BRISTOL, Tenn. — L.C. King Manufacturing, a longtime Bristol business, isn’t closing its local site and moving to China, contrary to an April Fools’ Day stunt.
On Monday, the company, maker of “famous workwear,” shared news on its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram social media accounts that it was moving its factory in downtown Bristol to Shandong Province in China.
“Another American icon leaves for China,” the company said in a headline.
The company, which also sent a news release to the Bristol Herald Courier last Friday — not on April Fools’ Day — said the change was effective immediately.
The company said Jack King, the great-grandson of founder Landon Clayton King, told employees the day before the announcement.
“We have been welcomed by the Chinese government and are excited about the new partnership L.C. King and President Xi Jinping has entered into,” King said in the statement. “It’s been nice to be recognized by a government that wants to continue factory operations.”
The announcement also featured a supposed email from Li Keqiang, the premier of China, that said: “We are proud to be the new home for L.C. King. Our workers work hard and they wear clothes that work even harder.”
L.C. King has been making garments in Bristol since 1913 and has a factory and store at the corner of Shelby and Seventh streets.
“We are going to continue to be the oldest cut and sew textile mill still run by the founding family,” King said in the statement. “We’re just going to do it in China.”
The social media posts included a photo-edited picture of King meeting Chinese President Xi Jingping.
One day after the announcement, L.C. King revealed the move was an April Fools’ joke.
“Made in China?” the company said. “Over L.C. King’s dead body. Since 1913, L.C. King Manufacturing has been as American made as America can make. Authentic. Hand-made.”
The company will never make its overalls in China, but they might order some local Chinese food for lunch, L.C. King said.
Reaction to the original announcement was swift. While some caught on quickly that it was an April Fools’ joke, others didn’t find it funny. At least one person said they are boycotting the company.
“It’s a PR stunt, created by our ad company,” Jack King wrote in an email Tuesday to the Herald Courier. “We had a 300 percent increase in engagement on our social media platforms. The goal was to create buzz and see if anyone actually cared. We don’t have a lot of local business and most of our orders come from outside the area.”
He added that the increased social media engagement, orchestrated by Work Labs of Richmond, Virginia, has resulted in additional sales and further company exposure.
King said he found the stunt, which some Facebook users said was inappropriate, as an opportunity to see whether social media followers were paying attention and how they saw things.
“Surprisingly, they were concerned about the workers and the town, which was a plus,” King said. “It also showed how quick to judge and how reactive people are.”
King said he did not tell his 25 employees in advance of the announcement.
“When they saw the post, they wanted to move their cars and hide in the third floor,” King said. “They did get me back. Having not gone up to the sewing floor, I had called to speak to the plant manager, and she told me the employees saw the post and all had left. I fell silent. Then there was laughter. The joke came back on me.”
Cabell Harris, CEO of Work Labs, said Tuesday the campaign was a “huge success.”
The original post on Facebook was shared nearly 250 times and had more than 500 comments, more than most other L.C. King posts. The company has more than 17,000 followers on Facebook, 1,665 on Twitter and 35,000 on Instagram.
Harris said the stunt wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited but to create buzz and conversation.
“At the end of the day, it’s a shame that some brands are going overseas,” Harris said, referring to other companies that have left the United States.
The company has two types of customers: blue-collar workers and hipsters, and both are pro-American, Harris said.
“L.C. King would never do this,” said Harris, adding that the company takes pride in being an American-made brand.
Some brands conduct April Fools’ campaigns every year, said Kelly Price, a marketing professor at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Other area campaigns included Rocky Fork State Park in Unicoi County, which introduced jackalopes, a mythical creature, and a Pigeon Forge tourism site announced that rapper and singer Kanye West was purchasing Dollywood.
“It sounds like L.C. King may have had a goal to increase engagement on their digital platforms,” Price said. “If this was the case, they apparently succeeded.”
Price said it is a question whether accomplishing the goal was ethical. She noted that one of her classes is currently discussing digital ethics.
“Time tends to soften a consumer’s negative brand perception,” Price said. “It was smart if they simply wanted to increase engagement. It wasn’t smart if they wanted to increase long-term positive brand image.”
Be prepared. King said he already has plans for next year, which he believes “will really be talked about.”