A Ghost of Christmas Past

Have you ever managed to upset thousands and thousands of people, all at the same time? I’m afraid I have. But did I ever learn a brand lesson from the experience!

Back in 1995, when the Internet was a baby, I created an online Advent calendar for LEGO. Don’t know what an Advent calendar is? Advent calendars count down the days from the first of December to Christmas Eve. Each day you open the little window corresponding to the date. Children love the daily anticipation of discovering the new little picture hiding behind the tiny fold-out windows. Some calendars contain chocolate treats to enjoy day by day. All in all, the Advent calendar is a favorite piece of yuletide paraphernalia that helps heighten a child’s (and many adults’) excitement about Christmas’ approach.

Born in northern Europe, I was raised by default in a Christian culture. You don’t necessarily give this much thought as you grow up. It’s just a fact. And because it’s so, Christmas is a familiar part of your life, and of the lives of 99 percent of people around you. As you cavort around the Christmas tree with friends and little cousins on Christmas Eve and open the last door on the wonderful Advent calendar, the fact that all children don’t do the same doesn’t occur to you.

So it came to pass one fateful Christmas I created an online Advent calendar for LEGO. A neat concept, I thought. I’d always been transfixed by the wonder of Christmas and its attendant celebrations. Kids’ll love it, I thought. My concept was unique. Each day, from the 1st to the 24th of December, kids worldwide could explore a marvelous LEGO Christmas construction on the Net. Imagine the fun and anticipation of a surprise every day, opening the window and finding an exciting new model to build.

Little did I know my wonderful idea was about to turn into a major public relations disaster. I simply hadn’t accounted for the fact not everyone observes Christmas.

One crisp morning, early in December, I turned up at work and went to my desk to attend to my email. Awaiting me were several thousand messages. They were all about my wonderful Advent calendar. But my inbox bulged with bricks, not bouquets.

The complaints were impassioned. The parents of one family of LEGO fans described how they enjoyed LEGO, as had their parents — even their grandparents. But if LEGO was going to start reflecting some sort of religious bias, the whole family would abandon the product.

What would you do? I was shocked by my own naiveté. I went into panic mode, hiring a large number of qualified students to help answer every complaint individually in an effort to ease the offence I’d unwittingly committed. I wanted to address each correspondent’s concerns.

I’m almost reluctant to admit my next gaffe. The lesson it taught me is one I hope, by sharing, you won’t have to learn firsthand.

I answered every single letter individually. But unthinkingly, I created a standard signature line to speed the onerous task to completion. Here’s what I wrote: “Thank you so much for your support. We trust you will continue playing with LEGO. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from LEGO.”

Can you believe it? This second mistake opened the floodgates. The next day, my inbox was even more inundated with complaints.

There are many different cultures. Blindness to the preferences and behavior of others is a shared human frailty. Brand-builders cannot afford to allow benign ignorance to drive their actions.

Ever since my LEGO Christmas disaster, I’ve recommended companies’ employ their own brand custodians, teams of “real consumers” whom they consult before launching stuff like the LEGO Advent calendar on their markets. The teams aren’t on the payroll but may receive a gift now and then as a gesture of gratitude for time spent checking copy, email, and ads for cultural appropriateness. The strategy is cheap, rewarding, and your best insurance against an inbox bursting with letters of complaint.

So, season’s greetings everyone! I look forward to sharing more brand advice with you in 2004.

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