Botulism: not a great promotional platform

I must confess that I am a huge Mayan history geek. I marvel slack-jawed at the craftsmanship of their murals. Their complex communication system humbles me. And how could they be considered a primitive people if they had running water, vulcanized rubber, and successful brain surgery techniques?

For those of you who managed to miss it, the Mayans were part of a cultural zeitgeist in the latter half of last year due to the public’s misunderstanding of their centuries old calendar. Despite the protests of many Mayan experts—as well as planetary evidence provided by NASA—many believed that the calendar predicted the world would end on 12.21.12. A variety of ways to spend the ‘end of days’ sprung up, including travel to Armageddon’s epicenter at Chichen Itza, and, if you could afford it, recklessly spending a fortune.

So when the opportunity arose to exploit the silliness of my fellow man my knowledge of the Mayans for Aria’s annual self-promotion, I jumped on it. Armed with a lactose-intolerant friendly recipe for Mayan chocolate truffles (bonus: coconut oil also has a two year shelf-life) and a healthy dose of wit, I artisaned up 27 gold-lined packages with 1/3lb chocolate each, every one worthy of a spot in a high-end boutique. Not only were the packages pretty, but the chocolate was delectable with just the right balance of spicy kick and dark chocolate goodness.

Delivered on 12.21.12,  two clients reached out to say how much they loved the packaging and that the chocolate was perfect. One client said he initially shared the chocolate with his coworkers but, when he realized how good it was, he hoarded the rest to himself. Seriously, it was that good.

The problem was, something went horribly wrong with the other packages along the way. And by horribly wrong I mean apocalyptically wrong…

It wasn’t until January 7 that I got an email from a client (who is also a friend) telling me that all of the chocolates arrived at his organization covered in mold. Thankfully no one got sick, but so much for coconut oil’s two year shelf-life!

To say I was humiliated would not be much of a stretch. Still, I recognized that this was an opportunity to practice what I preach by turning this catastrophe into a win. So I set to work making it right:

  • To let everyone know that I was aware of the problem, I immediately sent out an email apologizing wholeheartedly to each person who had received a package, moldy or not.
  • I told them I had no idea how this had happened, but that I was ultimately responsible.
  • I committed to sending a replacement gift that was not chocolate within the next two weeks. By providing a timeline I both managed their expectations for resolution and allowed for the fact that our production schedule was already booked. Over promising at this point would have been a huge tactical error.
  • And then I started thinking about ways to follow through which showcased our ability to be nimble in the face of crisis.

Some failures (Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill) demand a mea culpa and over the top response to repair damage. Others have their mea culpa cheapened if it is over-the-top (Kristen Stewart). Opting to go with sincerity, we kept the follow-up piece extremely simple, and leaned on one of the heaviest hitters out there for gift support: we developed a wrap for a Starbucks gift card.* And to ensure that the connection was made, we repurposed the illustration and font treatment from the holiday card, restating our apology in an earnest yet clever way.

For anyone who thinks that no response was required and that small businesses don’t need to concern themselves with brand promise, I point to this: These chocolates could have landed at least 100 people in the hospital. Even if it had been one person with “flu-like symptoms” for 48 hours, that would’ve been one too many.

Client response was overwhelmingly gracious and understanding, with one summing up the good feelings our reaction engendered: Nicely done.

Apocalypse avoided. Narrowly.

*Starbucks is in no way endorsing Aria Creative, LLC. However, we’re open to that conversation!

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