In this episode, the guys talk about when fake news takes over your brand and where the line might be in getting involved with debunking conspiracy theories. Chad talks about why eCommerce sites can’t let the algorithms run wild and Nico lays out all the latest conspiracies.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there: plenty of people believe there’s more to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and some think that the U.S. military experiments on aliens and their spacecrafts inside Area 51 that there is a tourism industry in Roswell, New Mexico built around the conspiracy. Another popular conspiracy theory is Bigfoot. Just how popular can Bigfoot be? Well, as of November, 2020 there have been 2,032 reported sightings on Bigfoot in Washington state alone. What these three conspiracy theories have in common is that they have nothing to do with marketing. However in today’s episode we talk about one case where corporate marketing and conspiracy theories meet.

CSN Stores was founded in 2002, the name derived from a combination of its two founders’ initials: Niraj Shah and Steve Conine. CSN Stores did well in the beginning. In 2006, the company earned $100 million in sales, and between 2007 and 2010 it expanded in the United States and in international markets.  In 2008, Boston Business Journal ranked CSN Stores as the #1 fastest-growing private e-commerce company in Massachusetts, and the #4 fastest-growing private company overall. By 2011, Shah and Conine decided to rebrand CSN Stores.  The goal of the rebranding was to direct traffic to a single site and to unify the aesthetic of the company.  One of the major ways they accomplished this was by changing the company’s name from CSN to Wayfair.

Some people may still be stuck back on the name change thing. If so, you might be wondering, ‘What does Wayfair even mean?’  Nothing. It was chosen by a branding agency. ‘Wayfair’ is simply a combination of two words that tested well with focus groups. After all, as of June 2020, anything to do with Wayfair and names is suspicious. Names are what led people to believe Wayfair was part of a human trafficking ring.

Claims of Wayfair’s human trafficking first appeared on June 14th, 2020 having originated in the QAnon community. It started when a well-known activist tweeted about the high price of storage cabinets being sold online by Wayfair. They went on to point out that the cabinets were “all listed with girls’ names.” Other users then began alleging that the pieces of furniture were named after girls because they actually had children hidden in them as part of a supposed child trafficking ring. 

QAnon followers continued to make supposed links between the fact that some pieces of Wayfair furniture are expensive and named after girls, the names of whom match actual cases of missing children in the US. Wayfair claimed the astronomical pillow prices were a glitch. That’s when QAnon activists started to put a new theory forward.  They said that after they put stock-keeping unit (SKU) numbers of specific Wayfair products into Yandex – a major Russian search engine – images of young women would appear in the search results.

Putting Wayfair products’ SKU numbers into Yandex did return image results of young women. The explanation for which came down to… a glitch in the search engine. In fact, Newsweek reported that a Yandex search for “any random string of numbers” would return the same results.

Despite any and all debunking, the digital wildfire had spread. According to Facebook-owned social media analytics tool CrowdTangle, as of July 2020, the term Wayfair generated 4.4 million engagements on Instagram and prompted more than 12,000 posts nearly a million direct engagements on Facebook.

As far as their response goes, Wayfair kept it short and simple. They came to their own defense saying, “there is of course no truth to these claims.” Fortunately for Wayfair and their rather unenthusiastic defense, child-sex-trafficking misinformation has been a central theme among QAnon conspiracy theorists/ It’s also to ‘Tight-Lipped’ Wayfair’s benefit that their story is reminiscent of Pizzagate. 

2020 may seem like the year that will never end, so it may be easy to forget that June and the accusations against Wayfair weren’t that long ago.  Meaning, it’s hard to get a full picture on how the conspiracy theory affected Wayfair.  There might not have been a lot of factual evidence to back up the validity of the claims, but we do know that rumors like these can still hurt a brand’s reputation if left unaccounted for.

Still, the QAnon rumors and rumors like them have been and continue to be debunked. This leaves the real issue which seems to be the questions of: where does information like this begin? and How should brands, like Wayfair, go about handling these rumors?

Fortunately, communications expert and chair of Florida International University’s Department of Communication, Aileen Izquierdo, has an answer. According to Izquierdo, if organizations are interested in good brand management, they need to be proactive and stop rumors in their tracks. To do this, companies need to: 

  • have members of their team actively monitoring social media
  • look for repeating comments
  • identify conversations about certain products
  • and become aware of any overall buzz starting up about their organization online.

What Can We Learn? 

  • More and more businesses are dependent upon technology these days – it’s worth it to regularly check for glitches and do maintenance. Think of running diagnostics as the online equivalent of sweeping the floor of a physical store or business location.
  • Yes, the future of retail was forced to arrive early — but now it’s on digital-centric sellers to prove they can make it stick. 
  • Rolling with the punches doesn’t have to be the same thing as taking a hit – speak up for yourself and your company and listen to what consumers are saying online. Being silent only adds to the mystery.

We speak about:

[05:00] CSN/Wayfair company history
[14:00] Wayfair conspiracy theory
[21:10] Wayfair response and real impact of such theories
[25:30] Is there a right way for brands to deal with false allegations?
[30:00] What can be learned?

Episode Script Writer: Grace Wall
Research Analyst: Gertruda Gilyte

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