Get Woke Go Broke: Old Navy’s epic fail in trying to sell Juneteenth t-shirts

Old Navy and an influencer agency hired to find black talent for a promotional campaign learned the hard way that influencers don’t work for free. Even worse, they don’t appreciate being exploited along the way. In this case, the promotion is for a t-shirt commemorating Juneteenth.

Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the United States, originated in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. It is safe to say that until recently, the vast majority of Americans were unfamiliar with Juneteenth. Now, thanks to the elevation of social justice and equality in society, the date is celebrated across America. To be honest, I am a first-generation Southern woman, born and raised in the Deep South. I was not familiar with Juneteenth until I moved to Houston in the late 1990s. Each June there are local stories about Juneteenth and its Galveston connection on local news broadcasts.

Corporations are desperate to prove their wokeness during the age of Black Lives Matter. Since the Summer of Love, many companies have pledged to support black entrepreneurs and businesses. Corporate boards of directors have promised to bring on a more diverse mix of people. One gesture made by Old Navy was its launch of Project WE. Graphic t-shirts are designed by artists to commemorate various race-based and ethnic holidays. Old Navy promises to donate $1M to Boys and Girls Clubs from the sales.

Today Old Navy announces the launch of Project WE, a collection of graphic tees designed by diverse artists to imagine a more inclusive world through art. The WE tees honor cultural moments and movements including Black History Month, International Women’s Day, Pride, Juneteenth and LatinX Heritage Month. In celebration of the initiative, Old Navy is donating $1 million to Boys & Girls Clubs of America to support youth arts programs in communities across the country.

“Project WE is an artists’ collaboration with a mission,” said Sarah Holme, Old Navy’s Executive Vice President of Design. “We wanted to give these incredible artists a canvas to share their visions, and we hope the works will inspire and spark conversation with our community.”

So, with Juneteenth coming up next month, it’s time to promote the Juneteenth graphic t-shirt. Old Navy turned to an influencer agency, Mavrck, to recruit social media influencers to promote the tees. To say it went badly is an understatement.

The number one thing to remember about the world of influencers is that they are in it to make a living and they get free stuff. They are comped for pictures shared on social media of themselves and products of whatever company is collaborating with them. It’s really big on Instagram, for example. That platform is perfect because it’s one based on sharing photos. Mavrck pitched the promotional campaign to black influencers. However, in the pitch, the agency asked the influencers to purchase a graphic tee and apply to participate.

While Old Navy’s heart was in the right place, the execution left much to be desired. A pitch email was sent to 300 influencers, asking them to apply to be in the campaign and buy a Juneteenth T-shirt to wear in sponsored posts (they would be reimbursed for the cost if selected.)

This entire approach was met with much controversy. Typically, influencers are gifted product for campaigns and never asked to purchase anything. Also, the rate for the campaign (425 dollars for one in-grind post and three stories), was also under market rate. Some of the influencers did have smaller followings, making the rate appropriate for them, but many had followings over 100,000 or more, making the rate arguably pitiful.

Oops. That’s a fail all the way around. Shouldn’t the agency know how to do this better? Backlash ensued and Old Navy pulled the campaign. The company issued a statement and threw Mavrck under the bus.

“We are disappointed that this campaign outreach, conducted by an outside agency, did not reflect our provided direction, brand spirit or best practices,” a spokesperson said. “Old Navy is inclusive by design and committed to amplifying voices that have been historically underrepresented. We are pausing this campaign to ensure that we — and any agency that represents us — are working with influencers in a way that reflects our brand values.”

Mavrck responded.

Mavrck chief executive Lyle Stevens told BoF that the agency had mistakenly included influencers with large followings on its list of micro-influencers and that it had separately emailed 50 macro-level influencers, asking for their rate. He said the $425 rate was higher than what Mavrck has historically paid to micro-influencers for similar campaigns. The request to buy the T-shirts was made to ensure influencers were able to make their posts in time for the campaign, and Stevens clarified that only influencers who would be selected would have to buy the shirts, which would later be reimbursed. In a later statement, he said Mavrck’s clients “ultimately approve all aspects of campaigns.”

Woke corporations often don’t realize that they are exploiting people, apparently. By lumping everyone together and assuming monolithic goals and opinions within various communities, the corporations end up insulting the audience which they strive to attract. No sympathy from me. I think everything has gone way overboard. Corporations are jumping into politics and societal issues loudly, though most consumers really don’t appreciate the virtue-signaling. No one is looking for hot takes from corporate conglomerates. In this case, at least the Boys and Girls Clubs will benefit from the sales of graphic t-shirts. If the sales of Juneteenth tees sink, June is also Pride Month.

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