How one customer brought down a brand – Case Study

James Davidson | January 27, 2012

At the beginning of Disney’s Mulan, the Emperor of China states that “A single grain of rice can tip the scale.” One person can make a tremendous impact on the lives of many, and Paul Christoforo, the president of Ocean Marketing,  and N-Control witnessed this firsthand. The metaphorical grain of rice that tipped Ocean Marketing and N-Control’s scale was a customer named Dave.

Dave’s Dilema:

N-Control invented an add-on for video game console controllers know as the Avenger that was originally designed to help a disabled gamer play video games, but it was also marketed as a tool to enhance the performance of “hardcore gamers.” When word of the product spread across the internet, demand for the Avenger controller skyrocketed. It was initially released exclusively for XBox 360 controllers, but in late 2011 N-Control let customers pre-order a Playstation 3 version.

This is where the aforementioned Dave comes into the picture. Dave ordered two of the Avenger controllers on November 3, 2011. N-Control’s site advertised a shipping date of “Early December,” but on December 16 Dave had not heard any news of an official release date.  He emailed Paul Christoforo (president of Ocean Marketing) to find out when the controller would be shipped. Paul responded promptly that it would be shipped on December 17th.  It was a simple exchange, and the problem was solved, right?

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Avenger controllers did not ship on the 17th.  As a result, Dave and his fellow consumers were unable to have their controllers shipped in time for Christmas. To make matters worse, N-Gage began offering a $10 pre-order rebate to those who ordered the Avenger after December 26th, but the rebate did not apply to those who had ordered before that date.

At this point, Dave contacted Ocean Marketing again to find out if he could get the rebate to apply to his order by cancelling his initial order and re-ordering the Avenger. Ocean Marketing responded with the following statement:

Feel free to cancel we need the units we’re back ordered 11,000 units so your 2 will be gone fast. Maybe I’ll put them on eBay for 150.00 myself. Have a good day Dan.

Dave  is understandably angry by this response, and for his next email he copied Mike Krahulik (co-creator of pennyarcade.com and the founder of PAX East, one of the largest gaming conventions in the United States) along with various other gaming news sites.  Instead of trying to defuse the situation and apologizing to Dave, Paul responded by calling Dave a child, laughing at his complaints, and dropping the names of numerous gaming conventions that Paul planned on attending (including Pax East).

Paul’s mention of PAX East led Mike from Pennyarcade.com to join in the conversation. Mike was so offended by Paul’s response that he guaranteed Paul would not have a booth at PAX . Paul shrugged off the banning by saying he had his eyes on “bigger and better shows.” Mike then informed Paul that he would be posting the entire email conversation online. “Great! Love PR” Paul responded.

In twenty-four hours, Paul would find out that he did not love the PR.

(If you are interested in reading the entire email conversation, it can be found at penny-arcade.com. Fair word of warning: the emails do contain offensive language)

Ocean Marketing’s Scale Tips

The next day Mike posted the entire exchange between Dave, Paul, and himself on Penny Arcade. The story went viral in a matter of hours with the help of Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. The story was so popular that the traffic eventually crashed Mike’s site.

(To see more numbers on how the story went viral in real-time, click here.)

Paul’s Twitter account, @oceanmarketting (with two T’s),  was bombarded with hostile messages and multiple threats were made against him via email. The backlash was so intense that Paul changed his Twitter handle to @oceanstratagy (this is not a typo; it was the actual Twitter handle).  The e-hostility followed Paul to his new Twitter name, and he eventually changed it again to @OceanDeepSea, and he recently shed the Ocean Marketing brand altogether – Paul can now be followed at @PaulChristoforo.

Paul and Ocean Marketing were not the only ones to feel the wrath of the internet. N-Control’s Avenger controller was flooded with negative reviews on Amazon claiming that the customer service was abysmal. Those negative reviews will certainly deter consumers who may not have heard about the Ocean Marketing fiasco from buying the Avenger controller.

Two days after the email conversation between Dave and Paul made its way to the internet, N-Control did some damage control and fired Paul Christoforo. On January 6th, N-Control donated $10,000 to the Child’s Play charity in an attempt to further restore their brand’s image.

The Aftermath

So, what can be learned from Paul Christoforo’s misadventures in customer relations?

  • The fury of one customer can quickly spread to hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of hours. If Paul had responded to Dave in a civil manner or had been able to resolve the Avenger issue, the whole situation may have even resulted in good press for everyone involved.
  • Businesses need to have complete confidence in those they choose to represent their brand.  Even though N-Control was not directly responsible for the actions of Paul Christoforo, their brand image still suffered a black eye.
  • Most importantly, the internet is a double-edged sword. It can be a powerful tool that companies can use to form a stronger bond with their consumers, but if they are not careful those same consumers can turn on them in an instant and tear companies to shambles. Dave toppled Paul and N-Control’s scale, and it may take quite some time for them to re-balance it.

If Mr. Christoforo would have read the “About Us” section of his own website, this entire situation could have been avoided:

Integrity and honesty are at the core of our business values. We expect our leaders and people to maintain high ethical standards in everything they do, both in their work for Ocean Marketing and in their personal lives.

Business would be wise to learn a lesson from Paul’s mistakes, because a single customer can now directly impact the perceived image of an entire product with something as small as an email. A single grain of rice can tip the scale.

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