I’ve lived in Cincinnati off and on since I came this way from Valparaiso, Indiana, to attend college at Xavier University. I’ve always loved to be able to take advantage of the things a sizable city has to offer, but not have to deal the hassles a big city presents. I’ve spent years in both Chicago and Manhattan, but I’m more of a small city guy. With the announcement this week of the Major League Baseball All-Star game coming to Cincinnati in 2015, I thought it was a good opportunity to put together a piece showing a reputation management gaffe in the Queen City.
Starting in 2001, the biggest issue with Cincinnati is that people stopped going downtown. At that time, there were tragic events that escaladed in what many call the worst race riots in our country in 25 years. Both sides were very angry, with every right to be, and it made everyone hesitant to spend time downtown. Gradually, the highest rated restaurant in the country left, the biggest department store left, and a vibrant city turned into a ghost town at night.
In a bizarre coincidence, during that same year of 2001, the town of Newport, Kentucky built a huge complex right on the Ohio River across from Cincinnati. It consisted of a dozen restaurants, shopping, theaters, etc., which added to the reduction in business and nightlife in Cincinnati.
Around 2006 it started to change. The city built both a new football stadium as well as a baseball stadium. The city invested in public parks, and slowly people started to come back. It has been fun to be witness to the city gradually coming back together. In 2010, Cincinnati embarked on a project called The Banks, somewhat of an answer to Newport on the Levee, only ten years late. The project called for condos, bars, premium restaurants, as well as shopping, directly between the two stadiums.
This February, directly adjacent to the Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds, a huge restaurant/brewery called The Moerlein Lager House opened. You literally could walk 100 feet out the door and show your ticket and be in the Reds game.
Cincinnati has a rich tradition of breweries. Many of the first inhabitants of Cincinnati were of German decent, and breweries began popping up all over the city. In 1890, Cincinnati had the third largest production of beer per capita in the entire country. As Budweiser and Miller began to get a stranglehold on beer production, the breweries slowly died out, taking away some of the heritage of Queen City.
The city couldn’t have been more excited to open the Moerlein Lager House. It was a sense of pride that we were going to once again start brewing the beers of the past, as well as an amazing place to come before and after Reds games, which in the past was non-existent. It also had symbolism in that the city had been tying to rebuild itself for the last ten years, and this complex was finally a taste of the completed process. I made a trip down at the grand opening and it actually exceeded my expectations with the views and all of the photos and murals of Cincinnati’s brewing past.
Moerlein was in the news for all the right reasons. Unfortunately, that came to a screeching halt only a month into the baseball season.
The Chicago Cubs were coming into town the first weekend in May, and the restaurant took out a full-page ad in a local paper as shown below, with the top saying “Wrigley Field South!”
Here is a restaurant that was basically built with the hopes of tapping in to civic pride, and within 90 days of opening, they are completely disregarding the home team and calling themselves “Wrigley Field South.”
Within 48 hours, it was the actual lead story on the local news, and social media blew up with request for people to boycott Moerlein Lager House. They quickly began to realize that this promotion wasn’t going over so well, so they went to Facebook with this ‘apology’:
Hey everyone. hold up a sec! Yeah, we admit it might have been a little confusing, but “Wrigley South” is A RALLY FOR OUR REDS! It’s a chance to cheer on our Reds and give visiting Cubs fans a taste of what makes Cincinnati so special! We are REDS through and through…always and forever! We’re not selling any Old Style beer here either we are exporting Cincinnati!
The Facebook users weren’t exactly convinced that what was written was an actual apology, and another 100+ nasty comments came in. Moerlein finally relented and added this to their Facebook page:
We admit the upcoming promotion for the next Reds series was unfortunately misguided with respect to message, and we are truly sorry and apologize if we’ve offended any fans.
Our intention was to help cheer on our Reds and give visiting Cubs fans a taste of what makes Cincinnati so special, showcasing our great new riverfront and our city and to bring positive exposure to it. It was not intended to root for the away team, and we apologize if it was taken that way. We are Reds fans through and through. We are going to call this promotional event what it was truly intended to be “a rally for our Reds.”
Because sporting team allegiance isn’t the most polarizing issue in the world, the news cycle died down after a few weeks. That said, this was an obvious gaffe that could have easily been avoided. One phrase I always like to fall back on is “Dance with the one that brought you.” This mistake is a great example. The whole success or Moerlein Lager House is based on repeat customers who live in Cincinnati and attend Reds games. Alienating that group isn’t the best recipe for success in building a user base.
If they could turn back the clock, the lessons would be:
- Have multiple people proofread any marketing material, even if from different departments, to be sure it makes sense.
- Examine the goal of the marketing material. Is it to allure new customers? If so, at what expense?
- When you make a mistake, own up to it…the first time. We live in a forgiving society. Taking ownership of an error always ends better than trying to make excuses.
All said, I still make my way down to the Lager House quite often, and wish them the best of luck. I just hope they learned from this snafu for future promotional initiatives.