Chanel’s $825 Advent Calendar Was A Big Social Media Fail. What Can Indie Brands Learn From It?

The buzz Chanel generated with an $825 advent calendar inspired by its iconic No. 5 perfume wasn’t the kind of buzz it was looking for. After TikTokker Elise Harmon unboxed the advent calendar to reveal keychains, a string bracelet, stickers and a dustbag, among various sundries, social media exploded with criticism of Chanel’s chintziness. Writing in The New York Times about the controversy, Vanessa Friedman describes it as an example of “the shifting balance of power between brands and audience.”

We wondered what indie beauty brand founders and public relations executives thought the episode exposed about doing business today. So, for this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series posing questions to relevant to indie beauty, we asked 19 of them: What lessons should beauty brands learn from Chanel’s advent calendar fiasco?

Kimmy Scotti Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, Fig.1

Brands can’t assume allure, marketing and a big name will sell products, especially legacy and luxury companies. It just won’t fly. You can’t fool consumers. They are incredibly savvy and expect quality at every price.

Alli Reed Founder and CEO, Stratia

In the past, brands held all the information about their products and were able to maintain tight control over how that information was communicated and distributed. Social media has democratized that information, giving consumers both a stronger foundation of knowledge and a louder voice. This shift has removed some of the traditional power of luxury branding. These days, a dustbag with Chanel printed on it maybe isn't more valuable than any other dustbag.

Beauty brands need to be aware of the increasing power of consumer knowledge, and the increasing importance of products that clearly communicate their intrinsic value. We need products that work better and provide real value to the customer, not more limited-edition diamond-encrusted cash grabs.

Janel Luu Founder, Le Mieux

First and foremost, beauty brands need to take into account the power of social media and the impact the social media community has on the perception of a brand and its products. In fact, now that “unboxing” is a standard procedure in TikTok videos, one person’s experience can go viral in a short amount of time. The result? A brand or a product can either be tarnished or elevated.

With regard to Chanel’s advent calendar, one single individual pointed out the disparity between the hefty price tag and the actual value of the tiny items enclosed within. Yet, within a short period of time, that single experience was magnified exponentially through social media.

The lesson for all brands? Be aware that consumers are demanding more accountability and transparency, and social media is a useful tool to making that happen. The upside? With the fast pace of social media, today’s explosion of personal expression could dwindle to a blip on the radar in a few days. The downside? The extent that a brand image is impacted can also be unpredictable.

Shalom Lloyd Founder, Naturally Tribal Skincare

Customers have come to expect more from well-known luxury brands and these high expectations need to be lived up to. In fairness, they usually are. However, on this occasion, it appears customers feel let down.

If any lessons are taken from the past two years, as the world was shut down, consumers rethinking their reasons for buying products and supporting particular brands, beauty brands now have a responsibility to deliver value for money. The power of social media can catapult a brand to stardom and reduce the greatest brands to nothing which has been evident in a lot of cases. In the case of Chanel’s advent calendar, the voice of the customer reigns, and as a beauty brand ourselves, we have taken the following lessons on board:

Transparency is key! The lack of transparency in terms of contents, ingredients and makeup of a product or gift set can have a severely negative impact and mean that customers’ expectations are left unmet.

The power of social media is real! What do you do with a flood of negative comments or complaints on social media? A video being viewed over 14 million times does not align with the “all publicity is good publicity” mindset. When questions are left unanswered, customer negativity can spiral very quickly across the globe.

Honesty is the best policy! If we do something wrong, we should acknowledge, apologize and make it right.

Value for money! If we put an expensive product out on the market, we should be prepared to demonstrate that it is worth it. Consumers are savvier than ever before, we need to give them credit.

Brand value should be cherished! We all strive to become household names. Once we attain that “well-known brand” status, we should not become reliant on just the brand name. Complacency is not an option.

People remember! People will be watching to see if Chanel have learned from this when their 2022 advent calendar launches next year. Every situation, both positive and negative, can be turned into an opportunity.

Jason Wong Founder, Doe Lashes

Let the incidence with Chanel's advent calendar be a caution to brands to not overestimate their brand's power to just sell anything. While luxury brands can command higher prices because of the brand and experience it is built on, consumers are still looking for the product they buy to make sense with the price that they pay. What we saw with Chanel was a brand that overshot what they think people are willing to pay for a nice box and some sample-sized products.

Brands are built on the backs of their customers. It's important to conduct better research to read the room and respect the customers that are ultimately handing over their hard-earned cash for a product that they think was made in the interest of the customer.

Irina Gottesman Co-founder, House of Grō

I do understand Elise Harmon’s disappointment, and I believe that Chanel has learned their lesson and this gives them the opportunity to do better. I appreciate the full disclosure Chanel provided on the contents of their products prior to ordering, but from an iconic company like Chanel, the consumer rightfully expected more. Maybe, for the second advent calendar, Chanel will include a sample of a new product drop. I might even order one next year because I just know they will “Chanel” it up.

Kate Westad Founder, Palette by Pak

First, I absolutely love the idea of advent calendars, especially as a collectible, as an unsung vehicle for product launches, a launchpad for sustainability initiatives as well as exclusives.

Second, this could have been such an extraordinary experiential moment for not only the purchaser, but everyone watching the unboxing online, especially given the limited quantity, price, collectibility and exclusivity. It goes to show how legacy brands cannot ignore the power and magic of viral moments and the community social media creates. These are the moments brands dream of—and also how it can backfire when you simply ship it in.

Chanel also spoke about trying to be more sustainable with this calendar. However, this was a great opportunity for more sustainable and value-derived sampling by including full-size beauty and fragrance items. As we know, travel-size and sample-size plastics (and multi-material minis like fragrance) do not get recycled in curbside recycling and go straight to the landfill, our oceans and waterways. This is why New York and California have banned travel size in hotels in 2023.

This was also a huge miss on collabs. Notable and up-and-coming artists, creatives and other luxury cross-category brand collabs incorporating the Chanel and No. 5 logos in art, luxury collectibles, keepsakes, jewelry, candles as well as branded edible items like luxury chocolates, cookies, mints and candies could have created a sustainable, exciting, fresh and iconic experience for customers and true viral branding and storytelling moment for Chanel.

Akash Mehta Founder, Fable & Mane

There’s a real shift happening right now in the beauty industry with consumers having a greater voice and impact on the beautyscape. Whether it’s the success of a launch or even the new product development of a brand, consumers are becoming more vocal and sure of what they want to see from a brand. This is mainly due to the rise of social media topped up with the increased likelihood of virality today.

The beauty brands of tomorrow should put consumers first at all stages of their business. From focus groups to launch feedback, listening to your consumer is actually one of the post powerful techniques a business can do. So, I’m hoping all brands, big or small, will start shifting their models to incorporate a consumer-first mindset in their businesses today.

Having said this, there is always still a risk and a lack of control brands have to accept. Sometimes, we don’t truly know how a product will launch, advert be perceived or even celebrity endorsement will translate to the consumer. So, listening after is important to know how best to react and sometimes own up to mistakes to carve way for a better future.

Megan Brown Bennett CEO and president, Light Years Ahead

I would say, from a PR perspective, the company fell on its sword and owned up to its mistake. That’s what any brand should do when they choose to market something that ends up being misleading: Apologize, change, do better next time!

Lina Barker Co-Founder and Marketing Director, Aaron Wallace

This controversy shows the power of social media and the close connections consumers now have with their favorite brands as a result. Whilst big legacy brands who are long established are playing catch up, new beauty brands have an opportunity to build that deep connection into their DNA.

The lessons I would take away are that, one, working closely with your customers when developing new ideas is more crucial than ever and, two, being present on social platforms is essential, whether you want to be or not. Chanel not being active on TikTok robbed them of the opportunity to address this head on in the moment it was posted and before it blew up.

Lindsey Smolan Founder, VLIV Communications

This is a great lesson in having a holistic communications approach where the marketing team can weigh in and provide insight on every step of product strategy. Brands need to be mindful of where consumers are at these days. The landscape has changed, as have consumers' desires and priorities.

Gen Z is the consumer of the future, and brands who are not prioritizing this generation's needs, way of communicating and values will be missing the mark. Even luxury legacy brands like Chanel need to ensure they are listening to this generation and meeting them where they are at. For brands that aren't correctly using social media platforms like TikTok to authentically interact with their consumers will miss out on building connections and community with the next generation.

Gabriela Hernandez Co-founder, Bésame Cosmetics

I think the lesson to take away from this is that, when designing products, we need to consider the expectations of the customer. We always aim to surprise and delight our customers. When purchasing luxury and premium products, customers expect not only the allure of the luxury brand, but also a sense of value. The set they offered did contain some products with a known price point, but several others that did not like gifts with purchase items or branded merchandise. Since the consumer did not see a direct correlation between what they paid and the value of the items in the set, they felt it was not worth the investment. I think they failed to explain the special nature of the other items included (scarcity, collectability) so customers could see the value in those products as well.

Isaac Doustar Founder, Doucce

Consumerism has changed over the past decade. With the growth of numerous social media platforms, the end consumer has access to educate themselves on what brands are doing and can use these platforms to voice their experiences or feelings towards a brand’s actions. Because of this, companies must play, no matter how big or iconic their brand may be. Consumers have always expected to get what they pay for, but now there is a sense of accountability.

Advent calendars have become a huge trend as a way to get consumers excited about the holidays. While presentation is important, the products inside the advent calendar must be reflective of the price. With the emergence of new brands, the power players must shift and acknowledge the new playing field and adjust accordingly or they risk losing ground and profits to newer and up-and-coming brands.

Liana Blomquist Founder and CEO, Brooklyn Rooftop Botanicals

I believe the Chanel advent calendar was an unfortunate marketing and product development gaffe. From seeing the contents and reviews, and from past experience, it looks as if they mostly used excess gift with purchase, sampling or packaging elements as the calendar gifts.

Excess is a big concern for beauty brands because they end up costing a lot of money to keep in storage. The alternative to using these pieces creatively, the way Chanel did, would be to simply destroy them, but this is where I believe the learning should come from. Brands who have or are investing in better forecasting systems to reduce this type of excess should be using this opportunity now and in the future to talk about it more.

Excess isn’t only destroyed by incineration, it’s also sent to landfills and shipped to other countries to “get rid of the problem.” This is something the entirety of the personal care industry is responsible for and needs to take accountability and invest internally to solve the problem.

Furthermore, advent calendars take up a lot of unnecessary resources to produce and are often unrecyclable. So, another lesson here would be to put the value into the gifts themselves year on year and to offer a reusable advent calendar system to, again, push a sustainability story. Customers are now, more than ever, considering sustainability and value for price as the key factors when purchasing products, which is why Chanel’s advent calendar received so much backlash. None of it sent a message of real value or owned responsibility which, in this day and age, won’t sit well with customers.

Emily Heathe Rudman Founder and CEO, Emilie Heathe

In general, I think the major takeaway is that brands have to really put quality and value at the forefront of their strategies. Missteps will happen and are a part of the learning process and even the larger brands can make mistakes. Part of correcting those mistakes is how you handle the communication during and after.

You can sell anyone anything once, but, after that, the product has to speak for itself. With luxury brands in particular, they have built their reputation on many things, but a majority of their brand equity revolves around their high-quality hand-crafted products with an eye for fashion aesthetic, uniqueness and durability.

Of course, you buy into the lifestyle, and there is a cost to creating that aspiration that customers buy into, but the expectation at the luxury level in particular is a certain level. Had this calendar been made by another mass or masstige brand, I doubt that the comments would have been as surprising or as shocking.

Customers have become increasingly savvy and educated. At times, that self-education may be very biased and not fully informed. For example, in a recent post by Chanel Beauty involving their eyeshadows, there are several negative comments about how much the compact looks like another mass brand. The reality of those comments is not wrong, but, in actuality, Chanel launched their compacts way before the other brand and likely inspired that brand in their own designs.

To quote some colleagues of mine, "Companies should maintain their level of quality in every product they create and promote. If they ever sell anything that is lower quality than their typical product, the price should reflect that discrepancy. Advent calendars traditionally are used as PR gifts or VIP gifts and were not always available for purchase. Perhaps based on the products, a PR gifting would have been more appropriate. At the minimum, a careful look at competitors in the luxury space should have been researched and performed because a difference would have been obvious."

Although the brand did show the products ahead on their site, we all know that nothing, especially luxury and in particular beauty, is the same as experiencing these things in person. Items such as an empty dustbag and the plastic bracelets do not feel representative of the quality or value one would expect.

Luxury consumers in particular will splurge on luxury goods but they are not frivolous. They spend money with an expectation of a certain level of quality or service. A majority of them are well-educated and will hold brands accountable if they feel as if they are being taken advantage of. Customers in general are willing to pay for a better experience and a higher quality because those are the most meaningful and memorable.

Grace Eleyae Founder, Grace Eleyae

As the beauty industry moves more and more towards inclusivity, controversies like this one make it clear the importance of connecting with customers in order to provide value. At the same time, this was a great lesson in branding and PR—if the advent calendar was meant to create added buzz around the brand—because then it seems to have worked perfectly. In an age where so many mediums are competing for consumers’ attention, beauty brands have to be strategic in their efforts to hold any kind of gaze, and this has gotten the brand back to center stage.

Jono Waks Founder, JonoPRO

Beware the internet mob! It only takes one thing to upset someone and, if it takes off, wow, you've got a consumer crisis on your hands that will spread quickly. In this case, Chanel created what is obviously an inferior product—I mean, stickers? A $2 branded shoe bag?

This said, they did list what they were selling in the description. Sadly, people don't read what they should, merely glancing over an item, then getting upset with the brand for not delivering what they envisioned.

A good social media team with the ability to manage a crisis is incredibly important. Not all social media is about kittens and grandma doing the latest TikTok dance, sometimes it's a genuine gripe that, if not nipped in the bud, will spiral out of control as in the case of the Chanel advent calendar. People like to pile on and that's what happened here.

I'm sure none of the worldwide complainers actually read the product description, but does it matter? The damage is done. A good crisis team on social, maybe with a bit of humor and the discrete offer of a refund, would have calmed these waters.

Evelyn Subramaniam Founder, Bija Essence

One big lesson that Bija Essence clarified from Chanel's beauty advent calendar controversy is that many consumers will pay any price for a brand product and/or to be associated with it. In this case, Chanel. We all know that most luxury brands' products have very large margins. Many customers are willing to pay a premium on those goods, just as many paid $825 for the Chanel advent calendar, which total value is said to have been around $250. Therefore, the lesson here is that people are buying into the brand, experience or association. Case in point: The calendar is currently sold out!

In my view, Chanel listed the calendar’s content for all to review before purchase. Therefore, it is up to the customer to dictate the market value.

Yaminah Childress Founder, Yany Beauty

Chanel’s beauty advent calendar controversy is just one in a long line of social media controversies faced by businesses in different industries this year. There are definitely lessons to be learned. For beauty brands specifically, I think the two major lessons are:

Don’t over sensationalize. Many beauty brands have excellent products, but I think showing the reality is better when promoting them to customers. Overpromising and delivering something less than expected will surely make a brand go viral in the worst way.

Deliver on your brand promise. When people pay for luxury products, they expect luxury; when they pay for clean, they expect clean, etc. If a beauty brand delivers what they promise, I think all will be fine! Controversy averted.

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