11 of the Biggest Brand Blunders
Another chance to laugh at the marketing misfortunes that cost big companies millions
Warning. This article will make you smile. Perhaps laugh. Proceed with caution.
2020 has not been great. We can all agree on that. Many of you reading this may think it's been one of the worst years of your life.
I’m here to make you feel better with a humour vaccine of sorts, to show you where big brands have messed up and had even worse years than we have experienced in 2020. Companies with big budgets and huge sales, marketing, and advertising teams — businesses that, despite resources and processes still managed to make big mistakes. Huge.
In my extensive research of these for you, dear reader, I have omitted some of the well-publicized examples that have often been analyzed such as New Coke, the Gap Logo, Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, as well as the ones that are already in the Hall of Shame.
Welcome to the latest marketing hall of shame entrants.
The ketchup giant had a QR code they used for promotions from 2012–2014. They decided to use this code on their labels in 2015. Customers could scan a QR code on their ketchup bottle and order a personalised label.
The problem was someone in marketing or IT (let's blame IT, because I am a marketer) hadn't kept the QR code active and a pornography website had taken it over. Anyone who scanned the code would be led to content they weren't expecting to see.
Heinz quickly stopped manufacturing the labels with the QR code and apologized to customers. In a smart marketing move, the owners of the pornographic site offered the Heinz customer who first found the problem a free membership.
No word on whether they took up the offer.
The phone market is very competitive, with many manufacturers aiming to take on the iPhone.
It does make it hard to sell your product when it seems your social media team doesn't even use it. Take the example of LG, who wanted to take a cheeky dig at Apple. At the time of the post, there were allegations that the iPhone 6 was bending in consumers' pockets.
Unfortunately, the message was lost in the laughs that came when people noticed the tweet was sent from an iPhone. LG quickly passed the buck saying it wasn't tweeted by one of the LG staff but their digital agency. Even so, wouldn't you want your agency to use your product?
Sadly they are not the only phone company to do this. Blackberry sent out a tweet in 2015 from an iPhone. And Oprah once tweeted from an Ipad when promoting the Microsoft Surface.
In 2016, Coca-Cola wanted to wish its customers in Russia a Happy New Year. Instead, they caused anger in both Russa and Ukraine, over the sensitive issue of Crimea.
In their first tweet, they published a map that excluded Crimea. This angered people in Russia, so Coke apologised and sent out a new tweet with an amended map that included Crimea.
This infuriated the Ukrainians, which led to the trending #BanCocaCola. Enraged citizens flushed their Coke down the toilets (in my opinion the best place for Coke).
Coke eventually abandoned their New Years' message, deleting it and issuing the following statement, “Dear friends! Thank you for your attention. It has been decided to delete the item which caused the upset.”
It was not a Happy New Year for the Coca-Cola marketing team.
I am sure this is what every female was waiting for—a pen designed just for women.
BIC really missed the mark with this product and the internet was quick to let them know. Amazon was flooded with hundreds of hilarious and very sarcastic reviews such as the below.
“I am writing this in the kitchen.”
“Finally! For years I’ve had to rely on pencils, or at worst, a twig and some drops of my feminine blood to write down recipes (the only thing a lady should be writing ever).”
“I used The Pen; now I’m arranging flowers, buying clothes in pastels, and enjoying the way my pants fit now that my man parts have shrunk to doll-size.”
Ellen DeGeneres went into a four-minute tirade on her show criticising the people at BIC for developing the product and explaining why it was such a bad marketing idea. Considering the wide reach of her show, that's a lot of negative publicity.
5. Radio Shack
In 2009 Radio Shack spent $200 million on a rebranding project. They changed their name from Radio Shack to The Shack. They wanted to shed their image of the go-to store for the electronic enthusiast and become more modern.
A range of TV and digital ads were released with the tagline, “Our friends call us The Shack.” The campaign failed to gain traction with new customers while at the same time alienating their loyal customer base.
I’ll come out and say I love Apple. I have an iPhone, an iPad, and an Apple Watch. Yet, even I was annoyed with Steve Jobs when this marketing tactic launched.
When U2 released their new album “Songs of Innocence” it was automatically downloaded into the iTunes library on all Apple devices, whether the user wanted it or not. To make matters worse, it was tough to delete with people resorting to hacking the system to get Bono off their device.
The PR stunt backfired tremendously and proved a poor return on the $100 million it cost Apple.
7. La Redoute
La Redoute is France’s largest mail-order company. A company of that size should have no excuse for allowing the photo above to be used in their catalogs and on their website.
In the background of the photo — yes, that's a naked guy taking a casual stroll in the background. Not sure what's worse, the fact that no one picked it up, or that the guy seemed oblivious to a photoshoot just meters away.
La Redoute was forced to issue an apology promising that such a mistake would not happen again.
Before launching a campaign that involves free products, it is advisable to work out the reach and potential cost of the giveaway.
Colonel Sanders and his team failed to do that when they decided to launch a free coupon to all viewers of the Oprah Winfrey show, which was one of the most popular TV shows in the US at the time. The offer was a two-piece chicken meal, two individual sides, and a biscuit. All the customer had to do was download the coupon from Oprah's website.
10.5 million people downloaded the coupon resulting in KFC having to give away $42 million of free food. As the number of coupons being presented kept increasing, KFC finally twigged to the fact this was a huge mistake and had to end the campaign, apologizing to Oprah and her fans.
Not sure what they expected when they made this very easy to redeem offer.
This one falls very squarely into what the hell were they thinking alongside the BIC team. When you envision the Harley-Davidson brand, you think of strong, rugged, and masculine. It’s a powerful brand personality.
What you do not think of is perfume. Yet somehow, the product team at Harley-Davidson decided to launch a perfume in 1994.
It didn't line up to the brand values at all and was quickly withdrawn.
In marketing terms, the word Edsel is associated with a huge flop.
It was 1957 and Ford had spent one year marketing the upcoming release of their new Ford Edsel which they dubbed the car of the future. It was a long build-up to stimulate excitement and demand for E-Day when the car would be available to buy at car lots across the US.
Unfortunately for the Ford Motor Company, and also Henry Ford’s son Edsel whom the car was named after, it was a disaster. It was priced beyond the reach of most people, was big and ugly, and despite the billing as the car of the future, it was anything but.
For the next two years, Ford invested $350 million into the production and advertising of the Edsel before finally admitting defeat.
I thought I would end with a company that is in the news now for an excellent reason.
Back in 2006, they were in the news for a very different reason. They launched a $258 million advertising campaign for their cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor. In an attempt to lend credibility to the product they had Robert Jarvik, inventor of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart, to be the face of the campaign. The tagline they used was, “Just because I’m a doctor, doesn’t mean I don’t worry about my cholesterol.”
The problem was, although he had a degree Jarvik had never practiced for even one day as a doctor. He hadn't even done an internship or residency.
The ad also purported to show a fit Jarvik rowing across a lake, but it was a body double and Jarvik admitted he didn't row. There was a congressional investigation into the campaign, saying the ads misrepresented Dr. Jarvik and his credentials.
Pfizer was forced to withdraw their ads, and Jarvik who wasn't a practicing doctor still pocketed $1.35 million for his advertising efforts.
Whether it’s an ill-conceived product, a campaign that misses the mark, or a promotion that wasn't thought through properly, these examples show that even the world's biggest brands make simple marketing mistakes.
The one thing that will provide consolation for these companies is that despite losing millions of dollars, they do get the honor and glory of being inducted to the marketing hall of shame — and that’s priceless.