The Bumble Fumble: Weaponizing Versus Witnessing Consumer Insights

The dating app capitalized on its audience’s pain points rather than tending to them

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Two weeks ago, Bumble let its audience know a “new Bumble” was forthcoming. It stripped its Instagram of old posts, many of memes and models wearing T-shirts that read “Exhausted.” The teaser was interesting; a dating application leaning into how tired its audience is in a cheeky way. We waited to see where it went.

If you’ve seen my viral TikTok, you know it went straight to every brand’s worst nightmare: getting canceled. 

@sarajmccord

Not a fan of this bumble billboard

♬ original sound – Sara McCord

A campaign with a billboard reading, “You Know Full Well a Vow of Celibacy Is Not the Answer,” next to a Black model in rose-colored glasses was (rightfully) lambasted for insensitivity to women’s bodily autonomy and consent, the asexual community, the 4B movement (a feminist platform that originated in South Korea), reproductive rights in the current political climate including abortion bans, and, as additional viral videos pointed out, through its usage of what felt to many viewers like appropriating AAVE (African-American Vernacular English).

Bumble, a brand founded on empowering women on dating apps and allowing them to search for romantic partners or friends, was telling women that choosing not to have sex was “not the answer.” In a play on Nike’s famous slogan, I opened my TikTok by referring to it as the “Just F—k Him” ad.

How disappointing. How reminiscent of claims that women actually “wanted it.” How evident that “inclusive” creative with diverse talent gave no thought to the stories that talent was cast to tell and how it would affect the communities they were cast to represent. And the target audience responded with calls for boycotts, one-star reviews and making their disdain known across social media.

Bumble issued an apology Monday night—lightning fast when you consider that backlash started over the weekend and the statement would have needed to be contracted, written, approved by legal and pushed out.

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Post-apology, what are the lessons for brands here?

‘Does this reflect our values?’ is the veto question 

Yes, Bumble wanted to be, as it said in its apology, “bringing joy and humor,” but humor can’t come at the expense of dignity and safety.

The copy on Bumble’s About page under “Why Bumble Matters” reads: “Healthy relationships are central to living a positive, productive life. Bumble is designed to help you feel empowered while you make those connections, whether you’re dating, looking for friends, or growing your professional network.” 

When you’re looking to be fresh, edgy and funny, it becomes more—not less—relevant to ask: Does this concept support our mission? Then upvote or downvote accordingly.

How you use what you know about your audience

Nobody said Bumble didn’t know its audience. Dating apps are seen as imperfect, “exhausting” and enough to make users want to “swear off” dating or intimacy. Celibacy is in the conversation. 

The question for any brand is: What are you doing with your consumer insights? Are you witnessing, or are you weaponizing? An audience’s pain point is crucial to resonant creative, but the way it’s called through the campaign will impact whether the creative is seen as empathetic or harmful.

Representation does not equate to inclusive marketing

As companies question the role of diversity, equity and inclusion experts, let this serve as a reminder that representation alone is not inclusion. I imagine the marketing team felt they were “doing everything right” by eschewing homogenous ads for some prominently featuring Black and Brown models. But the stories these models told turned them into caricatures. Creative teams need members of color and marketers trained in inclusive marketing to ensure that impact meets intention.

TikTok is still relevant

As someone who leads TikTok strategies, the No. 1 question I’m asked is: In light of the impending ban, is TikTok still relevant? 

The immediate and massive response to this Bumble campaign, alongside other crises in product—like Youthforia being pulled from stores for an improperly developed foundation that offended its supposed target audience—and for influencers—like Haleyy Baylee using the “Let Them Eat Cake” sound dressed as Marie Antoinette for the Met Gala—showcases that the TikTok audience is still incredibly engaged and powerful and can make or break your brand with viral videos.

Brands and thought leaders would be wise to continue (and, I’d argue, redouble) their efforts on TikTok where sentiment calls the shots.