Stanley and Samsonite – the pros and cons of freebie PR

A PR effort by Stanley, the maker of cups, bottles, and tumblers went massively viral recently.

Here’s what happened: Danielle’s car (a KIA, as we can see from the video) caught fire and she posted a short video of the burnt car on her TikTok handle. But her focus was the Stanley cup near the driver’s seat that not only survived the fire but even had ice inside it intact!! Understandably, her video went viral.

So, how did Stanley respond?

Stanley’s global president Terence Reilly shared a stitch with Danielle’s video, on the brand’s TikTok page. He appropriately starts by addressing her safety and only then comes to their product.

Conventional PR would dictate that the brand should offer something to Danielle. But that wouldn’t go viral because that’s the most obviously expected response/reaction.

What Terence did, after ensuring that he referred to Danielle’s safety, was not only offer to replace the Stanley cup, but also the car itself! If Danielle had insured her car, she’d perhaps get both the money from insurance and a new car from Stanley.

Because of how unusual Stanley’s offer was, and how well the offer was articulated (empathy first, PR next), the brand’s PR effort went viral too.

While all this is great, observe the one brand that has remained silent all through – the car brand KIA!

Now, consider the Indian equivalent of this entire saga, featuring none other than India’s best quiz master (at least to me), Siddhartha Basu!

Siddhartha Basu posted about how Vistara, the airline, broke his Samsonite suitcase that was marked as ‘fragile’, with photos of the broken product. He had tagged only Vistara in his tweet.

In the Stanley case, the woman didn’t tag either Stanley (the cup brand) or Kia (the car brand). Stanley picked it up for PR.

In the Indian case, the one tagged (Vistara) hasn’t even reacted to the tweet in public yet. But the brand that wasn’t tagged, Samsonite, took it upon themselves to reach out to Siddhartha Basu, and went to where he was staying in Chennai to replace the suitcase!

In both examples, the brand that is purportedly in the wrong for causing the issue—KIA and Vistara—have not reacted in any way.

The brands that were incidental to the issue—Stanley and Samsonite—have picked the story via social media posts and managed to gain some PR mileage out of it (Stanley got a LOT more than Samsonite, of course).

But there is an interesting follow-up question worth asking: would these brands (Stanley and Samsonite) do the same thing for other people too, in similar situations?

This question may not be all that relevant to Stanley because that situation was fairly unique. Cars do not catch first all that often, and hence, to find a Stanley cup intact (with ice, at that) inside a burnt car is a fairly rare occurrence. So, Stanley’s PR escapes this follow-up question.

But Samsonite?

Airlines mishandling and breaking suitcases is a fairly common issue that keeps resurfacing on social media via angry posts. Vistara seems to have its share of such complaints too (besides other airlines).

DGCA’s rules stipulate that the airline is responsible for any damage to baggage, but the liability is limited to INR 20,000 per passenger.

When Basu raised the issue with Vistara’s customer care at Chennai airport, they offered him INR 2,500 in cash for the wheel, even though the shell itself was broken! This probably explains why Vistara refused to react to his tweet online.

But Samsonite?

Samsonite has not been tagged. Basu is not complaining about Samsonite’s quality either. But Samsonite does frequently advertise its product strength, in terms of how it can can withstand rough handling.

Remember the iconic 1970s ad featuring a gorilla that batters a Samsonite suitcase (which stays intact, of course)? Ironically, many people remember it as the gorilla battering a Samsonite suitcase even though that campaign, made by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) was actually for Samsonite’s rival, American Tourister!! It’s possible that this commonly held false memory was because Samsonite was the market leader with more than twice American Tourister’s market share at that time, and people associated the best ads from the market leader. It’s a different story that Samsonite acquired American Tourister in 1993 🙂

So, even if Samsonite is not the one being blamed—and not even tagged for attention—it still picked the issue and delivered a replacement.

Why? PR mileage and word-of-mouth, most probably. Imagine being vouched for by THE Siddhartha Basu himself!

But the question remains: would Samsonite do this for every other person with a Samsonite suitcase broken by an airline? Of course, they wouldn’t. That’s simply not scalable.

As Shantanu shares in his reply to Basu…

That brings us to a very different question: Most people understand that brands do offer special treatment to certain kinds of people and that such levels of customer service won’t/cannot be replicated to all customers. If so, what does that say about this PR exercise? Wouldn’t it do more harm than good? After all, it seems exclusionary and is pandering to seemingly influential people.

In other words, wouldn’t the expectations of extraordinary customer service backfire on Stanley and Samsonite?

Not really 🙂 Why? A couple of reasons, and these go to the very bottom of PR as a corporate function.

PR (or corporate communications) is about getting the brand’s word out there with a positive context. These activities (by Stanley and Samsonite) attempt to ride on someone else’s or something (a piece of news) else’s popularity. This is the PR equivalent of advertising roping in a famous celebrity for visibility. Advertising does it by paying the celebrity and getting them to act on pre-scripted content. PR uses such opportunities for the same effect. There are costs involved in the PR equivalent too, but they outweigh the goodwill that can be generated through the resultant word-of-mouth.

The overall goodwill would also outweigh concerns of, ‘Would they do this for me, a normal person, too?’. Even if most people understand that this may not happen to a non-celebrity, they would still retain a bare minimum positive notion about the brand: that the brand did care (but with a benefit in return, of course). Such acts are not legally binding – that is, you cannot cite what a brand did to a celebrity and demand similar treatment to you too under the law. But they do help in augmenting trust in the brand.

This is not very different from people believing that Mahindra, as an automobile company, would do good by their customer service, based on the few actions taken in response to customer complaints by Anand Mahindra via his Twitter handle. I’m not sure if Anand still does it, but he used direct relevant employees to take action on select Twitter complaints. It is not scalable, and it cannot be equitably enforced for all customers. It is good old PR, and it is what it is.

The counter questions of lack of scalability need not stop companies from indulging in such acts. The reason is simple: such acts travel far wider than the questions that people may have about it being scalable, or being done for non-celebrities.

On the other hand, both KIA and Vistara come out poorly in these episodes. The former was massively viral in the US, and the response by Stanley went viral, bringing the whole video even more attention for the 2nd time. All through the virality, KIA hasn’t said anything at all even as tons of people have replied and asked online about KIA’s response. The latter episode traveled far, far less – barely traveled, at that, if you go only by Twitter’s retweet and share as metrics. And Vistara, despite being tagged, has maintained a stoic silence all through. Both KIA and Vistara have made no attempt to clear their name in public (though Basu did complain to Vistara offline, at the Chennai airport, he got a cold response). From that perspective, both KIA’s and Vistara’s actions were the opposite of PR, by their non-action.