What can we learn from the Urban Outfitters PR disaster?

urban outfitters twitter news
By now, you’ve probably heard of the Urban Outfitters PR disaster, the mass Twitter boycott pledge, the dissenting opinions and reactions, and you may have seen the stories on Yahoo, The Consumerist and myriad other places.

As a marketing and web consultant for small businesses, nonprofits, bloggers, and entrepreneurs, I’m fascinated by how this whole thing went down, and I’m determined to learn, learn, learn from it. So, what can business owners (be they a small one-person operation or a Fortune 500) learn from this whole mess?

(Not so hot) biz on biz action

My best bud Amanda Krueger, owner of baking supplies retailer (and a brand new Asheville, North Carolina, cupcakery) Bake It Pretty, has a pretty interesting perspective on the business to business side of things. Amanda says,

As a designer and small business owner for almost 4 years, I’ve been on both sides of the copycat issue several times over, and let me tell you, both sides are miserable.  So far, my experiences have been small-biz VS small-biz, but the frustration and angst is just as painful, if not more so, than a big-corporation stealing from the little guy.

Owning a business is hard (if I had a nickel for every time an entrepreneur said that…)  We’re proud of what we do and who we are, and we work our fingers to the bone.  Due to the stress, sometimes we’re a bit high strung and fiercely protective of our companies.  It goes with the territory and yes, I’m going to say it: being a woman can make it a little worse – my apologies to all woman-kind, but there it is.  In my experience, this combination of stress and love can sometimes lead to overreacting.  I’ve been there, on the acting end and the receiving end, and they are equally terrible.  Here are a few of my thoughts on idea theft and how it has affected my life and business.

Bake It Pretty’s advice for responding to copycat criticism

Be human. I wish I’d learned the lesson long ago that, whenever possible, direct communication can solve so many problems.  Mud slinging and mixed messages reign supreme on the internet through social media, forums, and email.  It’s easy to be misunderstood, misquoted, and overly judgmental (or defensive.)  Why do we avoid direct contact?  We’ll, it’s hard.  Picking up a telephone or meeting someone in person is very real, and intimate, and in-the-moment.  What if I say the wrong thing?  What if I can’t articulate my true feelings?  Of course I’d rather spend hours hiding behind my laptop, crafting a wordy email that I can edit to perfection!  In real life we are vulnerable, confused, and (hopefully) honest.  Simple misunderstanding and even serious issues can often be sorted out in a 10 minute face-to-face. This is especially true for small business, or heck, any business for that matter.  No matter how “big” you get, there should be an individual – a human – that can communicate openly and respond quickly during disagreements.  Even if they don’t tell you what you want to hear, at least it’s a person behind the message, not a computer.

And also…

History matters. If a person/business seems to have a pattern of imitating you or others, then you have a solid ground to complain, or possibly accuse.  If this was an isolated event, could it perhaps have been a rookie error?  Innocent mistake?  Misunderstanding?  You’ll never know unless you ask, and ideally you will approach this honestly, with good intentions, and in-person if at all possible.  Start a dialogue.  Ask specific questions.  Respectfully request any action you would like taken. Indicate that you’d appreciate a reply.  Accusations are serious and can be extremely hurtful.  Save them for when they  are truly warranted.  This is much easier to say than it is to do.  In the moment, all you see is fire and brimstone and the collapse of your hard-earned empire.  Dramatic? Maybe a tad.  But I’ve been in that pit, and after the flames died down I wished I’d handled things differently – especially when I see newbie bloggers, crafters, & business owners that are scared to death to write blog posts, or share recipes, or sell their products. They’ve seen the “copycat drama” and they walk on eggshells, petrified of being “too inspired” by someone else.  That is a great loss to our creative community.

Schooling the education sphere

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development company for 21st Century educators (she’s also my mom, y’all), put up a reflective post about lessons that educators and school leaders can learn from all this. About deep reflection online, Sheryl says,

We also need to be transparent learners and help our students to find their online voices. Blogging and developing a readership for your blog is a key piece here. Because Amber blogged about this event from Twitter, the message spread further. When your students key in on social injustices that relate to your curriculum, they need to have a place to unpack and reflect on all they are learning as well. You need to be blogging as an educator or parent so that you can give the skills you learn about using your online voice to your students and children. Blogging can also serve as a form of formative assessment that supports self directed learning.

Educators can also leverage these technologies to help their students learn and practice digital literacy.

Trending topics are often hot global events. For example, when the plane crashed into the Hudson River or the recent uprisings in the Middle East, or earthquakes in Japan were happening, social media carried the story until traditional media outlets could get on location. What is shared is real time data – pictures, quotes, videos and live events all from eye witnesses and all for your students to gather, examine, and interpret. Case studies of real time historical events make for powerful curriculum. As educators we should be discussing these new literacies and how to cultivate their use with our students. Our students should also be discussing how to use them with each other. Together we need to make sense of generative ways to leverage these technologies for deep learning in our connected world.


Responding to a crisis – tips for all biz owners

I asked Trish Forant, Community Manager for Radian6, a widely-known social media monitoring service, for some tips that any business owner can incorporate into their crisis communications. Here’s what she had to say:

Here are a few things that any brand can do right away when dealing with a crisis via social media:

  • Acknowledge the issue
  • Find out what went wrong, ask questions
  • Be factual rather than emotional, in other words, don’t get defensive
  • Correct any misinformation
  • Offer a solution or explain how you’re going resolve the issue
  • Respond publicly whenever possible
  • Say thank you – a complaint is a gift and an opportunity to make things right

Another thing that might be helpful is to set up a dedicated page on the company site where your community can go to get all the updates in one place and be sure to include links to all your social media outposts as well.

What now for Urban?

Michelle Rogerson, friend, fellow social media marketing consultant, and owner of Reina Communications posted some lessons she thinks Urban Outfitters should take away from this. A major one:

Create goodwill. Urban Outfitters has outraged its customers, who value indie design and artistic expression. It’s going to take a lot of work to repair that reputation damage. Urban Outfitters needs to launch a campaign celebrating independent designers. Perhaps they need a new product line where the designers are showcased and receive credit (similar to how Tiffany celebrates their designers, such as Paloma Picasso and Elsa Peretti). Beyond that, Urban Outfitters needs a longterm strategy for engaging the crafters and designers online who launched this attack on its brand. The damage is repairable if Urban Outfitters is willing to do the right thing.

This would be such a genius idea. Urban Outfitters does sell some indie designers’ art (in a legit way, too), like Heidi Kenney of My Paper Crane. I think trying to spin this story (which was spread by their customers) into a “here’s how we’re gonna change our culture” experience would be so cool, creative, and adaptive.

Any ideas?

What do you think? Should Urban Outfitters have responded in the social media sphere (where the story was happening)? Was taking down the necklace from the site and pulling it from stores enough? Did they wait too long? Do they still have a chance to redeem themselves? Tell me in the comments.

Edited to add: Followup post #2


  1. says

    I really respect that you are turning this controversy into a teachable moment. The advice and ideas in this post are measured, thoughtful, and totally do-able. And, dude, UO should totally partner with more small designers: win-win!

  2. says

    I think UO can use this opportunity to say, “hey we f’d up!” and fix it- and that, in the long run, will produce more goodwill than ignoring the problem, and will foster even more brand loyalty. I think they need to be REALLY public about how they are changing- artist profiles, how they are choosing artists to create for them, the artist’s creating the work/behind the scenes stuff, etc. The also need to prove to the indie community and potential artists that they are not going to rip them off, which will be a big concern and might very well keep people from submitting to them (with good reason!).

    People have really strong opinions on how they feel about certain brands, especially when they get caught and don’t apologize (Knit Picks comes to mind in the knitting world as a company sometimes under fire that could do a better job repairing its reputation, for example).

  3. says

    UO needs to make a concerted effort NOT to let this disaster be swept off into the ether. They need to own up to the reasons why this happened, and look internally at there procedure in bringing a new product to market. Like Katie says above, they would create more goodwill by trying to partner with the smaller indie designers rather than stealing their ideas and passing them off as their own.

  4. says

    Here’s where the argument falls flat (imho)…

    The glut of infringed items on Etsy is staggering. Staggering. Search any character brand name. Your head will spin. Etsy needs to step up. Big time.

    Urban buys most of their products from manufacturers/distributors. Who manufactured and sold the necklace? Was it UO? Possibly, but I doubt it.

    It would appear that A LOT of people make that necklace. Who was the first? Was it you?

    Expecting a secretary or intern that runs the Twitter account (my assumption) to make a a big statement is naive. I’m sure several people needed to be consulted.

    Not trying to stir the pot. I’m all about people having the right to protect their creations (I’m a writer) but I think there are other arguments and perspectives that need to be looked at.

  5. Leah says

    Your actions are very irresponsible. Do your research before trying to take down a corporation and the artists that it does support, legitly. You’re making us all look bad. What you need to respond to is this link:


    But way to gonon making shitload of money. I hope this girl sends you a thank you note.

    • Jenz says

      Yes,Amber, this link and others have been posted numerous times in the comments on your previous post, and now in this subsequent one, too. But you continue to ignore anyone who tries to point out the major flaws in the Etsy seller’s claim. It looks as if you just like the story so much you don’t really care about the fact that it wasn’t an original design to begin with. If you truly felt that strongly about design infringement, you’d start going after the Etsy seller for ripping off other Etsy sellers and James Avery.

      • says

        I’m wondering if anyone, especially UO, read the entire regretsy article before linking to it?

        “I’m not saying that Urban Outfitters doesn’t help themselves to the designs of others. They certainly have a record of pilfering designs, and they may very well have stolen this one.”

        “I’ve mainly limited my rage to Etsy artists ripping off other Etsy artists, but I’ve also been seeing an increase in the amount of made-to-look-handmade shit being hawked at hipster meccas like Anthropologie. So the fact that the handmade aesthetic has been seeping into the marketplace like a toxic mold has not gone unnoticed.”

        Both quotes are from the same regretsy article (and Anthropologie is a sister company to UO.) Regresty also has an entire section of their site dedicated to handmade vs. Anthro look-a-likes. And on top of that, Regretsy is a HUMOR/PARODY website (albeit, an awesome one.) But I certainly wouldn’t say it is any MORE researched or reliable than Amber’s blog (or anyone else for that matter.)

        This issue is so much bigger than “just one necklace.” The who-stole-from-who debate is just a smaller piece of the big picture. The fact that UO linked to the regresty post in their terrible public statement is just insane.

      • says

        @ Jenz, I’m not sure that it’s fair to criticize Amber on this so soon. She did say in this follow up post that

        “Many want to talk about the Regretsy post and the wider issue of copying on Etsy. I hear you. I have been a little buried from all this, then I went to the woods for 3 days to camp and hike with my husband and friends. I’ll be traveling the rest of this week but I’m formulating thoughts on the whole thing and I will write a followup when I can. Thanks for reading.”

        She’s still digesting all of this information. Don’t get me wrong, I love Regretsy (I’m a member of April’s Army, and I have my donations set up for next months charity shop) but I also know Amber, and she isn’t ignoring anyone. This post shows that she is trying to turn this situation from a fierce fight to a learning experience for everyone. She made valid points, and April made valid points, but I don’t think that we should put a value on one’s opinion above the other. There is no definitive answer to all of this, but Amber is doing her best to work through it all and try to help everyone to learn something in the process.

        and @Leah, you’re joking right? Amber tweeted what she understood to be an injustice for an independent artist. Most crafters and artists would do the exact same thing when presented the opportunity. Anything to help out a fellow crafter, right? It’s completely unfair to accuse her of being a part of the who-stole-who game. She sent one tweet, and then blogged about the ensuing chaos of that tweet. Amber isn’t making anyone look bad, unless it’s from dressing too well.

        Just sayin, don’t wanna be getting all flouncy up in here.

  6. says

    UO’s response statement was pretty insulting, in my opinion. Their history of design theft (beyond the necklace situation) is well documented, and the tone of their press release adds fuel to the fire. They say that they wouldn’t normally respond to these things (which I think is a mistake) and that they’re only doing it for other designers and not their own image. Okay, sure.

    I will also echo the sentiments of Jean above; Etsy has a serious problem with its “See No Evil” approach to copyright infringement and design theft and that has to end. Not only do they take zero responsibility in policing their own site, they refuse to allow members to report theft, and if you speak about it publicly they ban your account.

    The indie design world wants to be friendly and fun, but there are too many people out there taking advantage of indie designers’ good will and lack of business acumen. Urban Outfitters is severely guilty of this, as are many other companies. It isn’t going to end any time soon, but if places like Etsy helped to educate their sellers rather than hide from these problems, there might be less outright theft.

  7. Tim says

    This reminds me of the Jon Engle vs Stockart debacle of a couple of years ago. Twitterites worked themselves into a frenzy over a small time designer apparently being ripped off by a larger company – whereas nothing was further than the truth:

    History repeats… the only learnings here are that a baying mob wants blood and what you see on Twitter tends not be be very thoroughly researched/fact checked.

    There’s not much UO can do to defend themselves without looking like they’re bullying an independent artist. Of course their history in selling items of questionable originality certainly hasn’t helped…

  8. says


    Communication is key and you’ve certainly opened things up here for discussion. Thanks for allowing me to offer a few tips that, hopefully, anyone cause use when it comes to crisis communication.

    Best wishes,
    Trish (@Dayngr)
    Community Manager at Radian6

  9. JenJen says

    I don’t think UO should pretend to change their culture unless they really do intend to change it. From their history, it sounds like finding and then making cheap mass-produced versions interesting designs is a big part of not only their culture but their business model. If they do intend to keep doing business in this way, they better not pretend to be “taking this very seriously” (gah, I hate that phrase) and make some fake statement about learning their lesson.

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