Sharing Means Clout : Urban Outfitters v Indie Artist

From the time an indie artist blogged (and tweeted) that Urban Outfitters had ripped off the design of her Etsy-based necklace line to the time that the ripped-off items were no longer on the Urban Outfitters website: one business day.

Stevie Koerner (@imakeshinylove) explains that her United/World of Love line, sold on Etsy, enabled her to quit her day job. But, she told her readers/customers late Wednesday evening, @UrbanOutfitters was selling “I Heart Destination” necklaces that ripped off not only her design but some of her marketing copy.

Through the power of free digital tools like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook and the growing ubiquity of the Internet, Koerner’s story spread around the globe. It was a Twitter trending topic mid-day Thursday. When I checked the Urban Outfitters website Thursday night, the offending necklaces were no longer available. (Gone, too, were any negative comments about trade practices.) That’s amazing. Of course, Urban Outfitters has not yet acknowledged that it pulled the merchandise.

I trace the bones of the story at WiredPen. Here are my take-aways, for the marketing-type folks in the crowd:

1. As others have pointed out before now, groundswell often starts with discussion within a niche network. In this case, the story spread initially through the indie arts/crafts community.

2. A David-and-Goliath story is like honey to the media. In this case, the story played out in online (not traditional) media, both semi-traditional (Newsweek’s Tumbler, BoingBoing) and interpersonal (Twitter, Facebook). The momentum came from sharing the original story; subsequent media posts added facts and tidbits but the basic story was unchanged.

3. Industry norms are coming under scrutiny for the same reason the open-source software movement works: many eyes see all bugs. Fashion designs can’t be copyrighted. (Labels can, however, be trademarked.) Usually, however, the copying moves in the other direction: haute couture serves as a template for less-expensive knock-offs. In this case, the power relationship was flipped on its ear, and many consumers were not amused.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of a few passionate people. In the overall scheme of Urban Outfitters — customer base, products sold, revenue — this wasn’t even a flea. And yet. The Philadelphia-based company pulled the items off its (virtual) shelf. They have yet to explain why, but the fact that the product was GONE within one business day of the story coming to light … that’s a holy cow!

If your company isn’t monitoring its name and brands on Twitter and Facebook, your life is a train wreck waiting to happen.

Oh, and take a bow, Twitter, even though this sort of action was not why the guys created the tool.

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