When men’s clothing startup Bonobos recently made an announcement regarding the future of the Bonobos brand, they probably didn’t expect the negative response they quickly received. On June 16, Facebook users were the first members of the public to learn that Walmart was buying Bonobos for an asking price of $310 million. This move is apparently part of Walmart’s effort to boost its e-commerce presence and compete with Amazon more effectively. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that social media users were immediately, vocally alarmed about this move. After all, Bonobos has made its reputation as a hip, contemporary company. Whether you love or hate Walmart, few would argue that there’s anything hip about the box-store giant.
When you post an announcement on social media, you will generally get a sense of the public reaction quite quickly. Within hours of making their momentous post, Bonobos faced an enormous backlash from its target audience. Fairly or not, quite a few Facebook users accused Bonobos of selling out their principles. Negative and incredulous responses outweighed positive responses nearly two to one. Quickly transitioning into damage control mode, Bonobos released a statement reassuring customers that nothing would change about the brand or its products.
The company further insisted that Bonobos products wouldn’t appear in Walmart stores or at Walmart’s online hub. Nevertheless, it seems that these protestations mostly fell on deaf ears. After all, management will soon change and it is impossible to know if Walmart will keep any promises that Bonobos makes now. Even if these assurances of continuity are totally sound, they merely sidestep a major issue that Bonobos’ customer base is now grappling with. Bonobos has built its reputation by appealing to millennials. By and large, most millennials see Walmart as a grasping, unethical company. Whether this worldview is fair or not, it essentially precludes condoning any type of alliance with Walmart.
It is easy to sympathize with Bonobo’s decision to sell. After all, $310 million is a hefty sum. At the same time, the company should have known that this move would inspire an immediate backlash in the social media world. In response to this controversy, Bonobos founder Andy Dunn posted a personal essay directly to Medium.com, the popular e-publishing site. In this response, Dunn discussed his need to pay off the $150,000 debt he had incurred in business school. It remains to be seen if the Bonobos brand will maintain its cachet as part of the Walmart family.