8 December 2020

Learning from the Safety Warehouse $100k Drop fiasco

By Dallas Gurney

“Why don’t we drop $100k in the middle of downtown Auckland?”

“Genius!” said the managing director.

“Our people will love us!” said the sales manager.

Oh, how I would have loved to be in that brainstorm.  To see how that kernel of an idea turned into a fully-fledged happening thing.

In case you missed it, Safety Warehouse found itself in trouble following their “$100k Drop” on Saturday in Aotea Square.  Punters had to register to be in the 2000-strong crowd which, according to Stuff, promised “New Zealand’s first ever mass cash drop”, with the promise of “actual money” floating down from above.

In a cock up reminiscent of WKRP’s classic turkey drop episode, the crowd were, shall we say ‘dissatisfied’, when some found their $5 note was actually just a voucher for a discount on a nice pair of safety goggles.  Turned out the people most in need of personal protective equipment were the Safety Warehouse staff as they tried to get away from an angry mob at the end of the day.

Quickly came the social media backlash, the relentless media attention, then the PR experts chipped in, along with the politicians.  The PM said they should apologise.  The police said they were looking into it.

Who was it that said no idea is a bad idea?

They’re wrong: this one was always going to be a shocker.

In a previous life I ran radio stations.  Back then, ratings were twice a year.  Every radio station in town would do everything it could to try to drum up some attention with big cash giveaways, crazy stunts and appalling antics.  From big money birthday’s to secret sounds, golden tickets and singles parties – it was blatant, we begged for listeners.

Some stunts pushed the boundaries.  But even back then, when Health and Safety was not a phrase we knew nor that much of a consideration, something like the “$100k Drop” would’ve never seen the light of day.  We knew even then, through experience, what the watch outs were.

Here’s why this was always going to be a reputational crisis for Safety Warehouse:

Vouchers aren’t money.

Stating the obvious, but when you promise money, give people money.  Nobody said anything about vouchers.  Even if they did giveaway the promised $100k cash, anyone getting one of the vouchers  would’ve been cheesed off.

People go crazy over cash.

I have personal experience here.  Back in my radio days we ran a stunt where we gave away free fuel for an hour at Shell Ellerslie.  Petrol is as good as money and the price of gas was then at an all time high (probably $1 a litre, oh how things have changed).  The queue for the station stretched for a mile, right past St John ambulance station making it almost impossible for an ambulance to get into traffic.  It was a disaster in the making.  We got lucky, but I spent the hour nervously watching the door of the ambulance station and praying nothing happened.

The event is off brand.

Throwing cash at a crowd is going to create safety issues.  At best, elbows and knees will be going everywhere.  At worst, fights could’ve broken out.  For a company promoting “the safe execution of work” as the “guiding behaviour of any ethical organisation”, running an event like this runs counter to our expectation of a brand promoting safety.

Apologies don’t take three pages.

The media response from Safety Warehouse ran to three pages.  It doubled down on their decision to run the event.  They blamed agitators, an unnamed Green MP, the media… everybody except themselves.  They missed a great opportunity to harness the spotlight they had on them and do the right thing.  Apologise, turn the vouchers into cash and move on.

Finally, what was the point?

Why would you give away $100k to everyone?  They have said this was the “people’s event”, what ever that means.  If you’re going to give away $100k surely you want it to influence the people who buy safety gear?  If they’re in this to make money, like most businesses, using the cash on more appropriate and targeted brand communications would’ve been a much better investment.

What can we learn from their misfortune?

  1. Ask plenty of “what ifs” – this whole shamozzzle would’ve been avoided if they had considered how someone would feel getting a discount voucher cleverly disguised as a $5 note. Stink buzz.  That should’ve put the whole thing to bed.
  2. Utilise experts – from ideation to their PR response, there were many opportunities to change the ultimate outcome of the “$100k Drop”. Professional event and PR help would’ve uncovered some of the shortcomings.
  3. You are not the victim – when you’re in a crisis caused by your own actions, if you come out with anything but an apology then you only extend the pain.

I feel for Safety Warehouse, they clearly had not thought through the idea.  If they had, they’d have realised it was always going to turn out this way.

They will be hurting.  They will be angry.  This will be an experience they will never forget, but it will also be one they will hopefully also learn from.