On July 30, ConvertKit, an email marketing company, sent a mass apology email to its customers. With the subject line reading “Why we’re staying Convertkit,” the email canceled the company’s rebrand to “Seva” and apologized for the “pain, confusion, and frustration,” caused by their rebranding campaign.
Issues surrounding the new name arose after ConvertKit announced the change at its annual conference on July 1. “Seva” is Sanskrit for “selfless service” performed without reward and was believed to help spiritual growth in ancient India. Nathan Barry, founder and CEO of ConvertKit and co. thought the word would encompass their mission to serve digital creators.
But the name change came across as tone deaf and offensive.
The ConvertKit team was quickly bombarded with complaints, outrage, and genuine confusion over the name change that became cultural appropriation. To Barry and his team’s credit, they have apologized. They’re going to remain ConvertKit and apologetic. But one question remains:
How did a successful startup making over $10 million per year mess up this badly?
Today in the Rain, we’re performing our own public relations case study surrounding ConvertKit’s rebranding process. By studying how even good-intentioned companies (temporarily) fall from grace, we’re going to prep you, and maybe even some people at ConvertKit, on how to implement public relations concepts into your business model.
The Role of the Public Relations Professional
There are many roles the PR professional can and should play in an organization. We’re going to look at only a few roles in-depth, but if you want to learn more about others, here’s some suggested reading. These books are used in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism curriculum and my following analysis relies on their information.
- THINK Public Relations, by Dennis Wilcox, Glen Cameron, Bryan Reber & Jae-Hwa Shin
- Cases in Public Relations Management, by Patricia Swann
We’ll be looking at what I consider the 3 roles/responsibilities a PR professional often fulfills that are most relevant to the ConvertKit rebranding case.
1. Issue Anticipation
Through environmental monitoring, extensive research, and publics/audience connections and conversations, companies need to always be on the defense and anticipate trouble. This role often falls onto an in-house public relations professional, who can serve alone or with a team as an “early warning system.”
2. Change Agentry
People don’t like change. Public relations professionals can serve to assist a company through external or internal change, communicating with all parties to ease a transition.
3. Crisis Management
Also referred to as crisis communication, a public relations professional may be relied on to minimize harm in times of crisis. Harm, in this case, is usually directly proportional to the company’s reputation, which can affect current and future profitability and partnerships. Issue anticipation comes back during crisis management, as a professional must act fast to address the current crisis while preemptively minimizing future damage.
Before we take a look at how ConvertKit did in these three areas, let’s look at their rebranding-turned-scandal timeline.
ConvertKit Cancels Seva Rebrand: A Timeline
~2016: Founder and CEO of ConvertKit Nathan Barry starts to consider a name change to something less “sales-y” and more focused on how the company helps online creators
2016-2018: Barry and the ConvertKit team explore numerous name options, including Legend(dot)com, and their feasibility in terms of acquiring a domain and trademark rights
February 2018: Barry and co. meet with the president of prAna, Russ Hopcus, to learn from their business model. Hopcus mentions that most of the office is out for a “seva” session. The ConvertKit team is enthralled by the word.
March 2018: After 6-7 weeks of negotiation, ConvertKit acquires Seva.com for $310,000, down from an initial $500,000 ask from the previous owner. Note-ConvertKit cites over $10 million in revenue per year.
July 1, 2018: ConvertKit reveals their rebranding campaign, complete with the name Seva and new logos, at Craft + Commerce, the company’s annual convention held in Boise, Idaho.
July 16, 2018: Founder and CEO Barry interviews on the Domain Name Wire Podcast with Andrew Allemann, detailing the long process of the name change and acquisition.
“Two weeks” prior and up to July 29: According to Barry, he held multiple many-hour conversations with Hindu and Sikh people, learning about the word seva and its cultural and religious significance
July 29: Barry on behalf of ConvertKit emails ConvertKit affiliates the decision to remain ConverKit, touching on the recently-learned cultural and religious significance of word seva. The subject line reads, “We made a mistake. We learned. Here’s where we’re headed next.” The email ends with a P.S. link to a pre-released official letter on the decision. The sender is “Nathan from ConvertKit,” sent from nathan(at)convertkit(dot)com.
July 30: Barry on behalf of ConvertKit mass emails ConvertKit customers. The email is <100 words and links to the official letter on the decision. The sender is simply “Nathan Barry,” sent from support(at)convertkit(dot)com. The official ConvertKit Twitter account tweets about the decision and links to the letter.
Sources for this timeline include the aformentioned DNW Podcast interview with Nathan Barry along with emails I received directly from ConvertKit.
What Went Wrong
We have an overview of some relevant public relations principles as well as ConvertKit’s “seva” timeline. Now, let’s take a look at what went wrong on their PR front.
*While I am a customer of ConvertKit, I do not work for the company directly. All of the following observations on “ConvertKit cancels seva” reflect my own opinion on their public relations practices or lack thereof, based on my own academic understanding of PR studies. I am currently pursuing a B.A. in Media and Journalism with a Public Relations concentration at the School of Media and Journalism of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Does ConvertKit have a Public Relations Team?
In order to best control and serve the PR roles we outlined above, we first have to have a PR individual or team in place. But does ConvertKit even have a PR professional(s) onboard?
ConvertKit’s about page explicitly states that their small team consists of 34 members. Interestingly, none of the members on the page hold a title including “public relations” or even “external” or “communications.” The closest external-facing title I personally recognize is Customer Success. With 6 out of 34 members on this page, the title suggests a customer service role moreso than company-wide PR.
I’m not saying that no one at ConvertKit is aware of or working on the company’s image and relations. More likely, the role of public relations professional has fallen to an executive as a secondary role. Whatever the case, ConvertKit seems to lack a dedicated public relations team with the sole purpose, or enough time, to properly guard and upkeep company reputation and relationships. This seems to have led to the mishaps in the following areas of PR:
1. Issue Anticipation: Misguided and/or Incomplete
As stated before, anticipating issues and conflict is a key role public relations professionals fulfill. In the case of ConvertKit’s name change and overall rebranding, issue anticipation was present but misguided and/or incomplete.
- Anticipated customer navigation confusion, and instantly redirected the new Seva(dot)com to the still-operational ConvertKit(dot)com.
- Anticipated affiliate unhappiness and confusion in how to update links. Reached out to affiliates about processes for staying operational, and framed the change as positive and beneficial to all.
Missed the Mark
- Did not do sufficient research into the name “seva” and it’s cultural and religious implications.
- Did not conduct focus groups or surveys with appropriate consumers of ConvertKit and/or followers of “seva” (or, failed to listen to results or pool enough people preemtively)
This was the large mistake that ultimately took down ConvertKit’s entire rebranding effort. While their plan to rebrand had started ~2 years before the announcement, it’s important to note that the team only began considering the term “seva” in February of 2018, and immediately rushed into purchasing the domain and rights.
Research and issue anticipation takes time. By rushing into purchasing the name and rights to “seva,” ConvertKit let the task of conducting proper research into the name fall to the wayside. Ideally, ConvertKit should have still looked into how to buy the domain and rights to their name of interest, but ultimately waited to purchase until extensive research was done on the name.
Extensive research should include a general internet search, followed by origin history, and in the case of such a public-facing decision such as this, focus group and/or survey research. By asking ConvertKit consumers to give feedback on the name, ConvertKit may have been able to change direction before losing resources and face.
In the case of “seva,” an internet search quickly shows that the word is Sanskrit and full of religious history. Putting the extra time, effort, and even money into finding and surveying relevant cultural and religious audiences on the meaning of the word could have saved ConvertKit from this rebranding mistake quite early in the process.
2. Change Agentry: Successfully Guided Publics on Change
Kudos to ConvertKit on this one! If the company had followed through with a different name for the transition, I believe their change agentry efforts would have had a great positive impact on the company overall.
- Framed the rebrand and name change as a positive change for the company, its users, and its affiliates. Went above and beyond in this aspect by announcing the change at the Craft + Commerce convention, appealing to loyal customer and affiliate pathos.
- Explained goal and thought process elegantly yet thoroughly. While the team later realized the meaning of “seva” to be more than originally thought, the delivery of their original understanding of the word was conducted well, focusing on the goal of selflessly giving/empowering creatives (whether or not you agree with that mission).
3. Crisis Management
Crisis management techniques are always tricky. In some crisis, the best course of action for a company is to apologize and take full responsibility. In others, doing so could result in large legal troubles. The complexity involved in minimizing and ending a crisis is immense, and only hindsight is 20/20!
That being said, let’s look at how ConvertKit’s responses to the rebranding scandal stack up!
Remember that comparing their actions to their options is what makes this a beneficial case study. At the end of it all, if your opinion differs, that’s perfectly okay.
- Formal letter posted online and linked to from apology emails was well-worded, personal, and emphasized the apology.
- Navigating to seva(dot)com brings up a large banner linking to the letter .
- Early email to affiliates was personal and emphasized the company’s care for its partners. It also detailed how ConvertKit went about learning more about the word “seva” and listened to publics, and apologized.
- Mass email to ConvertKit users also linked to the formal letter and was timely.
Missing Crisis Management Techniques
- The mass email to ConvertKit users sent on July 31 ran under 100 words. While it linked to the formal letter, the email’s vague nature piques curiosity instead of quickly summarizing and apologizing for the mistake.
- As of August 1, ConvertKit is still listed as “Seva” on LinkedIn.
One Viable Technique, Gone Wrong
This last point gets a little complicated. This isn’t an example of ConvertKit failing to employ a needed crisis management technique. Instead, ConvertKit engaged in open conversation with their affiliates and consumers, which can serve as a viable crisis management technique, in an accidentally harmful way that further objectified the word seva.
Here’s an example, in the form of Barry’s response to a ConvertKit affiliate in the “ConvertKit Affiliate Family” Facebook group. I’ve removed the affiliate’s personal details, but stand by naming Barry as a public figure.
The affiliate and Barry’s comments were no doubt made in lighthearted manner. But in retrospect, they seem distasteful. An affiliate has de facto reduced the word “seva” from a meaningful, religious word to an acronym joke. And the CEO and founder of the ConvertKit simply laughs along with him.
Unfortunately, ConvertKit’s failure to thoroughly research the word “seva” led to the team overtly misinforming its affiliates and consumers. Instead of serving as a beneficial crisis management technique, responses only further implicated ConvertKit and its mistake.
We’ve gone over the nitty-gritty. Now what big-picture lessons can we learn from ConvertKit’s rebranding mishap? Here are the big ones to learn and consider in your own personal and professional life.
- Issue anticipation is king. Even the best, most well-intentioned company needs to pre-prepare for a crisis (think of it like an emergency exit plan).
- Cultural appropriation is real and while you should strive to respect all cultures and religions in your personal life, it’s arguably more important for businesses to avoid a mishap.
- Dedicate enough resources and/or time to public relations practice. I still don’t know if ConvertKit has a team or individual solely employed to conduct public relations. But whether or not they do, they need to dedicate more time and possibly personnel to the cause.
ConvertKit is not a bad company. Their heart is in the right place, and their product is good! I’ve personally been using them for email marketing since October of 2017. With more time and possibly personnel dedicated to PR practice, I’m sure they can thrive from now on.
PS- I’m graduating in May 2019 if you need me, ConvertKit!
Join us in the Rain
Loving our down-to-earth, easy-to-understand and research-backed posts on mental health? Join us in the rain (wink wink ;D) and on our email list to get updates on posts, products and resources. We'd love to have you!