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Viral Video Sparks Public Debate of Brand Messaging and Crisis Management

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Brooke Lynch

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While the rest of the world was tuned into the Super Bowl on Sunday, some active social media users were following a bizarre story involving a customer’s mishap with the popular maximum strength adhesive Gorilla Glue. The story continues to make headlines and is prompting a legal response, making an unusual case for corporate responsibility in customers’ unintended or even misuse of commercial products.

The story began on TikTok after a woman named Tessica Brown shared her alarming mistake in a viral clip that now has more than 21 million views. She begins describing the state of her hair, noting that it’s been stuck in the same style for about a month. She then, quite seriously, emphasizes the fact that this permanence was not by choice. After replacing her normal spray hair gel with Gorilla Glue Heavy Duty Spray Adhesive, Brown’s hair has been disturbingly stuck in place ever since. Even after 15 washes, the product seemingly wouldn’t budge, forcing Tessica to take a trip to the emergency room. 

The situation still is not resolved, and it was reported that Brown is considering taking legal action against the brand, however, she currently denies this claim. Although the Glue has a clear warning to not use the product on eyes, skin, or clothing, she maintains that it did not strictly state hair in its language, and therefore feels it’s misleading. 

What’s interesting about the unique story, beyond its concerning result, is the social media response it attracted. While some commented to share apologies for the unpleasant situation, others took to social media to criticize the glue company for not making a proper statement on Brown’s mistake. One beauty influencer’s viral Twitter thread stated, “It’s absolutely insane Gorilla Glue hasn’t made a single statement this whole time.”

This isn’t exactly true though; the Gorilla Glue team both commented on Brown’s initial TikTok video and on their official Twitter platform, giving advice on proper removal. However, some users didn’t think this was enough. The viral thread continued, noting that if a brand gets this much attention, negative or positive, it needs to get involved. Although the influencer did not deem the company liable for the accident, like Brown may now be insinuating, she stated that it was an important opportunity for the brand to make a public statement about safety. And in a way, this makes sense; a brand should instinctively want to control the narrative and present their product in a better light. However, with all of the discussions currently online, any input on their part will be highly scrutinized, and it seems reasonable to want to carefully consider a response.

This reaction offers interesting insight into customer expectations of public-facing brands. This case is obviously unique, and it’s not necessarily the company’s fault. The product has a definitive warning against this type of use, and even if it did not explicitly state hair on its do not use list, it seems to be implied in its household function. However, individuals expect the company to speak publicly on the issue - even when they proactively advised against it. This brings up an interesting point about this kind of public testimony: would addressing the issue admit some kind of fault? 

Conventional customer service wisdom encourages agents and brands to apologize for most issues -- and accept accountability for providing reasonable solutions. In a typical customer service issue, such as a shipping delay or an unclear return policy, this process comes with a high reward-to-risk ratio. At worst, the company will have to ship a new product or accept a belated return. Neither represents a significant cost, and both gestures may serve to create a loyal brand ambassador.

In cases like this one, however, the stakes are much higher. With the public watching, and with potential legal issues in play (especially if there are physical pain or wellbeing concerns), an explicit apology introduces bigger risks. In some cases, it may be tantamount to an admission of financial liability. In others, it may incite the masses to come forward with issues that didn’t initially matter to them. If nothing else, it serves to legitimize an issue that may not warrant legitimacy.

It also greatly shifts the narrative of your customer support effort. When dealing with an isolated customer, you’re the brand going out of your way to solve a customer’s unusual problem. You’re customer-centric!

When communicating implicit fault to the public, however, you’re no longer the brand going above and beyond for individual customers no matter how minor or wacky their grievance. You’re the brand making mistakes and not reacting until the complaint goes viral. The same mindset that is customer-centric in isolation is problematic at scale.

At the same time, the brand also has to consider the reverse: not publicly trivializing a customer’s issue. Even if the brand is confident that it’s not at fault, and certain no reasonable person would hold it accountable for the issue, it has to be careful about wholly dismissing a customer’s sentiment. From a brand standpoint, insensitivity to customers’ feelings could be as troubling as indifference to product or process issues.

This is not, in any way, to say that Gorilla Glue in particular was contemplating the long-term ramifications of a public statement. We do not have that kind of clarity into its strategic mindset, and the company did deliver a public response anyway. It is, moreover, not to say that brands should not respond in these situations regardless of potential legal or image concerns.

It is, however, to underscore the fact that “best practices” for handling a disgruntled customer on the phone or at the service desk may not perfectly apply to public social media issues. As a result, it is understandable why A) a brand may want to take some time before replying in these situations and B) a brand may not be comfortable letting its frontline customer service and social media representatives handle the response on their own.

There is also another issue to consider: social checks-and-balances. Although brand leaders have historically focused on the risk of social media (one customer’s complaint can go viral), there is also a benefit (customers can rally together and defend your brand). Social media users are not shy about calling out the “entitlement” of those who complain about slight flight or delivery delays. In those cases, the public does the job for a brand, absolving its need to make a big, sweeping statement.

These examples offer an interesting perspective on the customer service industry’s inherent desire to offer apologies; they often work to avoid any kind of blame game. However, in a case like this, it wouldn’t really seem fair for Gorilla Glue to fully accept the blame for an avoidable customer mistake. It’s also worth considering whether some complaints need to be addressed at all. Ultimately, brands are faced with the difficult reality of operating in 2021; any negative feedback online can potentially give way to very public criticisms. Therefore, successful companies need to be prepared to navigate these escalated complaints to avoid mass scrutiny.