Gap set up its own website to explain its commitment to Bangladesh

Gap set up its own website to explain its commitment to Bangladesh

Faced with an opportunity to change the course of events by getting Gap to sign up to the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh, an online petition and social media campaign made little difference to the company's stance - or its sales. As Mike Flanagan asks: Does social media matter only if concerned with things that don't?

It's hard to follow any real news story these days without stumbling over some hokery about how important social media has been at influencing events.

But a bizarre coincidence of announcements about Bangladesh last week fundamentally undermines much of the waffle from the gushier end of the PR industry about the power of Facebook and Twitter.

When one and a quarter million people sign an online petition telling Gap "to immediately sign an enforceable Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement, or risk fatal damage to your brand image" - and Gap doesn't - the "social media kills" doctrine says we're going to see some impact on Gap sales.

The online petition to get major garment buyers to sign up to the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) was launched by campaign organising website Avaaz on 3 May, after Gap and some other US buyers had said they believed the Accord was not in the interest of their shareholders.

By 21 May, Avaaz had attracted a million signatories. But Gap claimed there could be a different plan offering workers the same protection as the Accord, and it needed time to agree with North America's other big buyers.

So activists picketed its annual shareholder meeting, where Gap continued to argue for a plan it couldn't reveal because it hadn't been agreed - and scarcely a single shareholder disagreed with Gap management. 

As Gap's Facebook pages became inundated with protests, Gap set up its own site to explain its position. Within a few days, that site attracted 669 postings, all, as far as I can see, criticising Gap, and most promising never to shop at a Gap store again.

Since that shareholder meeting, another quarter of a million people have signed the Avaaz petition, though only another four have bothered going onto Gap's site and criticising the company. So Gap's sales must be hurting, mustn't they?

They're not.

In May 2013, Gap's like-for-like sales grew 7% on the same month a year earlier, as US clothing retailers' total sales grew just 3.8%. In June, growth accelerated to 8% - while US apparel retailer sales growth was just 4.8%.

Two good months don't prove that much (who knows whether Gap's sales might have grown faster if they'd signed the Accord, for example). But it puts the onus onto those who claim "social media makes or breaks businesses" to provide evidence that any of those million signatories intended to do more than press the "send" button on a screen.

As a colleague once put it to me about a group of demonstrators who'd got up at 5am to chant slogans in the rain all day outside one of our stores: "They look nasty. But will they shop the shout?"

Avaaz has been described by one newspaper as "the globe's largest and most powerful online activist network." But power's about achieving things, not getting electronic signatures on a petition that now isn't even worth the paper it's not written on.

Isn't that an extreme way of putting it?
Well, remember that many supporting the Accord believe that its legal underpinning is the only way to minimise the risk of thousands more Bangladeshi garment workers dying in unsafe buildings.

Gap, with about 20 other major North America based buyers, has now presented its alternative - the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) - which has drawn predictable hostility from union activists for not being the Accord.

That hostility may well come from a genuine belief that the Alliance will fail to save lives - but it's based on fairly subtle differences between the two schemes.

In essence, the Accord makes the commitments by its signatories to continue to buy from Bangladesh and continue funding inspections/refittings legally enforceable, and channels worker views through unions.

The Alliance ultimately uses the risk of reputational damage to a buyer reneging on its promises to ensure continued buyer commitment: it relies on mobile phone-based social media (as advocated in this column two months ago) to obtain workers' views.

In practically every other respect to do with factory inspection, criteria for approval, funding for improvements, worker compensation for closed factories and publishing information, the two are either identical or still (to a large extent in cooperation) working out the important details

The Avaaz petition didn't ask its respondents to decide between those two approaches, because Gap's approach just wasn't ready when the Avaaz campaign started. Between 3 May and 10 July (when the Alliance was announced) there was a case for demanding Gap's signature to the Accord, because it was the only fully worked up game in town. And there was a case Gap's sales would suffer if it didn't sign.

Influencing events
Whether you agree with Gap or its union opponents, you have to agree there has probably never been a more important opportunity for social media users to influence events.

Some of those million and a quarter signatories must be shoppers at Gap: no disrespect to Gap, but switching for a while to H&M or Inditex wouldn't have been the end of the world.

Unlike those signing online petitions for world peace, or an end to hunger in the developing world, those signing the pro-Accord petition had the levers for achieving what they said they wanted right there in their credit card wallet.

And chose not to pull them.

Contrast this with the T-shirt Abercrombie & Fitch launched gently mocking a singer, Taylor Swift, and her frequent changes of boyfriends. An outraged fan launched a petition - which attracted 86 signatories - for Abercrombie to withdraw the garment "because it's hurtful to Taylor Swift and Swifties everywhere!"

Which Abercrombie promptly did. 86 signatures matter if they're about not hurting Swifties: a million and a quarter don't, apparently, if they're about saving thousands of lives.

If the issue is mind-numbingly trivial, it seems social media matters. So why not if it's a matter of life and death?

Alliance signatories genuinely believe the Accord is potential commercial suicide. We've no idea how many factories will need rebuilding (to judge from the number currently being declared not fit for purpose, a lot more than anyone thought), and an open-ended commitment to keep current levels of manufacturing in Bangladesh might prove completely unsustainable.

Otherwise, the two groups of signatories have equally well-planned and well-financed plans for upgrading the factories they use.

Abercrombie, on the other hand, junked the jokey T-shirt because it was less trouble than fighting customers over one trivial item in a range of thousands.

Does social media impact only the trivial?

I wouldn't be so sweeping: an online campaign was one of the factors influencing Versace to stop sandblasting jeans in 2011. But only after far, far bigger businesses, like C&A, H&M and Levi Strauss had already done so, without any prompting from Facebook.

Energy and resources
Sales and e-petitions from people claiming to be customers aren't the only reasons businesses respond to protest movements. There's only so much energy companies can divert to handle reputational problems, and the ensuing pressure can easily swamp them.

A retailer or brand taking a controversial stance will find itself having to deal with governments, national legislatures, reaction from managers' friends and associates, pressure on family at school, work, clubs and church and possibly with more scrutiny on the entire company from enforcement authorities worldwide.

Pressure from social media might well be proportional to an issue's triviality - but it takes serious issues to make CEOs risk looking like fools or knaves in televised Congressional or Parliamentary investigations or rottweiler-like savaging in a BBC "take no prisoners" interview.

Time after time, businesses bow to social pressure, irrespective of the effect on sales, because resisting it absorbs wholly unacceptable amounts of management time and corporate cash (not to mention head honchos' bruised egos).

There are far more effective forms of social pressure buffeting managers than fleeting campaigns on Twitter or embarrassing clips on YouTube.

Those that work - the phone calls, the meetings, the government summonses, the letters from shareholder groups, the uncomfortable dinner parties and the picketing of company premises - are what led the 77 companies to sign up to the Accord.

American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) announced it was joining the Accord on 10 July - almost exactly as Gap, Walmart and VF were explaining why the Alliance was better suited to American businesses. AEO's decision came after activist leafleting campaigns outside stores and face-to-face meetings.

Social shortcoming 
Social media does seem most effective when preoccupied with the trivial. As one apparel industry editor put it: "Social media has given people the mistaken belief that their views are worth sharing". But that's not the only shortcoming of social media in this industry.

Earlier this year, two US academics, Eric Anderson of Northwestern University and Duncan Simester of MIT, published research showing a previously unnoticed form of lying about garment buying on social media.

We're all familiar with Trip Advisor Syndrome, where apparently objective online reviews are either planted by the business's owner, or overwhelmed by a handful of disgruntled customers inflating a trivial grudge.

But Anderson and Simester have discovered a whole new category of social media duplicity: the poster who claims to have bought specific brands of clothes and found them unsatisfactory, but is simply lying.

The writers can't really fathom out why the posters are inventing these stories (it's probably something to do with inflating their apparent web importance). But their research is an important reminder of the infinite variety human lunacy and deviousness can take - and how many different ways they're out there in social media.

At the other extreme, there's the great unsolved quandary of how unsocial most business-to-business online media is.

Sites like just-style get lots of commercially important viewers - but like almost all business-to-business websites in almost every industry, practically zero interaction from them.

In our industry, as in almost all others, business people will be frank to the point of commercial irresponsibility when meeting competitors in a bar or on a plane. They won't sign up to public discussion forums about their industry, though, with even the most impenetrable and non-attributable screen name.

Social media is now a vital part of the ecosphere in which we all do business. But it's just one part of an extraordinarily complex ecosphere, and even the biggest viewing figures for this week's web sensation are regularly dwarfed by the weekly customer traffic through major apparel brands' stores (never mind the far, far, bigger customer traffic past those stores' windows).

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, understanding the subtleties of what social media can and can't do is too important to be left to PR charlatans or management consultants no-one can understand.