Ten times businesses ruined their brands by mistreating consumers

From being homophobic to racist, some companies have learned the hard way that you shouldn’t offend your customers

Ten times businesses ruined their brands by mistreating consumers

It’s surprising how many organisations can be tactless when dealing with consumers. Given the public is the one keeping them in business, you’d think they wouldn’t insult them or even inflict physical violence. Think again. Even huge businesses like McDonald’s and United Airlines have been caught mistreating their customers.

Don’t believe us? Then check out these ten times companies employees’ actions have been questionable to say the least.

(1) NatWest

Veganism is on the rise, with reportedly three million vegans residing in the UK and huge vegan protests taking place annually in London. However, it’s getting on the nerves of some – but one NatWest employee didn’t do a very good job of staying professional and hiding it when he was with a customer. 

In February of this year, a woman reached out to NatWest for a loan for a £400 nutrition diploma. But the response she received was shocking. After finding out what the woman was vegan, the NatWest employee who’d picked up the phone the customer that “all vegans should be punched in the face.”

Understandably, the woman, who didn’t want to be named, was appalled by the outburst. “Being vegan is a lifestyle choice, I shouldn’t be penalised for it, especially by a big organisation,” she told the BBC. NatWest has since apologised and given the woman £200 in compensation and offered to pay for her diploma while the employee will be subject to disciplinary hearings.  

Some extra training for employees on how to keep your thoughts to yourself is definitely needed.

(2) Z Palette

The beauty industry can turn pretty ugly. Take Z Palette, the customisable makeup palette brand for example. In 2017 it courted controversy after it released a new product: the Z Potter. While a machine that removes makeup from its original pan so it can be placed into a custom palette usually isn’t cause for concern, the company’s social media behaviour certainly was. 

Some savvy customers pointed out through Instagram comments that instead of buying the $85 kit, you could simply get the same results by using a hot plate. And then, as they say, the manure hit the windmill. 

Z Palette didn’t take lightly to the comments, Allure reported. Rather than taking a stoic stance, the official account started hurling abuse against people like “You look like a cheap date but we’re not messing with you” and “You’re in a dorm room. It may be a bit of a stretch for your budget.” 

Shocked by the tone in these messages, some people reportedly thought that Z Palette’s account had been hacked. However, that wasn’t the case. In fact, things soon took an almost surreal turn with Z Palette first putting up a post about “mean-spirited comments from people” who had jumped “on the bandwagon”. It then put up a Winston Churchill quote from one of his World War II speeches, saying:  “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” The later was later deleted, Revelist reported.  

Unfortunately for Z Palette, this behaviour didn’t go unnoticed, with many calling for a boycott of the brand, and influencers like Kathleen Lights and partner companies distancing themselves from the brand. 

Who knew that insulting potential customers wouldn’t win anyone over?

(3) United Airlines

Physically dragging a passenger along the floor might not be the best way to deal with an overbooked flight. However, it’s what United Airlines did in April 2017, The Guardian reported. 

The situation began when four airline employees needed to be on the plane. As per the company’s policy, United offered passengers money to give up their seats but no dice. With no one volunteering, United’s employees decided to select four passengers to be involuntarily de-boarded by weighing a number of factors such as connecting flights and how long the delay will leave the customer at an airport. 

One of the passengers selected was David Dao. But when he refused to give up the seat he’d paid for because the Kentucky-based doctor needed to see his patients in the morning things turned ugly. 

Security forced him out of his seat and dragged him screaming down the aisle, leaving him bloodied. Fellow passengers can be heard crying out “No, this is wrong,” and “Oh my God, look at what you did to him.” Dao then ran back onto the plane, shouting: “I need to go home.” He was removed a second time. His lawyer later said Dao lost two teeth and suffered a concussion in the incident. The whole event was recorded by several other passengers and posted online, United Airlines received a huge backlash and the company’s market value fell by almost $1bn, CNN reported. 

CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response to the event was rather lacklustre and praised the employees for following protocol. This only added fuel to the fire and after his statement was mocked online, he was forced to make a sincere apology: “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard.” 

For Munoz, the incident and his initial response to it meant that the United chief executive had to cancel his planned promotion to chairman, The Telegraph reported. 

While United and Dao later settled out of court, it’s safe to say that the cost of abusing its customers was severe for the airline.

(4) Little Caesar’s

You’re not always disrespected to your face – quite often, rude comments are made behind your back. Little Caesar’s, a US pizza chain, made headlines in February 2019 after an employee labelled a receipt with ‘gay’ rather than the customer’s name. Marcus Robertson.

One of Robertson’s later shared on Facebook how she’d gone back to the restaurant and confronted the female employee. She tried to justify her actions by calling Robertson “loud” and “rude” despite him being deaf and wearing hearing aids. 

Robertson was left stunned by the incident. “Like how are we in 2019 and I’m being discriminated against because of my sexually,” he later wrote in a Facebook post. “Like I’m hurt, irritated and pissed off. [Like] how can you be so rude and disrespectful to a paying customer to label my name as gay when you didn’t even ask my name?” 

Little Caesars has since issued a statement saying the chain has a “zero-tolerance policy against any violations of professional conduct” and that the employee was terminated, Aol reported.

(5) Masterpiece Cakeshop

Does religion give you an excuse to be hateful? Even towards your customers? That’s the question that found it way onto the floor of the US Supreme Court after Colorado bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012, citing religious reasons.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused, claiming it was against his Christian beliefs to support a gay wedding, The Guardian reported. The couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins subsequently took the discrimination to court. 

In 2018, the US Supreme Court found Phillips had the right to refuse service as it followed the first amendment which cites ‘freedom of expression’. While they may have lost their case, Mullins stated: “We will continue fighting until no one has to endure the shame, embarrassment and humiliation of being told, ‘We don’t serve your kind here.‘”

Even though they didn’t win their case, Mullins and Phillips raised awareness to the inequality still faced by many. 

(6) World Duty Free

Chinese travellers didn’t receive a warm welcome when they arrived at Heathrow Airport in 2018. World Duty Free told Chinese customers they had to spend £1,000 to qualify for the store’s discount vouchers. However, customers from other countries only had to spend £250 to be eligible, reported The Evening Standard.

When employee Ren Jian Nai Pao found that Chinese customers were being treated unfairly, he posted about the policy on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. His post was shared over ten million times, according to the BBC. People’s Daily, a Chinese Newspaper, even made a post on Facebook that called the incident a “discriminatory scheme against the Chinese.”  

Outrage began to flood in, with Facebook user Steven Li commenting: “Whatever happened is disgraceful and racial discrimination. You think Chinese are rich and stupid? I am so disappointed with Heathrow International Airport.”

Heathrow then issued an apology: “We have been in touch with World Duty Free and have made it clear that all passengers should be treated with fairness and respect,” and that staff were confused on the policy. 

When the majority of your customers are coming in from all over the globe, racial discrimination won’t go unnoticed.

(7) Jake’s Bar

In 2018, Jake’s Bar in Leeds refused entry to couple Patrick Hannon and Jake Archer simply because they were gay, as the BBC reported. A bouncer told them only “mixed-sex” couples were allowed in. The pair weren’t drunk, nor was there a queue outside the bar. Jake’s Bar is even situated in Call Lane which is parallel to Leeds’ gay village. 

The couple left in shock and Archer later contacted Jake’s Bar on Twitter, saying: “Don’t you think this is discrimination? If I was with a girlfriend it would have been fine.” He had no response. The bar’s manager Paul Lane later stated that they would “never discriminate” against anyone and that they would conduct an investigation into the externally supplied doormen. 

Not a great customer service any way. 

(8) Primark

Primark has a history of being discriminatory towards transgenders. On one occasion, a transgender woman was refused entry into a changing room in a Primark Coventry store in 2018. She was even asked by a sales assistant to show her passport, which identified her as female, before she was allowed in. Still, she wasn’t given an apology. 

Her friend whom she was with at the time contacted Primark on Twitter about the incident: “What are you doing to stop transphobia among your staff?” Primark replied that they should fill in an inquiry form on their website so they could help resolve the matter. Surprisingly, many replies from other Twitter users supported Primark’s actions and were as insensitive to the transgender woman’s sex as the employee was. “Well done Primark for putting women and girls first,” said one user.

In a statement to Pink News, Primark simply responded that they were aware of what happened and would investigate the incident. 

However, this isn’t the first time  Primark has faced accusations of transphobia. In 2015, another transgender woman was refused access to the female fitting room. Moreover, in 2018 Primark lost a discrimination lawsuit from a former transgender employee who felt she’d been harassed at work. 

Situations like these suggests that Primark may want to look over their employee training to showcase the chain is flying the rainbow flag. 

(9) Tesco

Tesco has a lot to offer – discount prices, its own branded goods and, unfortunately, occasional racism. That became apparent in 2016 when an unnamed boy was unfairly stopped and searched seemingly only because he was mixed race. 

A subsequent lawsuit later argued that he hadn’t displayed any suspicious behaviours when he visited the Maida Vale store in 2013. This didn’t prevent him from being grabbed and detained in a back room without any explanation by an employee. It was only after he was searched by the assistant manager and a sales assistant without them finding anything that he was allowed to leave. 

Left shaken by the experience, the child’s mother contacted GMB, the trade union, which in turn contacted solicitors to make a claim for race discrimination. “Our client was particularly upset by what he felt to be the physical, high-handed manner of Tesco’s conduct and has been left scarred by the incident,” Nick Webster, the child’s solicitor, told The Telegraph.  

The claim was successful after Tesco agreed to “settle the case with no admission of liability.” 

The boy was awarded £3,000 from Tesco and stated: “I think it is absolutely fantastic that we have been able to show them this is not acceptable and that they cannot get away with these kinds of actions anymore.” 

It’s a sad testament to society’s treatment of minorities when even children are discriminated.

(10) McDonald’s

Whether they are wearing too much, too little or just their own style, it seems women cannot walk anywhere without being judged for their appearance. However, it’s worse when it’s an international mega-brand that does the judging.

For instance, in 2017, unnamed woman was asked to remove her hijab before entering a McDonald’s in north London. The security guard told her it was “just a matter of taking it off” when she refused, telling him that she wore it for religious reasons. 

When she swore in frustration, a member of staff told her: “Don’t be rude.” She was then told she could be served but the woman understandably didn’t want to contribute to the establishment, saying: “I don’t want anything anymore.” She recorded the incident and her friend uploaded the video to Twitter. 

The student later told The Guardian:  “I thought: ‘It’s finally happening to me,’ like it has to so many hijabis. It didn’t feel real because I had seen so many videos like this and it was finally happening to me in real life. I was in so much disbelief..“ 

She added: “I will never step foot in a McDonald’s again”.

McDonald’s later issued an apology: “We welcome customers of all faiths and would like to apologise to the customer as this situation should not have taken place. We are taking this matter extremely seriously and are addressing this with the individuals involved.”

While most of these incidents involve the employees, it’s the establishment’s duty to make sure their staff knows the policies and the standards expected of them. If they’re going to be representing your brand, it’s crucial.  


Louisa Cook
Louisa Cook

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