Influencers may promote your product for a fee, but loyalty is not included. Madeleine Chapman investigates the dessert box saga of 2018.
It all began with a complaint. It wasn’t an exciting complaint. In fact, it was pretty boring as far as rants go. Someone bought a product online and found that the product she received was not as advertised. It’s the most common complaint for online businesses and could easily have slipped by without any real effect. Instead, it began the Dessert Box War of 2018. A war between Celebration Box and owner Iyia Liu, and Sweet Boxes and owner Giarna Pinhey. On Liu’s side are money and influencers. On Pinhey’s side is everyone else.
When Nicole Kidman signed on as the face of Chanel perfume in 2003, the global sales of the product she promoted reportedly rose by 30%. It’s easy to see why. Nicole Kidman is badass. If Chanel is the perfume for Nicole Kidman (even if she’s being paid to choose it), Chanel is the perfume for everyone. Earlier this year, Nike’s online sales increased by almost 40% after they ran a promotion starring former NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick. This was less a celebrity endorsing a brand than a brand endorsing a celebrity. In both instances, and thousands more like them, celebrity plus product equals sales.
As social media has taken over industry after industry, it was only a matter of time before platforms like Twitter and Instagram became a billboard, marketplace, and customer service centre in one. But Instagram has grown into an economy of its own. Hundreds and hundreds of products are advertised exclusively on Instagram, for Instagram users, by Instagram users. Where conventional brick and mortar shops may rely on word of mouth to increase popularity, Instagram is the word of mouth. Which means if you want a product to sell on Instagram, it has to look good on Instagram. And who better to make a product look good than those who do it for a living?
Dessert boxes, the latest Instagram-friendly product, encompass all the pros and cons of this new economy. Their first appearance was on Valentine’s Day 2017 when three Sydney siblings created a Nutella-themed gift box. There was nothing groundbreaking about the idea – people have been chucking food in a box for their friends’ birthdays since time began – but it had one pull factor: it photographed well. Food photography is a cornerstone of social media, but since early 2017, pictures of lots of food became a trend. Grazing tables – tables with every inch covered in food, like an overcrowded platter – are the staple of every ‘gramworthy event. Dessert boxes had the same appeal: colourful foods artfully piled together.
The siblings received over 400 orders for their Nutella box in a week and business only grew from there. They now run a nationwide delivery service offering dozens of themed dessert boxes including the problematically named “The BBC”, a large penis-shaped donut with chocolate icing. The price, $33.
One year later, a dental assistant in Auckland saw Dessert Boxes on Instagram and thought she could do it just as well in New Zealand, if not better. In June, Giarna Pinhey’s Sweet Boxes was launched, offering Auckland-wide, same-day delivery on four confectionery gift boxes. It did well; so well, in fact, that Pinhey planned to quit her day job and take on the business full time. Then Celebration Box arrived.
Celebration Box, owned by serial entrepreneur Iyia Liu, is the Goliath to Sweet Boxes’ David. Celebration Box, launched in July and based on the same dessert boxes in Australia, offers everything Pinhey and her Sweet Boxes do. Except Liu has three successful online businesses under her belt, a list of influencers in her contacts, and the money to take on 12 employees in the first months of Celebration Box’s life. Pinhey is still working full time as a dental assistant and puts Sweet Boxes together at home before delivering to customers herself.
It’s a scenario seen in every industry: small business gets in first until big business takes over. Speak to any design student in the country and they’ll know a story of a student’s design (or close to it) appearing in some of New Zealand’s biggest label collections. Pinhey knows that her situation is slightly different in that both companies took inspiration from the same Australian business. Even the timing appears coincidental. “I approached Bambi Boutique [another Liu business] to ask if they were interested in a collaboration,” Pinhey told The Spinoff. “I was told by a staff member that they weren’t interested because Iyia was starting her own dessert box company.”
If there’s room for one dessert box service in New Zealand then there’s room for two. But then the Celebration Box complaints started.
“Terrible presentation, no response to my email complaint. Waste of time and money, wouldn’t recommend.”
“BEWARE OF CELEBRATION BOX NZ”
“Sooo mad and I’ve told everyone not to buy from them!!!”
And under each complaint, where one might expect a grovelling response from the company, there was nothing. Instead, others (friends of Pinhey and strangers) swooped in to direct the complainant to Sweet Boxes.
And so began the dessert box rivalry that no one wanted, least of all the two business owners.
Celebration Box may have 67,000 followers to Sweet Boxes’ 16,000, and they may have every influencer under the sun singing their praises in sponsored posts, but what they don’t appear to have are genuine fans. When all your good praise is paid for, continued loyalty won’t come for free.
Loyal customers of Sweet Boxes – both friends of Pinhey and otherwise – expressed their disappointment in Celebration Box’s lack of customer service and accountability. The longer the silence stretched, the more examples surfaced of poor presentation and dissatisfied Celebration Box customers. Perhaps the most vocal critic was a friend of Pinhey’s, who tweeted out criticisms of Celebration Box and urged her followers to support Sweet Boxes.
Soon after, Pinhey received a message from Liu, asking her to tell her friend to delete her tweets or risk legal action. Pinhey responded, and what followed is a masterclass in passive aggression, ending with Pinhey agreeing to speak to her friend and Liu thanking her with “really appreciate it! X”.
Liu and her team then added a generous dose of fuel to the fire by deleting the negative reviews from their Instagram and Facebook pages. It was a move that, after the threat of lawyering up, left Pinhey questioning an entrepreneur she once tried to emulate. “It is sad, personally, to see a business woman I once looked up to show a lack of empathy or genuine care towards customers that are unsatisfied.”
Almost a month after the initial complaints, Liu posted an explanation of sorts on her personal social pages, beginning with “most people don’t realise the complexities of a rapidly scaling start up business”. The post was accompanied by a photo of Liu posing while on holiday in Bali. Critics jumped on the insensitivity of posting a holiday ‘gram with an ‘apology’. But when your life and business exists almost solely on Instagram, even apologies have to look good.
When approached for comment by The Spinoff, Liu explained that any issues were from a busy Fathers’ Day period when the company was six weeks old. “We have already acknowledged that mistakes were made, we already apologised and rectified all situations that were brought forward to us.”
While Liu was giving attention to the people who were falsely accusing her of stealing Pinhey’s concept (they both took the idea from Dessert Boxes in Australia), perhaps what she should’ve been more worried about were the people accusing her of providing a bad service and a bad product.
Liu’s most successful business, Waist Trainer NZ, capitalised on a beauty trend made popular by the Kardashians. Waist Trainers have been shown to be both ineffective and potentially bad for you – they compress internal organs and can damage ribs. But when Kylie Jenner poses in one and shares the photo with her nearly 100 million (at the time) Instagram followers, it doesn’t matter.
Liu herself, appearing as a guest on The Spinoff’s Business is Boring podcast in August, emphasised the importance of aesthetics in a product when talking of her protein powder venture. “We try to make the product itself really Instagrammable. I think that’s why it does so well.”
Liu paid $300,000NZD for that Kylie Jenner photo (along with a Facebook post), and says she recouped the money in sales in a few months. Whether or not Ms Jenner has ever worn a waist trainer outside of sponsored photos we will probably never know.
In the past, celebrities had to be careful about what products they endorsed because an endorsement meant something. It still does for actors and athletes who bank on their reputation in other areas of their career, but for social media influencers whose entire job is to promote products, the connection between celebrity and product is tenuous at best. What it means is that for the right price, a subpar product can be endorsed to tens of millions of potential buyers.
Instagram is essentially AliExpress made to look good. A scroll through the ‘explore’ option – where posts from around Instagram are collated based off your activity and interests – brought up three products just now: waist trainers, sneakers, and jeans. All three were being promoted for $60-$100. Identical waist trainers could be found on AliExpress for five dollars, the sneakers were shown to fall apart after two wears, and nothing about the jeans could be found online outside of the online store.
But when thousands of customers are directed to a product by one of the most famous young women in the world, there’s a divide between customer and company. Because in a sense, Kylie Jenner recommended the item and therefore Kylie Jenner sold the item, and no one is going to try getting a complaint through to a billionaire. Liu was well aware of this, and aware that her previous businesses had focused on products that can’t be returned. She identified the opportunity for returns from unhappy customers as a challenge when speaking of her third business, Bambi Boutique clothing, on Business is Boring. “With protein powder you couldn’t even return it once you opened it and with the waist trainer it was an undergarment so again, no returns.”
Celebration Box is the closest Liu has come to a conventional bricks and mortar business, with customers – both satisfied and not – demanding answers. Just because someone is successful in one area of business doesn’t always mean they’ll thrive in another. Liu has accepted this, telling The Spinoff, “despite this being my fourth business, it’s been a totally new process for me. In the past with my other e-commerce businesses, the products have been manufactured by machines, so it was easy to send out a large quantity of product quickly.” Now, she’s having to deal with what most business have to deal with: people and their feelings.
Both dessert box business owners here in New Zealand are set to make a lot of money from a concept generated by and for Instragram. But even in the world of e-commerce and virtual existences, customers’ experiences are central. That’s a sentiment which will haunt those who try to operate around it.