By Sarah Burns,  

If you’re someone who keeps small children safely at arm’s length, you’ve probably never been to a Build-A-Bear store. Lucky you, I say, because they’re hellish at the best of times. It’s not just the synthetic fur that gets up my nose, it’s the whole decision-making process, which is just far too demanding for most five-year-olds.

Which carcass? Which voice box? What about outfits? No, you can’t have the England kit and the ballet tutu. It’s a wig or glasses not both. Then it’s off to the stuffing machine, which is a kind of fluffy version of a sausage-maker, and to wait around for your bear’s birth certificate to be printed.

Or that’s my memory of it, anyway and I do remember that when you hand over your card it’s a big bill, easily in the region of £50 if you’re not firm, so you can understand that the chance to pay your child’s age for a bear – just £6 if you’ve got a six-year-old, £7 if your child is seven and so on – was very attractive to parents.

So attractive, in fact, that last Thursday they queued in their thousands at shopping centres up and down the country. It was certainly an inspired idea for a promotion, but it was so popular that stocks soon started running low, stores had to close and a lot of tired, scratchy parents and their offspring, who had stood in line for several hours, were turned away. The aim of the promotion was to boost Build-A-Bear customer loyalty, because you had to be a member of the company’s rewards programme to participate. However, judging by the roar of disappointment on social media, it had the opposite effect.

So did Build-A-Bear fail to obey the first rule of promotions? Were they guilty of not thinking it through? Well, it would appear so. This was an international event, which took place in the US, Canada and the UK, and chief exec Sharon Price John told NBC’s Today programme, “It was beyond anything we could have ever imagined. There was really no way for us to have estimated those crowds. We were fully stocked, fully staffed.”

She did have the good grace to apologise, but the point is that when you plan any promotion, whether it’s a social media campaign, a prize draw or a BOGOF, you have to imagine the unimaginable, think the unthinkable, identify every possible potential scenario and work out in advance how you’re going to deal with them. If I’d been in charge of this promotion I’d certainly have had a solid contingency plan in place for running out of bears.

No-one wants the police called to their stores to control crowds and break up fights. And surely no-one could fail to be moved by tearful and disappointed children, so it wasn’t a good day for Build-A-Bear, but did they really lose out? If your child really, really, really wants that bear you’ll be back and you’ll probably use the discount voucher that poor shop assistant handed you when he gave you the news that there were no bears left, but if you’d hadn’t heard of Build-A-Bear at the start of last week, the TV news stories and press coverage mean you have now.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Build-A-Bear cynically engineered this debacle for the publicity. There are definitely instances when the old adage doesn’t apply and the company would have to have been crazy to have taken that risk. This will definitely go down as one of the biggest promotional disasters in marketing history, but we’ll have to wait and see how serious the long-term damage to the brand has been.

Sarah Burns is Managing Director of Prize Promotion agency Prizeology

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