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What was Woolies thinking?

At 16:29, a News24 Breaking News Alert came through to my inbox. I was intrigued, even a little excited. Had Uncle Bob announced his imminent retirement? Was the petrol price going down by half? No, apparently it was neither of these things. Instead, the headline read: “Woolies caves in on Christian magazines.” Years from now, management at Woolworths will probably remember October 20 2010 as a day on which they took a little extra strain. That’s when the news that they’d decided to stop selling religious magazines hit the mainstream media, their Facebook page became a lightning rod (no pun intended) for critics to vent their spleen, and — depending on which way you choose to interpret it — they folded like origami masters or took consumer opinion seriously.

“It’s deplorable and disgusting that Woolworths would continue to market and use Christian celebrations like Christmas to make money and get customers but would ban Christian magazines from its shelves,” one Facebook fan commented.

Another alluded to the possibilities of divine punishment: “Who so ever rejects God shall be rejected by God so if ever sometime in future it does not go well with Woolworths then you will know what the reason is.”

The poster for “The Devil wears Prada” soon appeared, reworked as “The Devil Wears Woolworths”. “Thank God for Exclusive Books,” read the ad uploaded to the Woolworths photos section. “Come talk to us Woolworths. We have Christians on our network,” youth consumer insights specialist Instant Grass offered as they sprung onto the bandwagon. And of course, some smart aleck on Twitter created “GodagainstWW” with the byline “Woolies must burn in hell!”

Who knows how many days this will run for, before the middle classes find something else to distract themselves with, probably something involving a group of men and an egg-shaped ball.

But the Woolworths magazine debacle has wider implications. This is a fascinating story because there are so many angles to it. For one thing, it has become clear that social media is becoming increasingly influential — probably out of proportion to the number of consumers actually involved — and it appears that an opinion expressed on Facebook can be far more powerful than an opinion expressed on talk radio. As Darren Simpson quipped, “When black people have a problem they march through the streets, when white people have a problem they go on Facebook”.

The brouhaha will make other marketers who are currently nervous of dipping their toes into the social media what even more nervous, and, like highly strung racehorses being loaded into a starting gate, many brands who are considering it will back away.

It’s notable that the media relied so heavily on Facebook quotes when reporting the story, which brings me the way in which this story was reported. The media added fuel to the fire by reporting that Woolworths had “banned” Christian magazines. Banning is a provocative word, and hardly an accurate reflection of what actually happened, though Woolworths hardly helped their case by making this an issue of politics and religion rather than a pragmatic business decision. Nonetheless, the article was intended to cause outrage, and it did.

Then there’s the hoary old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The value of the buzz generated by this story must be considerable, measured by the cost of generating the same impact with an ad campaign — but much of it was the kind of publicity that most brands can do without. Nando’s or Kulula thrive on controversy, but a brand like Woolworths does not. Though Woolies got plenty of support from its Facebook fans, it’s debatable whether it was worth it.

Even after reversing the decision to stop selling religious magazines, Woolworths came in for heavy criticism from those who saw the move as a cowardly capitulation to the demands of a small, but vocal minority. “Woolworths have run out of all ‘back-bones’ in stock” Zamalisa Mdoda wrote on Twitter, echoing the feelings of many. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That Woolworths could take a decision like this and not have any apparent plan to deal with possible backlash is extraordinary. In the end, everything they did was reactive. “Woolies caves in on Christian magazines” is not the kind of headline any brand wants to see.

Finally, and most importantly, is the point that none of this should ever have happened in the first place. Woolworths made a business decision, and it backfired because they failed to take into consideration the symbolic significance of not putting Christian magazines on their shelves. Most of these happened to be Afrikaans titles. Did it not occur to them that this decision might offend people? That regardless of business imperatives, it had to be handled with utmost delicacy?

Somebody, somewhere, should have flagged the fact that these magazines cater to a community that feels marginalised and is therefore hyper-attuned to any evidence of disrespect. They are easily offended — in many ways they look for reasons to be offended — and when the culprit is a big business, they are more than willing to vote with their (well-stocked) wallets. That this decision should have been communicated just a couple of weeks prior to the Christmas retail push, when Woolworths is more than happy to leverage a Christian holiday for its own benefit, is remarkably tone deaf.

(That it’s doubtful that more than a tiny fraction of those predicting dire heavenly consequences for Woolworths would ever buy a copy of Lig from the racks next to the peanut brittle is beside the point. They want their power as consumers acknowledged, even if it’s theoretical.)

In South Africa, symbolism matters. When it comes to a stand-off between business imperatives and symbolism, go with the symbolically significant, especially when you’re a big consumer brand that relies, far more so than your competitors, on discretionary spend.

I suppose it’s comforting that even a brand with the marketing nous of Woolworths can make mistakes. Some have suggested that this was all a PR stunt, but I doubt it; this is not the kind of PR they’d be looking for, and they spent the 20th of October looking as though they didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Next time, hopefully, they’ll think twice.