Social Media Missteps: Is it okay for brands to swear?

As a consultant, I help my clients navigate the array of proliferating new social media opportunities and establish a presence that builds brand affinity and relationship. So, I'm always looking for examples -- good and bad -- of how brands are using social media.

As I wound down today, I checked my Twitter stream and noticed a post from @wholefoods, whom I follow. Here's the screen capture, and what it said:

"wholefoods TOTD: @Joanmarie Oh my f'ing gawd: Whole Foods has Hatch Chiles. From NM. On sale. Apparently I have died, but am not as evil as I thought."

Now, I have my personal opinions about this tweet -- and I realize they're personal. I just thought it was reasonable to pose the question of whether or not it's acceptable for your trusted brands to be saying things like "Oh my f'ing gawd" in the public social media channels that you -- and your family -- follow.

As a corporation, it may not be adviseable to talk to your social network the same way you'd talk to the guys in the locker room, a friend over coffee, or your posse over beers. To many people - especially those with families or who are religious, this statement might be highly offensive.

The lesson here is a simple one. Every social media manager today must remember that, to your followers, you ARE the brand. Our own personal values (language, personality, culture and preferences) will not always align with brand values, which is why it's necessary to think twice and conduct frequent reality checks.

Unfortunately, when we screw up in a Social Media channel and misrepresent the brand, we instantly broadcast to our collective of followers... and vicariously to their networks. As a result, our messages can then be taken downstream quickly in the current cross-channel chatter.... resulting in things like this little post.

TO be fair, I waited for a response for more about an hour from Wholefoods and got nothing back. I can see how someone may have left for the day, but in reality, @wholefoods did continue to tweet other users and ignore the three tweets I sent regarding the comment. This was unfortunate and a missed opportunity for Whole Foods, who could have easily extinguished a fire by saying something good natured like this:

"Oops, I'm sorry. Perhaps I shouldn't have used that term. I just LOOOOVE Hatch Chiles and got too excited! It won't happen again!"


"Oops. This was a retweet of someone's post for our 'Tweet of the Day' and I didn't mean to offend anyone. Please accept my apologies." (I added this when I realized what TOTD meant).

I did a similar thing once, when I inadvertently posted a comment to Twitter that someone had sent me via IM, which contained "the s word." Instant ownership and apology when necessary!

While I waited for a response, I did get some direct and open messages from good number of people expressing their opinion about the tweet .... and all of them thought @wholefoods' comment within that post was a misstep.

This is a great example, not just for Whole Foods, but for anyone leading social media within corporate environments today. When you tweet, plurk, blog, feed, utter, or other in social media YOU ARE THE BRAND! Therefore, it's always a good idea to edit yourself based on your brand's values, rather than your own.


Alycia de Mesa said...

You're right, Leigh - it's just simply NOT ok for a national brand to act and speak like a gum smacking, disrespectful teenager. Missteps in social media are rarely ignored and spread like wild fire. Taking ownership for the major faux pas is the first step to gaining some respect back from the public.

Beth Harte said...


Excellent points all around and points that should be taken into serious consideration. I think if you are an employee working for a brand, but representing yourself, this might have been overlooked. But as *the* brand voice (I am taking the Whole Food logo usage into consideration here), it's not acceptable. That said, perhaps it is acceptable to Whole Foods as what they want their brand perception to be. That would be interesting to find out.

For me it’s the personal vs. professional branding issue. I think we’d like to separate them, but they aren’t truly separable just yet.

Paul said...

I read a post recently from 37signals that focused on the versatility of the f-bomb and how much fun it can be to use. Let me tell you, I was on the fence with those guys before and can tell you that now I want nothing to do with them. I'm canceling my Basecamp subscription and am finding a different PM tool (probably would have anyway as I am not impressed with the app, but that is beside the point).

Immature and juvenile...why even go there? You have nothing to gain and lots to customers.

LivePath said...

Thanks for your comments...I think I might write post for MarketingProfs about this...

I'm just asking whether it belongs in Corporate social media? I do think to Beth's point that there HAS to be a divsion between the "WE" (company) and "ME" (blogger, tweeter). This division gets harder when these "relationships" are formed online.

Love hearing other posters talk about similar incidents of this type of thing ... and whether this irreverence harms or helps the brand identity.

AdRants is totaly irreverent... The f word abounds...foul and irreverant and unapologetic about it, and I'd say Steve Hall is proud of that.. (I can hear him now, "Hell Yeah"). It's PART of this brand.

But something tells me this is only going to fly for a few brands. The majority would probably be hurt by it.

As for me, my mom once said that using swear words makes one appear stupid, by reflecting a sad mastery of the English language.

I don't want to be a hypocrite here... I have flung my share of curses around - and sometimes I do feel like there's no better word than $&*#@...when frustrated, angry or something.

However, I frequently think of her counsel to me when I do, and attempt to rise above and make better use of this gift of language.

Average Jane said...

Keep in mind that you're looking at a re-tweet that originated with @Joanmarie. Whole Foods just selected it as their "Tweet of the Day" and posted it verbatim.

Kyle Lacy said...

I completely disagree with the point that you shouldn't talk to your social network the same way you talk to your "guys in the locker room" (ie your group of friends.

Corporations fail miserably when they do not create a sense of authenticity and personality. The search engine ChaCha has actual people answering your text message search requests. I use ChaCha because they speak to me the same way a friend might.

@alycia I wouldn't even categorize this as a misstep.

I do believe you need to take precaution on how you speak to your social media community but you can't control the community in general. If you take to much of the control you will not be successful in the realm of the social community.

LivePath said...


Thanks, as a relatively new (and very busy) Whole Foods follower, didn't understand TOTD until after I responded to Whole Food's initial tweet. However, I do think the points expressed in this post still have merit.

As other readers may attest, TOTD may not have been intuitive to everyone... and some may agree that retweeting something like this may reflect questionable judgement.

Todd And said...

This underscores the importance of 360 degree brand management... whether it's for corporate brands or our own personal brands. As they say in HR, you're always interviewing... 24/7.

LivePath said...

Hey all, it's Sunday night. I checked Twitter over Junior Mints and a movie and noticed @wholefoods tweeted for feedback on the appropriateness of this post.

You can find and respond to this message here:

LivePath said...

@paul, @todd, thanks for your feeback. Agree w/ 360 brand management.

@kylelacy thanks also. I think authenticity is important ... I think dialog and personality are important, too! I respectfully submit, however, that there should be some healthy boundaries... NAKED is authentic, but not everyone wants to see naked, right? :-)

I think what's MOST interesting so far is the fact that @wholefoods hasn't responded to me directly. Instead, they are asking the tweetiverse if the comment was okay or not...

Drawing a parallel to this approach:

In a professional situation, if I am speaking and offend someone unintentionally or am taken out of context, I would definitely make an effort to apologize -- even if I felt justified in my action.

I would NOT publicly "ask the room" for a vote on whether or not I was justified or offensive before responding. Does the room tell me what's okay? Does the room dictate my values?

Again, I'm not particularly offended -- just making a point on how this is being handled. I find this all very interesting and look forward to seeing how it plays out.

Whole Foods' approach begs the question of whether or not customers now dictate brand values -- or whether they are innate?

Joanmarie said...

Funny how you can be minding your own business, go to your favorite store, find some chiles after having not seen chiles in 13 years (13 years!!), share your amazing and joyful discovery with your friends and followers, and wham! find yourself at the center of controversy. :-)

I apologized to @wholefoods, but feel the need to apologize here as well.

I never meant to offend. Heck, I rarely swear ("holy cow" is my typical swear phrase most days, both online and in person). And when I do swear online, I'm cognizant that I might offend random stumblers upon my content. Thus I would never actually spell out the f-bomb -- or "God" in an inappropriate context. In retrospect, I should have concluded that it's not the actual spelling that matters....

If I offended anyone, I'm truly sorry. That most certainly was NOT my intent. Nor was it my intent to distract folks from the message that @wholefoods is trying to convey. And I feel just awful for having done so. Whole Foods is a wonderful company, and THAT is the message that folks should hear, and continue to hear: Whole Foods cares about the environment; Whole Foods cares about fair trade; Whole Foods cares about their customers; Whole Foods offers excellent products.

Ya know, I never meant to be an "evangelist." Yes, I love Whole Foods. Yes, I regularly drive 60 miles round trip to get my groceries there because I believe in their products, their philosophy, and my health. Yes, I talk about Whole Foods to my friends quite a bit.... And, hence, yes, I should know that this makes me an "evangelist". :-) I didn't think.... Like I said, I found chiles, I was extremely happy, I got out my sidekick and told my friends. That was all.

Your blog really made me think about the role of what I'm currently terming "accidental evangelists": those of us who really like a product/company, but don't think far enough out to consider how strangers and customers (current and potential) might interpret that product/company based on our statements. On the one hand, people shouldn't connect a company's values with that of their customers; on the other hand, I suppose they might....

Right now, I'm admittedly not jazzed at this situation. :-) But I will most certainly think twice before "pseudo swearing" in conjunction with the things I care about in the future. And I'll undoubtedly thank you once I get past my current mortification. ;-)

LivePath said...

Hey Joanmarie,

Thanks so much for your transparency and for your awesome response.

As I have pointed out, I initially didn't realize this was a retweet... otherwise, I would have probably removed your name... So I apologize also for making a very public example of you.

This really just started as a post about one of many issues that are coming to the forefront of social media... I think, if Whole Foods had responded directly to me to diffuse any concern I had, things may have gone differently. They are still pretty silent on the matter. Perhaps due to a holiday weekend and what they perceive as a sticky situation.

I think your insights about accidental evangelism are really great. I mean, I'm a Whole Foods fan, or I wouldn't be following them, either. :-) I'm not trying to get anyone in trouble - to be unreasonable.

As someone that works in social media for a living, I'm merely trying to point out that when companies engage in social media, it's important to consider protocols, in addition to how to be engaging, real, authentic and reinforce your aspirational brand identity through one-to-one communication. :-)

My sincere point in raising this issue is that there are huge implications to this type of communication - and not just on Twitter. I guess after the blogging debacle with Whole Foods there would be a bit more protocol...

We've all got these great opportunities to interact and reach new people ... and with this comes new responsibility. This doesn't just impact brands - it also each one of us (as you so eloquently pointed out).

Thanks again, Joanmarie. You've given us an entirely new angle to consider regarding this issue. While I don't view this incident is some kind of gigantic incident, it really does serve as a solid case study on the challenges of managing social media - personally and professionally.

Best, Leigh

LivePath said...

FYI - Follow up. I received a DM from @wholefoods today that says this:

"wholefoods We're sorry you were offended, & we're tuned in to it. We've discussed internally & will take greater care with our TOTD picks."

I later received an email from Marla Erwin, an Art Director for Whole Foods that I'll paste verbatim...

"Hi Leigh. Sorry if our re-tweet of a customer's Twitter post offended you. We didn't see "f-ing" as an issue when we originally considered our Tweet of the Day pick, and it's been enlightening to get other points of view on this. We will take greater care in the future to make sure the content we post - including retweets - is appropriate to the widest possible audience. thanks! Marla from Whole Foods"

I emailed Marla to thank for her response, and also have clarified that for some readers, the ENTIRE term was the problem -- not just the use of "f'ing".

To be honest, I'm weary of the topic now. But as Chris Brogan links to this post, I am left thinking...

- Curious that @wholefood's initial response was to ask the follower base what THEY thought first, rather than responding on the side of caution. which would seem wiser to me.

2. Wondering if @wholefoods apologized individually to other concerned individuals... and why not a public response.

All in all, however, some great lessons learned... may summarize on Marketing Profs daily fix this week. For now, onward and upward! If you're new to the post, leave your thoughts.

David van Sunder said...

I think it's fine for brands to swear...if they're willing to live with the repercussions of their actions. I don't think it is the right thing to do though or the advisable thing to do.

People expect communications from companies to be civil, much in the way we expect people we're encountering for the first time to be civil and the conversation not to be filled with expletives.

Brands have to remember who their audience is. If they cater to an audience that swears all the time, then maybe they can swear, provided their message doesn't go out to the public at large. They have to especially be careful when children are present.

Even though the word was self censored to a degree in that twitter message, it is obvious what the intended word was and should not have been used by the representative for a grocery chain. The language didn't add anything to the brand message, it just took away from it. That's a good way to gauge if the language used was in any way advisable.

Joseph said...

I have to disagree with the majority of the commentary here as well like Kyle. I log in to social networking sites to talk to human beings, not brands. That's the nature of this space. I think marketers tend to forget this and I think it's disrespectful to customers to patronize them by talking to them as marketers and not an actual p2p convo.

It also appears to be a retweet and this person was genuinely excited about a product and I think that's the best sort of relationship you can have with your customer. I'm shocked that as marketing professionals you all have lost sight of that.

I would have been madder to hear that her exuberant comment had been edited and it would have been a disservice to the "brand" had it not been included at all. I don't think this is a misstep at all, in fact, I kind of want some Hatch Chiles from Whole Foods now!

Cawlin said...

Personally, seeing this tweet makes me want to follow whole foods (even though there isn't one near me).

Twitter is casual and you only follow those that you choose. If it sounds like a marketer is writing 140 character ads who's going to follow them? Give me a person to follow, I don't find swearing (let alone the word f'ing quoted from a customer).

I also think the approach whole foods took in addressing the twitter community over twitter to be refreshing. It shows they are committed to social media.

just my 2 cents.

LivePath said...

@david - Thanks...great point about "living with consequences.

@joseph @cawlin Thank very for your much post and your thoughts.

I don't know that ANY of us want marketing driven talking heads or an automatron in our SM channels. We all want authentic, and we all appreciate transparent.

However, as I discussed with several others on twitter -- NAKED is authentic, too. The fact remains that NOT EVERYONE likes naked. In fact, there's a large portion who don't like naked so much it will impact brand choices.


And just because you use accessible language (or foul, crass language) - it doesn't mean you're real, authentic or transparent.

It seems highly feasible -- and wise for individuals representing brands to be transparent AND authentic AND engaging and charismatic, and interesting, charitable... while offending the least amount of people -- and current or potential customers.

So - brands -- if irreverent is your game... go ahead... be irreverent and disrespectful.

Is this the right approach for Whole Foods? I'd venture the powers on high would say no.

The Savvy Entrepreneur said...

I have to agree with the majority on this topic, only not as vehemently as some... Joanmarie summed my thoughts best: "In retrospect, I should have concluded that it's not the actual spelling that matters...."

It's not what you say, but how others will perceive it. This as a two-edged sword: (1) I can't control how others will perceive what I write, so why stress about it and allow it to temper what I say? (2) I want to be transparent, yet remain professional and credible, but the truth of the matter is, I'm not always "proper".

At the end of the day, you have to be OK with the fact that what you say can (and most likely WILL) offend someone at SOME point. So, why (cyber)walk on (cyber)eggshells?

Social sites are redefining marketing, communication and transparency -- and we're all learning.

We all slip up from time to time (if you haven't yet, you will -- if you don't, you're being too careful and not being transparent enough).

That being say, when you choose to use social sites as a marketing tool, you must accept responsibility and take ownership for what you write, think/read twice (or more) before hitting the submit button, and respond promptly if you discover you've offend someone (no matter how "right" or justified you are).

Remember, (in most cases) your words can never be erased or edited.

BethDunn said...

I'm with @joseph -- it all comes down to the questionable wisdom of tweeting *as a brand* in the first place. A brand is not a person, and shouldn't pretend to be. All this is avoided if there is transparency about the person behind the tweet -- I respect Dell's practice of having employees add "atDell" to their twitter handles to show that they are somebody who works "at Dell," so they are apt to behave professionally when tweeting under that handle, but there is no fake-wink idea that it is some amorphous entity known as "@DELL" talking here.

If, as I suggest here, a person tweeting as "bethatwholefoods" had said "f'ing" or what have you, then it would be the person who had offended, not the brand. Still a problem for the company if it offends, but much more easily localized and dealt with than the mask of a brand tweeting.

LivePath said...

At the kickoff of the Miami Social Media Club, Chris Heuer discussed the Whole Foods issue with a group of Social Media professionals.

Here's the link for the UTTERZ transcript!

The dialog has all been really good. Thanks, Chris for carrying it forward.

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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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