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Home / Opinion / Communication lessons from Lenskart’s pratfall

Ordinarily, a four-year old start up with an unproven business plan wouldn’t attract much attention at a time of global crisis. That Lenskart, one among the thousands of newbies trying to make a mark in the e-commerce space by peddling brick-and-mortar products on the web, received maximum attention in its four-year journey on the day of the Great Nepal earthquake last week, was unusual . That it did so for all the wrong reasons – a clumsy piece of communication in the form of an SMS that sought to invoke the earthquake at the very moment when news was pouring in of the devastation it had wrought – points to the desperation in the dot com sector to garner eyeballs.

To their credit, the company’s co-founders Peyush Bansal and Amit Chaudhary mailed an apology by the evening with a fairly forthright “Sorry we messed up". But the damage to the fledgling’s reputation was done. What’s more, a company which wants to set itself up as a serious player in the eyecare business found itself the object of derision for ignoring one of the oldest tenets in the marketing handbook – be very, very careful while attempting to leverage off a big event. Businesses have suffered hugely in trying to feed off the interest generated by such events as elections and natural disasters. The mileage they promise can be beguiling, for like quicksand they can suck you in if you slip up even slightly.

In July 2012, even as Americans reeled in horror following the mass shooting at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado leading to the killing of 12 people, online clothing store CelebBoutique, came up with a real clanger, tweeting “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;) Shop.." Condemnation followed swiftly with a Facebook page hurling rebuke and many articles in the media castigating it for its insensitivity.

Hurricane Sandy in November 2012 inspired its own set of embarrassing ads. In offering a “Sandy Sale," American Apparel turned the heat on itself with an ad that said: “In case you’re bored during the storm, 20% off everything for the next 36 hours." In another example of the wrong message at the wrong time, Urban Outfitters sent out a mass email that said, “This Storm Blows, But Free Shipping on All Orders Doesn’t." Lenskart, clearly, isn’t the first or the last company to get its messaging awry.

Instead of the PR snafu, Lenskart could have actually done things differently by offering, for instance, to repair for free, spectacles of Indians in Nepal which had been lost or broken in the quake. For inspiration, it could have looked at beer-maker Anheuser Busch which, after the 1994 Northridge earthquake that struck Los Angeles, turned a part of its beer-making operations to producing fresh water packs and giving them away to the victims of the earthquake.

Lenskart’s flub may have passed unnoticed in an earlier era but not in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Social media is the true “feral beast", ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair talked of, “just tearing people and reputations to bits". It amplifies voices, good or bad. Hardly had the offending SMS hit people’s phones, it was all over Twitter and Facebook, with #shameonlenskart, the company’s reward for its botched attempt at marketing.

As companies take to newer platforms for communicating with existing and potential customers, a bit of discretion can prevent a whole load of embarrassment.

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