Digital Marketing Redux   //   December 15, 2023

Temu is using its lawsuit against Shein as a PR engine

Temu’s public relations strategy seems to be extending to the legal world.

Earlier this week, the mobile shopping app owned by PDD Holdings, which also owns the Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, filed a lawsuit against online shopping platform Shein. In the lawsuit, Temu alleges that Shein is intimidating suppliers “mafia-style.”

But the lawsuit may be more than just a legal maneuver to try and keep a competitor in check. Of note, Temu mentioned deep in the lawsuit its “major upcoming advertising campaign for Super Bowl LVIII in February 2024.”

This inclusion may have gone unnoticed, but Modern Retail received an email Thursday night from the Gmail account of someone claiming to work for Temu. The email specifically highlighted the section of the lawsuit that nodded to the Super Bowl ad. “I’m sure you’ve seen the news around Temu filing a new lawsuit against Shein,” the email wrote. “In addition to that … below is a paragraph from the public filing, which is a hard confirmation for our Super Bowl ad.”

When asked in a follow-up email about whether or not Temu uses legal action as a part of its overall PR strategy, the person — whose LinkedIn profile lists them as a “PR Consultant” for Temu — wrote, “They do not have a comment about the strategy, but I think you’re onto something heh.”

The intent, it seems, was to get publications to tie in the lawsuit with its upcoming advertising plans. Indeed, publications like AdAge took the bait, publishing news stories about the contents of the suit that confirmed the advertising plans.

This move seems to be in line with Temu’s overall public relations strategy with media outlets, focused on providing business publications with vague breadcrumbs of overall positive news in the hopes of increased coverage. Over the last three weeks, Modern Retail has received multiple emails from a variety of people purporting to represent Temu (including the person who sent the Thursday message about the Super Bowl inclusion) hinting at an upcoming major Super Bowl campaign.

The company, however, wouldn’t officially confirm anything concrete in these emails. In one email correspondence sent to Modern Retail with the subject line “Temu’s Super Bowl 2024 Ad Campaign,” the company wrote, “Temu credits its 2023 Super Bowl ad campaign for helping put the e-commerce giant on the map. And, with Super Bowl 2024 around the corner, the company plans to step into the spotlight again with its latest advertising campaign.” Modern Retail followed up asking if it was indeed confirming another TV ad during the sports event. The spokesperson replied saying that nothing had been confirmed.

Shein and Temu have been in a very public battle over the last year. Both are spending billions of dollars on advertising involving flashy TV campaigns, as well as smaller digital components on platforms like Google and Meta. Wired earlier this year reported that Temu has plans to spend as much as $1.4 billion on ads in the U.S. this year and plans to increase it to $4.3 billion in 2024. Etsy’s CEO at its most recent earnings call said that the deep ad budgets of both players are “almost single-handedly having an impact on the cost of advertising.” 

Google search is a major component of this, with both companies buying up increasingly expensive digital real estate to flood the gates with advertisements. But earned media is another component — more news coverage of a company increases its presence in Google search.

Lawsuits between rivals are nothing new, and neither is coverage of major advertising budget allocation. What’s noteworthy, however, is Temu’s reticence to give concrete details while pushing narratives of speculation and insinuation — and then using a legal maneuver to propel the news cycle even further.

PR professionals, meanwhile, are baffled by the move. “It feels like they are trying to do a cheeky stunt, doing it the wrong way and missing the mark on it,” said one executive of a PR company that works with global brands. “I almost feel like they are trying to smush a lot of puzzle pieces together that do not make sense.”

There are times when legal matters can intersect with a PR campaign, but this executive said that the two must align seamlessly. “You really want to know what your end goal is and work backward,” they said. For example, a company with an ethos based on sustainability may file a lawsuit that represents its core values and use public relations as a way to further it. “That can actually make sense,” said the executive.

But in this case, the strategy seems to be around manufacturing news — and two disparate pieces of news, at that. “It’s just a miss overall,” the executive said.