Who’s Responsible For The Bonobos/Walmart Facebook Fury?

Bonobos Founder and CEO, Andy Dunn
Bonobos Founder and CEO, Andy Dunn

Cheryl Snapp Conner wrote a great piece on Forbes about the recently announced sale of Bonobos (the 10-years old men's fashion company) to Walmart and the related flurry of comments on their Facebook page, as well as those in reply to a Medium post by the company’s founder, Andy Dunn. My only problem with those posts and her article is that I mostly disagree.

On Friday, June 16, the New York Times wrote about Bonobos announcement that Walmart had agreed to purchase them for $310M, citing Walmart’s intent to “energize its e-commerce channel in an attempt to mirror Amazon” (surprise, surprise).

Snapp Conner suggested that Bonobos making a major company announcement on Facebook might have played a role in “the reactions to and comments on postings make it stunningly easy to gauge consumer response.” But the news had leaked out last April and had already unleashed a storm on Facebook.

Beyond this, had Facebook followers done their homework on Friday, they’d have known that Dunn made a good case for his decision in his Medium post the day before the Facebook one and before the New York Times article came out.

In response to the Facebook fury, the company had this to say:

“We understand this news might come as a surprise, but know that everything that makes Bonobos the brand that it is will stay the same. We believe that with Walmart’s scale, we’ll be able to create efficiencies and an evolved shopping experience that benefits you, our customers.”

Snapp Conner pointed to this comment from an angry Facebook poster, which I agree articulates a relative consensus:

“We all get that this was a move based on economies of scale. But it's also a move that your loyal customer base sees as the ends justifying the means. You're joining an organization that millennials, your core consumers, loath and vilify as destructive, unethical, and cheap - essentially the polar opposite when previously thinking about Bonobos. In doing so you've alienated the voice of your customer.”

Snapp Conner’s reaction was “Wow.” Mine is to say time out. In fact, I have a number of issues with this comment and in some ways with Snapp Conner’s position as a whole.

1) I have to say that I am no big fan of the Walmart family or how they do business. But no one is holding a gun to the heads of those who work and shop there.

2) I’m willing to bet that at least some of the millennials who are expressing outrage may one day be in a similar position; a chance to sell their own business or brand to a larger outlet. I find the outrage more than a little bit hypocritical.

3) I find it a bit irksome that people put a brand or politician or celebrity on a pedestal only to publicly excoriate them the moment they do something the consumer does not like. If the model for Bonobos and its founder appealed to them before the announcement was made, how can people do a 360 based solely on that single announcement?

Even if the news is unwelcome, the whole drama has yet to play out. But people are assuming they know how it will end.

The reactions on Facebook and Medium prompted Snapp Conner to suggest that Dunn and others like him might take more care in future with how they handle their customer base. On the surface this makes pragmatic sense. But I’m not convinced that a brand is wholly responsible for the reactions of their consumers per se.

Assumptions Without Facts Are Useless

I am constantly underwhelmed by the incredible lack of thinking that goes into knee-jerk reactions like those of the people who are making comments on Bonobos’ Facebook page and elsewhere. Almost no one bothered to ask why this was done, what it might lead to or even how it would have an effect on the brand they claim to love. Instead, people chose to assume. And they did so with almost no information whatsoever.

Emotionally driven assumptions nearly always lead to the worst kind of outcome. Witness the political mess the United States now finds itself in thanks to the misguided extremes of the right and the left.

In Dunn’s article on Medium, The Future of Brands, The Future of Bonobos, he had this to say:

“When the idea first presented itself, my immediate thought was no way. At the time we began discussions a couple months ago, we were an inch from signing another deal that would have kept us on an independent path. So why do this? When Walmart acquired Jet, I realized the world is now changing even faster than I thought.”

As Snapp Conner said in her article, his statement was passionate, committed, humble.” But she went on to say that it was also “all about him” and a “bait and switch.” I do not agree.

Dunn laid out his reasons for selling to Walmart. They do not have to align with my ideas of a good sale or anyone else’s per se. This is especially so if fans of Bonobos really understood the brand and really believed in it and its founder. How about a little loyalty?

The Market’s Response

The market’s response comes as no surprise at all when one considers how some people feel about Walmart.

  • Walmart stock plunged 4.6% to 75.26
  • Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods was also announced this week, showing an increase of 2.4% to 987.71 (These two near simultaneous announcements might be one reason for Walmart’s relatively minor market drop).
  • Whole Foods rocketed 29.1% to 42.68.

We’ve seen this sort of thing quite a few times over the years, and most of the time, company stocks rebound and life goes on.

In an interview with Business Insider, Dunn admitted that he had been extremely anxious about how the news of the acquisition would go over. “You never know how things are going to be interpreted," Dunn said during the interview. And that speaks to another point - you never really can predict people’s responses.

But I find it hard to swallow that this was wholly the result of a bad PR strategy. Dunn made what he felt was the better business decision. Surely part of the American dream is exactly what Dunn has achieved? I don’t call that “selling out.”

Dunn has taken full responsibility for his decision. I wonder if his critics will take any responsibility for jumping to conclusions without having any facts?

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