HIGH STREET BUSINESSES across the UK are fighting to stay afloat, with 14 stores closing every day. It’s a grim picture – but some companies are resorting to dirty tactics to stay afloat.
Just today, two large retailers – Next and Anthropologie – have settled claims with smaller businesses over claims of copying – but in very different ways.
Next, which makes £635m a year in profits, copied a design for a children’s top from independent label Scamp and Dude, causing its founder to lament the loss of integrity in the fashion industry. Anthropologie, owned by fashion giant Urban Outfitters, which recorded profits of £240m in the first quarter of this year, produced a copycat version of a vase made by Australian designer Tara Burke, who branded the company "scum".
Not being an expert in copyright law I’m not going to get into that, but what I am interested in is how each brand – both the retailers and the smaller businesses – dealt with the situation from a reputational standpoint.
First of all, it’s very interesting to me that both designers took umbrage on Instagram. I’ve said it before, but social media really is the new battleground when it comes to a business’s reputation, and it surprises me how so few brands are actually good at engaging with customers on these platforms.
Designer Jo Tutchener-Sharp took to Instagram in September, and yet Next took until this month to resolve her complaint. That’s weeks of retweets, screengrabs and shares, each taking a tiny dent out of Next’s credibility and integrity in full view of shoppers who are increasingly using ethics as a deciding factor on where they want to shop. Let’s not forget that repeat customers don’t buy products – they buy into what that brand represents. I’m guessing that ‘copyright infringement and half-baked apologies’ isn't what they’re going for.
Next decided to issue an impersonal statement saying they were going to donate profits from the sale of the item to Scamp and Dude, which would then apparently donate the sum to charity. Remaining items in stores will be donated to needy kids overseas. I can't see an apology. Well, I think that’s a pretty poor response – and one that won’t wash with the public. Playing the charity card isn't going to provide an instant antidote for ethical deficiencies elsewhere.
Meanwhile, at Anthropologie, the situation initially looked a lot worse. Having turned down the chance to work with the retailer in 2016, the designer found out via a friend that they had copied her vase designs – which they had photographed – two years later. Surprisingly, they came out of it looking better. They did a better job of addressing the issue; essentially holding their hands up, admitting they made a mistake, apologising and even providing a plausible explanation for how the mistake was made. Crucially, they responded within days.
One of the most fundamental lessons I try to pass on to clients is, during a crisis, time is of the essence. After issuing what I think is a really well-pitched response, they then took the conversation with the designer offline, saying they had “contacted the designer directly”, instead of ignoring the situation. Most people in this instance would assume she would then have been compensated properly. By contrast, I can’t see that Next even issued a holding statement to acknowledge there had been a problem.
The lesson here is, should your brand be in the midst of a crisis: be more Anthroplologie. Act fast, and act appropriately, giving the matter the attention it deserves. Don’t stick your head in the sand, because it won’t go away – and a donation to charity really isn't a cure-all. The public are much smarter than that, and with the high street looking emptier every week, the consequences might be more expensive than you think.