Brands across the marketplace are working to become more responsive to customer and consumer feedback, some going so far as to reverse course on marketing initiatives or to pull products from store shelves to appease the angry-and vociferous-few who’ve taken to social media to criticize the brand. Such swift actions often might be unnecessary and brands should have just held their ground, but sometimes it’s better to change your game plan than to risk losing brand equity, experts say.
Following unfavorable consumer feedback online, Wayne, N.J.-based toy store chain Toys “R” Us Inc. pulled a line of action figures based on characters from the AMC TV drama Breaking Bad, which starred Bryan Cranston as a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine dealer. The retailer removed the figures from its physical locations and e-commerce site on Oct. 21, 2014 after Florida mom Susan Myers filed a Change.org petition that garnered nearly 10,000 signatures.
“The action figures have taken an ‘indefinite sabbatical,” Toys “R” Us spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said in a statement, with a nod to a famed line from the show.
While the action figures came with accessories such as small guns and baggies of “drugs,” they were kept in an adult novelty section of the store, so the risk of exposing the toys to children was low, according to Nancy Zwiers, founder and CEO of Long Beach, Calif.-based toy marketing firm Funosophy Inc., which works with clients such as Lego and Leap Frog. Moreover, the retailer likely won’t feel the pinch by losing these products from its shelves, she says. “I’m guessing that the volume for Breaking Bad action figures is teeny, and it wouldn’t be worth it for Toys “R” Us to fall on its sword over this particular item.”
The retailer’s willingness to succumb to consumer pressure is understandable, Zwiers says. “Consumers now have more of a say in what companies do and don’t do. They have leverage in the relationship in a way that didn’t exist before. Oftentimes, there’s a tradeoff between volume and protecting brand equity, and I can’t imagine a case where brand equity would not be at the top of the list because brand equity is what predicts profitability… Protecting the brand and building brand equity always, or almost always, take precedent over short-term volume considerations.”
Toys “R” Us carries other figurines, “toys” and video games targeted at young adults and adults to broaden its customer base beyond children, and it’s debatable as to whether or not that’s a good strategy—at least from a branding perspective, Zwiers says. “It’s very understandable that they would be looking for ways to appeal to new markets with the concept of toys and play. This makes perfect sense from a business perspective, but from a branding perspective, certainly there are issues. Today, consumers define the brand’s scope, not the brand owner.”
If consumers do see Toys “R” Us as a children’s brand, then other products within its portfolio might be called into question, says Allen Adamson, chairman of the North American sector at New York-based global branding firm Landor Associates. “The tricky part is how they draw the line because [Toys “R” Us] pulled the Breaking Bad dolls but kept the [toy] machine guns,” he says. “They have to decide if they really want to go this way. If so, they have to execute consistently and be all in.”
This article was originally published in the Nov. 18, 2014, issue of Marketing News Weekly.
About the author: Molly Soat is a staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. E-mail her at [email protected]