How GoldieBlox jeopardized its brand

November 26, 2013

It's a classic case of "do what I say, not what I do." When the toy-manufacturer used a Beastie Boys song without permission and then responded with a lawsuit, they caused a huge disconnect in their brand. Actions sometimes speak louder than your communications or culture, and this engineering-minded firm needs to build a pretty big bridge to get out of this brand crisis.

A classic case of “do what I say, not what I do”

Building a great brand is much more than a great strategy or great creative. The ultimate success depends on your ability to truly embody all aspects of the brand. It’s more than what you say – it’s what you do that can be the ultimate indicator of your brand.

Beyond communications, corporate culture has gotten quite a bit of attention recently as another area that is important to brand. Having “brand ambassadors” and “living the brand” have become two very common pieces of advice. But there is a third leg to the stool of a great brand: your business processes. In other words: the work you do and how you deliver it. A successful brand is one where communication, culture, and processes are in sync, supporting the same central strategy.

What happens when your business processes depart from your strategy? Your brand breaks. The same way it does when your customer service doesn’t deliver to the expectations that your advertisements set. Audiences walk away frustrated, confused and disgruntled. This is what happened to Nike when it was revealed that their empowerment-branded footwear was being manufactured in sweatshops where disempowerment ruled. They spent a decade doing damage control, looking inward to really change the way they do business – and yet here I am years later still bringing it up. And this is exactly what is happening now to GoldieBlox.

GoldieBlox is a toy manufacturer that is focused on “disrupting the pink aisle” and developing toys for girls that encourage spatial thinking, problem solving and math skills – talents that lend themselves to encouraging girls to consider career paths in science, technology and engineering. For any mother who is craving to help her child break free of the princess-pink-only toy selection, it seems like a no brainer. But this past week, the company found themselves in hot water, with the integrity of their brand in danger.

It all started when GoldieBlox released a new video called “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg & Beastie Boys ‘Princess Machine’ (a concert for girls).” Already at well over 8 million views, it features a group of girls who set up an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that takes you on an adventure throughout their neighborhood and inside their homes. The music featured is the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” (from the Licensed to Ill album), but with altered words that take the formerly misogynistic lyrics to the female-empowerment side. It is an exciting, captivating and fun piece. Being on the GoldieBlox mailing list, I had received advanced notice of the video and posted it on my Facebook wall with the comment “Yay to the Beastie Boys for licensing this song.”

The problem is the Beastie Boys had not licensed the song. The band has had an explicit rule for decades to never license their songs for advertising or selling any products. In fact, Adam Yauch (aka MCA) who died last year had it written into his will (long before GoldieBlox) that none of his songs can ever be used for advertising. GoldieBlox had used the song without permission. And, in a scramble to cover themselves, they actually preemptively sued the Beastie Boys, claiming that their song was a “parody” and therefore exempt from copyright infringement laws. The Beastie Boys have responded with an even-toned letter – very much in the style that supports their own personal brand. We’re still waiting for GoldieBlox’s response.

So what does this mean for GoldieBlox’s brand? It certainly has shaken its integrity. The company was a grassroots effort, started in 2012 on Kickstarter by the concept’s inventor Debbie Sterling. It is a company that is mission-driven and about doing the right thing and building a better world. In spite of other companies out there that produce science-oriented toys geared towards girls (such as Roominate), the GoldieBlox brand claims to be the first in developing original toys that challenge girls’ minds. It is attempting to be the pioneer in a revolution in female-oriented toys. But being a pioneer typically means original ideas or original ways to convey it. Stealing off someone else’s success, knee-jerk suing them, and then going silent doesn’t support a grassroots, activist-driven brand. It seems like GoldieBlox has instead hitched their wagon to the same old litigious, consumerist horses that have been ruling for years.

The buyers of GoldieBlox toys are most likely to be young mothers – those in their 30s or 40s who grew up with the Beastie Boys and are likely nostalgic for their music. The company was clearly banking on that when they chose the song for their advertisement: they used the Beastie Boys’ name in the YouTube title of their video. Coupled with the word “girls” (the official name of the song,) this seems to be an SEO strategy to draw attention off the strength of someone else’s strong brand. To not have thought through the implications of getting into a negative public interaction with the band seems like a gross oversight; one that will end up with the alienation of a critical audience. I know my thought process went from “yay” to “boo” pretty quickly. Why did they not reach out to the band ahead of time? Did they anticipate a “no?” Why did GoldieBlox jump straight from receiving a legal inquiry to suing? Why have they now gone silent? All of these questions lend themselves to audiences building their own ideas of the motivations and thinking happening at GoldieBlox – and, frankly, it’s not very pleasant.

What GoldieBlox is saying about itself and its culture is not aligning with their behaviors and actions. If they don’t do something to right this ship sooner than later, it could become a serious black mark on a nascent brand. One that might not hold back the future success of the company, but may follow them around for years to come.

What do you think of this situation? Will it turn into a full legal storm or will it blow over? If you were GoldieBlox, what would your next move be? Can you think of other examples of companies whose business processes have been misaligned with their brand?

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