phrase ‘send nudes’ is going to be thinking of autumnal colours.
What you tend to find in email marketing or any form of digital programmatic comms or social comms is that brands hope to be as relevant to the user as possible. This naturally involves narrowing down a broad audience to a smaller and smaller group of customers and potential customers, which in the first place means you need to understand quite a lot about that group’s interests and activities. Unlike in advertising, which involves saying something about the brand in a general way, targeted comms demand this kind of precision if your activity is to be effective. And if you can strike a balance between being relevant and sounding invasive and inappropriate, the results can be many times better than they otherwise would be.
But Boohoo fell pretty spectacularly off the tightrope that the very best online retailers have become so good at walking. Boohoo’s main mistake was that it tried too hard to be ‘down with the kids’: for all sorts of reasons, most of them very obvious, brands appealing to young people—and Boohoo’s target audience is 16-to-30-year-olds—can’t fall into the trap of trying to be on a level with the customer. Boohoo can’t ‘be’ its customer, but there’s no reason why it can’t speak to them as a brand in a way that is relevant and interesting to them, and therefore effective for Boohoo.
In a culture of paranoia surrounding data and personal privacy, especially online, Boohoo’s blunder was a big one. Modern consumers assume that brands know who they are, but in a rough-sketch sort of way. This isn’t always the case, and brands, agencies and consumers, as well as tech platforms, regulators and campaigners, are still having the difficult conversation about digital privacy and what’s acceptable. Boohoo may well have figured out that the audience to which it was appealing would find the phrase ‘send nudes’ relevant, but even if that were the case, it’s common sense that that isn’t the kind of thing you put at the centre of your email marketing.
The moral of the story? Knowledge is one thing. Wisdom is another.