Real-time marketing is a tricky business. You want to be in the moment, you want to be witty and clever, you want to be true to your brand. And you want to do all that without offending potential customers.
That final point is the most important — first do no harm — and it tripped up Dutch airline KLM in a big way Sunday.
Moments after the Netherlands knocked Mexico out of the World Cup, KLM tweeted “Adios Amigos! #NEDMEX” with a photo of an airport departure sign, photoshopped to include a mustachioed, sombrero-wearing icon.
The reaction on Twitter was instant and overwhelming as fans of the Mexican team still stinging from the controversial loss lashed out, many tweeting outrage that the image was a racist stereotype. KLM deleted the tweet within an hour, but not before it was retweeted nearly 10,000 times, captured in hundreds of screen grabs and lamented in scores of news articles.
One of the strongest reactions came from Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who tweeted to his 1.94 million followers: “.@KLM I’m never flying your s—-y airline again. F— you big time.” That tweet was also later deleted. But plenty of others still stand. Two examples:
If I'm ever in the Netherlands, I know what company I am NOT flying with. Ahem, @KLM
— Diego Galaviz (@DiegoG20) June 29, 2014
— Jax (@EsaClys) June 29, 2014
Although KLM apologized for the tweet today — “In the best of sportsmanship, we offer our heartfelt apologies to those who have been offended by the comment,” said Marnix Fruitema, director general of KLM in North America — it’s going to be difficult to undo the damage.
It shouldn’t have to be said that brands should avoid racial stereotypes, even though some have noted that the official FIFA mascots when Mexico hosted the World Cup in 1970 and 1986 both featured sombreros. And as Delta proved with its giraffes in Ghana World Cup tweet earlier this month, brands would be wise to stick with flags when using images to represent countries.
Another lesson from KLM’s experience is to avoid outraging especially passionate fans, especially when their spirit has just been crushed. KLM’s social media team apparent thought it was making a light-hearted joke about an athletic competition. But Mexican fans — like many international futbol fans — treat the game as a religion, so poking fun at that is dangerous territory.
What made it worse in this case was that KLM’s taunting tweet came so soon after a staggering emotional reversal for Mexico’s fans, who were minutes away from celebrating their team’s first knockout stage victory since 1986. It didn’t help that the game was decided by a disputed penalty kick. Mexico’s fans felt robbed, then KLM provoked them with a tweet.