Screwing up your brand is really easy…

Note: this story was originally published by me on ActiveRain when it happened, in 2008.  If it happened today, chances are with the ability to spread any message virally, the damage to the company’s reputation would have been a lot more severe and would have required more than a few apologetic phone calls.

A few years ago, the Webkinz phenomena infiltrated my little son’s imagination, and he just had to have one, or two, or three.  At the time, a little stuffed animal with the ability to be taken care of and played with virtually, in addition to just being squished and held, ran one about $22.00.  For those of you that don’t know, once the cute furry thing was purchased, the child had to think of a name, go to and put the number from the label into the computer to officially adopt this animal.  One could then engage in all sorts of virtual activities, that would all give you points with which you could “buy” furniture, toys and food for the newly adopted pet.

Having a few non-virtual adopted pets in our home, we thought while pricey, the lessons learned in ‘taking care’ of these pets would be invaluable for the little munchkin, so we figured we’d comply, and in short order, our son ended up with a total of 7 Webkinz.  He has been taking care of them religiously, at times insisting he had to run home from being out at a movie or visiting friends just so his Webkinz didn’t go to bed hungry.  He has one of those over-active imaginations, so the line between the virtual and the real world is a very thin one.

A few months ago, there was a river of tears cried over the fact that four out of his seven Webkinz were “retired”, and that meant he got absolutely no points for taking care of them.  They were suddenly no longer invited to activities, getting treats, or whatever else it is that the newer, non-retired pets got.  I thought of writing a letter to Webkinz then, but truthfully, was just so angry at the idea of taking something away from kids that didn’t cost them a penny, all in an attempt to force more of their toys down people’s throats… I let it go, until today.

This morning, my son logs in to check up on his pets, and gets the following message:

From your furry friends at Webkinz World:

Your Webkinz account is set to expire on December 25th, 2008. You can avoid it by purchasing a new Webkinz before then…”

my son with his webkinz

So here I am, facing a dilemma of sorts:  break my son’s heart by explaining to him that whatever is going on in the prettily colored rooms of the virtual Webkinz universe is not in the least bit real, and that none of his pets exist outside of the soft and snuggly toys he goes to bed with every night.  I could tell him that Casey, the elephant, doesn’t really care for the bananas he’s been feeding him, or that Jeffrey the pug doesn’t care for a virtual blanket and a new easy chair.  I could tell him that it’s all a bunch of zeros and ones scavenging the caverns of parental wallets in the rather cruel attempt to extract more and more money from people…

Or, I could run out and buy yet another Webkinz, before Christmas, so that my son doesn’t go to bed worrying about his pets every night, and hope that the one I pick out doesn’t get ‘retired’ too soon.

What I really want to do though is to tell whoever is behind this whole Webkinz phenomena that they are a pack of jackasses who have found the most cruel and ingenious way of forcing their customers to remain with them for the duration of their children’s childhoods.  The cost of doing otherwise would be too much to bear for most of us, parents.  So here is what I want for Christmas:

I want a Webkinz for every kid who’s at risk of losing their account on Christmas, simply because their parents didn’t not give this company any money in the last six months.

what not to do in brand management - webkinz case study


I want that and I want Webkinz to go out of business with apologies to every kid they had taken an unfair advantage of.  I want the schmucks who run this company to wake up one day, preferably on Christmas and seriously think about where they went wrong.

They had a brilliant idea. Their games and educational activities are well done.  They had a loyal following…    Instead of promoting their new releases by paying for advertising, they chose the cruel and heartless tactics of extracting more money from customers they already have, by threatening the welfare of their adopted pets.  Wasn’t the whole point of  Webkinz to teach kids to take care of animals?  That our pets are indeed, irreplaceable, and that each one we have throughout our lives is unique and special?

I know it’s in really bad taste to wish harm on someone for Christmas.  But then again, I am only returning the favor.

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