If you want an honest opinion, go to Twitter. Just ask New Era Cap Co., whose latest Major League Baseball headwear designs were so thoroughly mocked online that the company pulled the collection from the web.
The hats bore images of landmarks, area codes and popular foods from each team’s market base. But fans found them comically tacky and generic, and pointed out inaccuracies such as errors in local area codes.
CEO Chris Koch once talked about growing New Era into a billion-dollar brand. In the midst of the global pandemic, he uses words like “rebuilding” and “recovering.”
The local edition of the Kansas City Royals cap, for example, bore four area codes – none of them in Missouri. The Toronto Blue Jays hat bore a picture of the Quebec delicacy poutine.
The Boston Red Sox hat had a jumble of red and yellow that was supposed to resemble a lobster roll. The Washington Nationals hat sported the year 1776 on it, despite Washington, D.C., not coming into existence until more than a decade later.
The line of caps had launched in November, but didn't blow up online until this week, when they were effectively laughed off the market. It is a testament to the power of social media and the outsize impact it can have on retailers.
"Social media provides either a boon or a bust for marketers. In the case of New Era, it was a bust," said John Cimperman, founder of sponsorship and brand consultancy Barnstorm Sports + Entertainment.
It is a costly bust, too, because New Era now has untold cases and cases of hats that it paid to manufacture and no longer is even trying to sell.
And it didn't just stop on social media. The online mockery led to stories in dozens of media outlets pointing out the flaws in New Era's Local Market caps and the online storm it created.
In the case of this very public flub, a little homework could've gone a long way.
"In my experience, these designs would have been vetted with the local teams and their fans before they hit the retail shelf," Cimperman said. "A few focus groups with fans could have avoided a lot of social media backlash."
In an email, New Era Cap Co. acknowledged the area code errors, apologized for them and said it removed the collection from its website so it could "review the design accuracy of all the caps."
"We apologize for any unintentional design mistake with regard to this collection," Mark Maidment, senior vice president of brand said in an email.
Here is some of the reaction that prompted the Buffalo-based cap maker to retreat.
When the buzz reached Kansas City Royals, the team's official Twitter account sent out a new team bio that poked fun at all the odd icons emblazoned on the cap. "We love Kansas area codes, saxophones, the flag of Kansas City, pigs, Missouri and the 1985 World Series," it read.
"If you like clip art and area codes and fifth grade art projects and wait is that a pierogi and good grief enough with the guitars – then boy do i have a hat for you," Zack Meisel, author of the book "Cleveland Rocked," tweeted about Cleveland's regional cap.
User @busblog took offense at one icon that seemed to be a bowl of chili – a saucer filled with a heap of brown mush, tagged with a chili pepper – on a Cincinnati Reds hat.
"Reds fans have to deal with this KFC cup of dog food on the back of their cap," they wrote. "Starting to think this is the worst cap New Era has made since it became infamous for union-busting a few years ago."
Life could be worse, Reds fans have to deal with this KFC cup of dog food on the back of their cap.— tony pierce (@busblog) May 26, 2021
Starting to think this is the worst cap New Era has made since it became infamous for union-busting a few years ago (https://t.co/hJ4rHKItMs) pic.twitter.com/IA3zL7OXk0
It was clear to fans that their "local" hats were designed by outsiders.
"Nothing says, 'I'm not actually from Chicago', like referring to Chicago as 'Chi-Town'. These things are awful," wrote user @MrPesticide.
Some wondered whether any creative thought went into the $40 caps.
"On further review, there’s no way no human designed those Local Market New Era caps and instead it’s the result of a neural network," wrote @jennypfafflin.
On further review, there’s no way no human designed those Local Market New Era caps and instead it’s the result of a neural network— Jenny Pfäfflin (@jennypfafflin) May 25, 2021
User @lodosportsgirl summed up the hats' next-level wrongness like this:
"What I learned today from the 'Local Market' hats debacle is that New Era's design team literally never gets to leave the building, doesn't have internet access, and were forced to imagine what each place might be like. Also, they really like clip art and area codes."
The moral of the story, after New Era beat its hasty retreat and pulled the caps from its website, according to user @cccmhhh? "Bullying works."
What I learned today from the "Local Market" hats debacle is that New Era's design team literally never gets to leave the building, doesn't have internet access, and were forced to imagine what each place might be like. Also, they really like clip art and area codes. pic.twitter.com/gc2bWFbx9o— Annalisa *vaccinated* (@lodosportsgirl) May 26, 2021