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Interviews

West Elm’s Crisis Marketing Playbook

June 18, 2021
Mae Rice

Furniture retailer West Elm has been having problems. Customers have been railing on their quality and service for years, and the pandemic led to the kind of shipping delays that make DTC brands weep. Why, then, are they doing better than ever?

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Furniture retailer West Elm has been having… problems. 

Their website currently acknowledges “upholstered furniture shipping delays” due to the pandemic and a snowy February in the South, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

West Elm’s customer satisfaction issues predate the pandemic. By years. Their average customer satisfaction score? 1.3 out of 5 stars.

This week, we asked two customers whose couches have been delayed for months — Esther Hoff, producer at the Webby Awards, and novelist Mihret Sibhat — the question on everyone’s mind.

How is West Elm staying in business? 

A stellar Instagram

Typically a “suspicious” consumer, Sibhat never looked up reviews before buying her West Elm couch — its Instagram made it feel immediately trustworthy:

  • The photos looked beautiful. “I felt intoxicated by the pictures,” she said.
  • It had clout. West Elm has 2.5 million Instagram followers.
  • Her network endorsed the brand. Several of her friends followed West Elm.
  • She recognized the furniture. She’d seen it in Architectural Digest and other design-focused Instagram accounts. 

Smart positioning

West Elm owns its niche, which more or less boils down to “affordable style for millennials.” 

Both Sibhat and Hoff think of it as a still-affordable step up from IKEA, in terms of price and elegance — one with few direct competitors.

Pristine showrooms

“It’s just so aesthetically pleasing,” Hoff said of West Elm’s showrooms.

Before the pandemic, the one near her office was her “happy place.” She visited often to see how different items went together, and get a first-hand feel for the fabrics. 
It helped her trust the products — just like the brand Instagram helped Sibhat.

No comments

West Elm’s website doesn’t let customers rate or review products, Sibhat and Hoff both noted.

On social, too, it’s relatively comment-proof. The company posts frequently on Instagram, where brands can delete unflattering comments. On Twitter, where mentions can’t be moderated and West Elm tweets get regularly ratioed, the company rarely posts — unless it’s replying to angry customers.

Constant, personalized marketing pushes

“They have insane targeted marketing,” Hoff said. Look at a pillow, and it’ll pop up in your social feeds and email inbox forever. If it goes on sale, you’ll get an alert.

“They just wear you down,” Hoff said.

Our takeaway?

Great marketing can mask serious issues. We give West Elm’s marketing team 5 out of 5 stars — but we wouldn’t buy a couch from them. Ever. 

Mae Rice
about the author

Mae Rice is senior editor at MarketerHire. A long-time content marketer, she enjoys interviewing marketing experts and learning about the weird and wonderful feedback loops that connect marketing and culture. She also loves any ad that makes her say "Huh?!" — especially Tim and Eric's ad for Totino's pizza rolls, which she watches way more often than you would think.

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