Paperchase is in the news for the wrong reasons. They ran a free gift-wrap promo with the Daily Mail last weekend. It’s news because it triggered a campaign against them on Twitter. This in turn prompted them to tweet, “We now know we were wrong to do this – we’re truly sorry and we won’t ever do it again. Thanks for telling us what you really think, and we apologise if we have let you down on this one. Lesson learnt.” This is virtue-signalling at its worst and most confused.

Paperchase is a mass market purveyor of stationery and tat. The Daily Mail is a mass market purveyor of news and tittle-tattle. Seems like a pretty good fit to me. The Daily Mail is read by three million people a day. That’s a lot of people who could be popping into one of Paperchase’s 130 stores in the UK to pick up their free gift wrap. Yet Paperchase has now effectively said, we don’t like you if you’re a Daily Mail reader.

The row was orchestrated by a campaign group called Stop Funding Hate, which exists to “change the media” by taking on “the divisive hate campaigns of the Sun, Daily Mail & Daily Express”. Full marks to them for a crystal-clear proposition. It’s foolish of Paperchase to respond as if their customers are synonymous with this campaign group. This is totally different from advertisers pulling campaigns from Google and YouTube where there was no control over what sort of material might appear alongside their ads. Like it or loathe it, the Daily Mail is nothing if not predictable, which is excellent for its own brand value and for advertisers. If a tie-up with the Daily Mail seemed like a good idea beforehand, it probably still is.

If a brand has no standards or values by which to screen its plans in advance, it must live in fear of doing the “wrong” thing and being criticised by the Twitter mob. But criticism per se is not a problem. Brands should care about the company they keep – that includes where they advertise, what issues matter to them, and also what they choose to ignore. Brands have to decide what they stand for, and build it in to their activity in advance. Then they can, and should, stand their ground when someone else tries to lean on them for their own ends.

Campaign groups have always tried to throw their weight around. Twitter lets some punch above their weight. It can seem like a lot of people feel very strongly about an issue. Brands that panic, and seem to cave easily to such single-issue groups, may relieve short term pressure but they won’t earn respect. Most Daily Mail readers won’t boycott Paperchase, any more than Daily Mail-hating Paperchase shoppers were ready to give it up. Most of us are not in either of these groups; we just see a business that issued a grovelling apology for a harmless promotion in a national newspaper some people don’t like.

The irony is that the Daily Mail has long been used in business as a reference point. To assess whether something one says or writes at work could cause negative PR if it got out, I was told to imagine how it would look on the front page of the Daily Mail – that being the epitome of outraged middle-England sensibilities. Write a dodgy email, even as a joke, and it could look bad if taken out of context and blasted across the news-stands in fifty-point type. What strange times we live in, when the words “Free gift wrap” on that front page can be an incendiary issue for a brand.

Comment | November 2017