Woolworths’ social media success: Five lessons from the billboard scandal

Supermarket giant Woolworths is well known for its jingle “Woolworths the fresh food people”, but the line recently became the crux of a social media scandal.

On Monday a social media storm erupted as consumers took to Facebook to express their outrage over a Woolworths’ billboard erected on the Warrego Highway near Ipswich which labelled donuts as ‘fresh food’.

The complaints started when Facebook user and Ipswich doctor Jason Maloo posted a photo of the billboard and commented on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Facebook wall.

Since the photo and comments were posted on Sunday night, the photo has been liked 13,820 times, shared 11,571 times and has attracted 1,819 comments.

However, the supermarket worked quickly – Woolworths announced on Monday afternoon the billboard would be removed, in response to the Facebook onslaught, and controversial sign was taken down this morning.

The company started replying to users’ comments on Facebook with the following statement:

“Just letting you know that we are taking the billboard down as soon as we can. Our intention was to show one of the products that we bake fresh every day at our in store bakeries, but we appreciate that the image may have been confusing.”

A Woolworths spokesperson told SmartCompany it’s proud of being Australia’s “fresh food people”.

“While our intention was to show one of the products that we bake fresh everyday at our in store bakeries, we appreciate that this may have been confusing for some.

“The billboard in Ipswich has been taken down – we value the feedback of our Ipswich customers and have always appreciated their support,” the spokesperson says.

The response is a far cry from the social media interactions of other companies, many of which tend to ignore problems until they boil over and cause extensive brand damage.


Viral photo (above): The ‘fresh’ Woolworths donut sign.

Social media expert and founder of Dialogue Consulting, Hugh Stephens, spoke to SmartCompany about Woolworths’ approach to social media and shared his advice on how you can learn from the supermarket to avoid a disaster of your own:

1. Act quickly

Stephens says Woolworths’ main strength was its quick response to the imminent disaster.

“Woolworths responded at an early stage and went through the process of getting the billboard taken down, something which certainly reduced the bad press,” he says.

“This is a very good example of social media now being able to create a sense of transparency. Consumers are holding companies accountable and we didn’t have this before, it’s a good testament to the tool.”

2. Listen clearly

Stephens says it’s crucial for brands to listen to their customers in order to respond to their comments and mitigate any potential catastrophes.

“A lot of brands don’t listen, so they don’t know what’s going on. Companies need to listen carefully to the consumers and try and work out what the basic primary emotion is and if there is an undercurrent,” he says.

Stephens says, in this situation, Woolworths could have gone further and realised part of the issue sprung from Ipswich’s obesity problem and introduced a measure to counteract the poorly received advertisement.

“Companies must look at what is going on under the surface,” he says.

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