Bethesda’s Ethical Marketing Faux Pas

Marketing ethics is one of my favorite subjects to talk about, and we recently saw a great example of a company getting in big trouble by not giving ethics the attention it deserves. Here’s what went down.

The Situation

Bethesda has a longstanding reputation for creating high-quality games with large fanbases. It’s pretty common for these games to have a lot of bugs and issues on release, but they get them fixed and the games stand the test of time pretty well. Bethesda’s most recent game, Fallout 76, comes from a longstanding series with a huge following. One thing I’ll give Bethesda in regards to Fallout 76: they’ve had some moments of extreme honesty. I’m a major advocate for honesty, but Bethesda’s problem is that they weren’t consistent.

Here’s what went down:

  1. Bethesda releases Fallout 76. It has some bugs and issues and isn’t received all that well. However, they tell people up front that it will be a long journey to fix all the bugs, and that isn’t all that out of character for Bethesda. The real problem here is that they already lost a lot of goodwill with their community.
  2. Bethesda advertises the “Power Armor Edition” of Fallout 76. This version includes a custom power armor helmet and a cool canvas bag to hold it. It also costs a whopping $200.
  3. Bethesda sends out the Power Armor Edition to those customers that bought it. Instead of a canvas bag, the customers all found lower quality vinyl bags. Most people willing to shell out $200 for a premium edition of a game that includes memorabilia are probably pretty big fans of the game. They paid a premium price for a premium product and received something subpar. Needless to say, they weren’t thrilled.
  4. One customer reached out to customer support and asked about the low-quality bag, which is significantly different than advertised. The customer service agent responded saying “We are sorry that you aren’t happy with the bag. The bag shown in the media was a prototype and was too expensive to make. We aren’t planning on doing anything about it.”
  5. The entire Bethesda fanbase is furious
  6. Bethesda tried to make it up to them by giving them the some of the in-game currency that is used for microtransactions. The total value of the currency was about $5. 
  7. The Bethesda fanbase became even more furious at this fairly pathetic attempt at reconciliation.
  8. Eventually, Bethesda caved and produced the originally designed bags and sent them to all Power Armor Edition purchasers.

The Lesson

Now, how much money would Bethesda have saved from just doing what they said they would do in the first place? Not only did they alienate all their supporters, but they ended up spending tons of extra money to try to get them back. There were so many moments that could have been done better. Let’s look at a few:

  1. They could have just provided the advertised product in the first place. False advertising is pretty illegal, so it is best to avoid it.
  2. If they knew they were going to change the product, they could have let people know in advance and given them a chance to cancel their order if it was a deal breaker. Sure some people would have canceled, but not everyone. And everyone would be more or less happy with what they’d been given.
  3. If they had already made the mistake of sending out the inferior product, there was still some time for redemption. Refunding part of the purchase, allowing returns for full refunds, or even just deciding to bite the bullet and manufacture the original bag all would have saved them money and some reputation damage.
  4. While I admire the honesty of their customer service representative, it might have been better to look for a solution and inform the customer that a solution will be found. Saying “we don’t plan on doing anything about it” is a great way to show people you don’t really care about them.

While Bethesda made mistakes over and over again throughout this fiasco, they can all be traced back to some of my 5 key principles for ethical marketing. As a reminder, these principles are honesty, transparency, accountability, reliability, and consideration. Let’s take a look at how Bethesda stacks up against our principles:

  1. Honesty – The whole “lying about the product” thing doesn’t bode well for honesty. I will give them some credit for the honesty of the customer support rep. It isn’t the reps fault that Bethesda didn’t have a plan, and I applaud their honesty in letting the customer know that. It gives the customer a chance to do something about it, which they did.
  2. Transparency – Once again, the blunt customer service rep shows the most transparency by indicating that the reason they sent out a different product was the price of manufacturing. Again, it doesn’t make it okay, but the transparency is good. However, that transparency was needed earlier. If they had been up front with their customers like that at the beginning, this may have all been avoided.
  3. Accountability – The combined phrases of “We are sorry you aren’t happy” and “We aren’t planning on doing anything about it” may be in the running for the least accountable customer response ever. It doesn’t get much less accountable than recognizing that you are at fault and that you don’t care. They did eventually own up to it and make it right, so I will give them some credit for that.
  4. Reliability – They really missed the mark on this one. I generally use reliability to mean “you can be trusted to do what you said you’ll do”, and they just didn’t.
  5.  Consideration – If we’re looking at the original decisions, this one is probably the most egregiously transgressed principle. At some point, someone had to look at the manufacturing costs and say “These are just too expensive”. They would have had to decide what to do about it, and someone would have said to just make a cheaper product and ship that. This is the opposite of consideration. Instead of focusing on the customer and doing what would be best for them, they focused on their own profits. Now, I’m not against profits. Profits are what keep businesses alive, but if they become more important than keeping your promises to your customers, then you have a serious problem.

Short Takeaways

If you didn’t read everything before this and just want the quick takeaways from this story, here they are in super condensed form:

1. Don’t lie (kind of obvious, but clearly not everyone has a handle on this one)

2. If something goes wrong, don’t try to just brush it under the rug. Address it up front, and get it dealt with instead of waiting until you have an angry mob coming at you. At that point it gets much harder to deal with.