If you blinked, you might have missed the latest tempest in a teapot: Land's End, the venerable clothing company that supplies preppy sweaters to East Coast old money and sturdy uniforms to private school kids, made the ill-advised decision to feature an interview with feminist icon Gloria Steinem in their latest catalogue. The interview was to be the first in a series, presumably spearheaded by the company's relatively new female CEO. The series would be an “ode to individuals who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large." Land's End said, "We honor them and thank them for paving the way for the many who follow.” Land's End also offered the option to monogram its products with the ERA logo, and promised to donate $3 to the Fund for Women's Equality with each order.
We understand that some of our customers were offended by the inclusion of an interview in a recent catalog with Gloria Steinem on her quest for women’s equality,” said the statement, which was issued to The Stream and other press outlets. “We thought it was a good idea and we heard from our customers that, for different reasons, it wasn’t. For that, we sincerely apologize. Our goal was to feature individuals with different interests and backgrounds that have made a difference for our new Legends Series, not to take any political or religious stance.
Many conservatives know Steinem mainly for the photo of her proudly wearing her "I had an abortion t-shirt." Abortion isn't her only cause, but it's a biggie. She's not terribly popular among progressive women, either, though, since she posited the theory that young democratic women support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton mainly because they think it will make them popular with boys. “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’ ” Ms. Steinem said.
So, an odd choice for a clothes catalogue to get political at all, and an odder choice to feature Steinem. Whoever at Land's End made the decision must have been in an especially opaque bubble. Maybe they've installed that Chrome extension that changes "pro-life" to "anti-choice" making it a thousand times easier to forget that not everyone thinks like you do.
For what it's worth, pro-lifers are in a bubble, too. When all your friends are devoted to pro-life issues, it feels like every decision that everyone makes is either a pro-life or a pro-choice decision (see Doritos), whether it's intended that way or not. Which makes Land's End's behavior all the more bizarre.
One has to wonder how a major American retailer could be unaware that abortion is one of the most divisive topics in American politics, and that Americans find political debate to be uncomfortable and unpleasant? Social media (see: Facebook, hangout of the Land’s End customer) is rife with people who are literally ending friendships over firmly-voiced political opinions, and you want to wade into that? Person trying to make a living pleasing everybody?
It reads like one of those cautionary tales they teach you in the “International Business” chapter of your b-school case studies. Don’t wave your shoes at the Saudis, don’t sell a car named “No Va” in Latin America, and don’t try to enamor yourself with Americans by wading into a political fight.
Whether or not Gloria Steinem truly is the Abortion Queen, it doesn't really matter. If a good chunk of your customer base people does see her that way, the honoring her is bad business, bad marketing, bad customer service, purely from a business point of view, no matter what you think about abortion.
So why would they do it, other than sheer cluelessness? As Jen Fitz expounds, Land's End has been muddling through something of an identity crisis lately, and is doing all the wrong things to improve sales, hoping to retain its stodgier base while appealing to an edgier crowd -- and, it seems, whiffing badly on both accounts. Adding even the appearance of political activism was exactly the wrong type of icing on an ill-constructed cake.
Hey, Land's End? Hey, everybody who sells stuff? How about just . . . selling stuff? I have money, and I want to use it to buy things. When I support a cause, I'd like to be in charge of that myself. I don't want you to do it for me. I want to buy a shirt for its shirtiness, and nothing else. So maybe stop trying to sell me anything else, when you're in the shirt business.
Perhaps easier said than done. Land's End isn't the only old school corporation that is floundering. With the competition from online shopping, and which the apparently enduring popularity of political activism as a hobby, it seems like a better and better idea for corporations to plant a flag of one kind or another, to differentiate themselves from the masses of products for sale, and to make customers feel like they're Making a Difference in some way while they shop for sunglasses and polo shirts. It's hard to get people excited about one tote bag when there are a million others for sale, so why not add the little thrill of social awareness?
But truly, most of the paying customers are so over that.We don't want to have to think about what kind of statement we're making, whether or not we're accidentally supporting something we hate, or whose colors we're wearing. Shopping is frustrating enough in itself without adding a layer of social consciousness.
It's not always possible for corporations to just focus on the product. Some customers will demand a full accounting of your alliances, and will force you into some political pigeonhole whether you want it or not. A diaper company, for instance, is expected (by some, at least) to declare unabashedly that they oppose elective circumcision. If they refuse to state a position either pro or con (because diapers are diapers), the intactivist crowd calls that a statement in itself, and howls for boycott. I've seen it play out online in real time.
And corporations form collegial relationships with each other, because that's how business works. Organizations make partnerships, they donate to charities, they grease each other's wheels. That's the definition of doing business.
But if I had something to sell, I would do my darndest to make a point out of promising the customer that I'd just stick to sales as much as possible. I'd tell my customers, "Hey, all we want from you is your money. You can leave your soul and your social consciousness in the other room when you order from us. Just give us your credit card number, and we'll mind our own business. Deal?"
As a customer, I would absolutely make that deal. You're a shirt seller? Just sell me a shirt.