By J.F. McKenna
Back in the day when “the next economy” was a matter for grand speculation, management sage Peter Drucker diligently preached the gospel of knowing and understanding “the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.” Simple advice. Timeless in fact.
Fast forward to that next economy, our razzle-dazzle age of social media and viral marketing. We all agree that the breadth and speed of marketing has increased exponentially. But the basics remain rock-solid, starting with knowing today’s customer as well as he was known in Drucker’s 1970s.
Virtually everyone in business, from Cleveland to Chandigarh, embraces customer-focused, customer-sensitive marketing as the first principle in business. Everyone, that is, except Urban Outfitters, which just tried to construct a marketing tactic on the infamous tragedy at Kent State University.
Yes—linking “marketing” and “tragedy at Kent State” in that preceding clause not only boggles the mind of this veteran business writer but also hikes the blood pressure of this KSU graduate. What the hell was Urban Outfitters thinking? Even positing that rhetorical question credits the company with more sense than is deserved.
As The Washington Post—among scores of other press outlets—reported this week, “‘Get it or regret it!’ read the description for a ‘vintage,’ one-of-a-kind Kent State sweatshirt that Urban Outfitters briefly offered for just $129. However, the fact that there was just one available for purchase is far from the most regrettable part of the item: the shirt was decorated with a blood spatter-like pattern, reminiscent of the 1970 ‘Kent State Massacre’ that left four people dead. The sweatshirt, reported by Buzzfeed after a screenshot made the rounds on Twitter, is now ‘sold out,’ according to the site.”
As most northeast Ohioans can tell even the densest marketer on the planet, the Kent State tragedy remains one of the deepest scars of state history—a reminder of a nation torn apart by the Vietnam War and a classic study in the mishandling of public protest. As of today, any form of black humor remains tasteless when it comes to what happened in Kent on May 4, 1970.
But the marketing geniuses of Urban Outfitters were not to be denied a second dance on the graves of the four dead of Kent State, as the Post further related: “As outrage spread, Urban Outfitters issued an apology for the product on Monday morning, claiming that the product ‘was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection.’ The company added that the bright red stains and holes, which certainly seemed to suggest blood, were simply ‘discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.’ The statement added: ‘We deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively.’”
How else could it be perceived?
Dean Kahler was paralyzed by Ohio National Guard bullets that spring day 44 years ago. He said the sweatshirt “shows the continued lowbrow of Wall Street, and Urban Outfitters continues to perpetuate a low standard of ethics.” He spoke for a lot of Ohioans and many more Americans. And he spoke to any business that considers today’s marketing a high-tech parlor game played for cheap laughs.
The university itself said “this item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today. We invite the leaders of this company as well as anyone who invested in this item to tour our May 4 Visitors Center, which opened two years ago, to gain perspective on what happened 44 years ago and apply its meaning to the future.”
Urban Outfitters should consider accepting that invitation as its next, and its best, marketing move.
J.F. McKenna, a graduate of KSU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, has worked as a reporter, business editor and communication specialist. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com .