It’s like they say: one can learn from other people’s mistakes.
In marketing, “other people’s mistakes” include some of the most catastrophic and spectacularly embarrassing marketing flops of all time. These blunders may have occurred due to bad timing, terrible execution or negligent ignorance, but the result is the same: they can make the reputation of brands crash and burn. For brands, they can be devastating. For spectators, they can be hilariously entertaining.
Here are some of the most iconic (and ironic) marketing fails of all time:
KENDALL JENNER’S PEPSI AD: SOCIAL ACTIVISM OR SOCIAL IGNORANCE?
The 2017 commercial by Pepsi featuring Kendall Jenner needs no introduction. It is a template for badly-planned and badly-received marketing.
In the commercial, Kendall Jenner notices a nearby marching protest amid her photoshoot. While the ad doesn’t specify what the activists are protesting against, Jenner eventually joins the march, walks in front of the line, and hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer as some kind of peace offering. The officer accepted the Pepsi, took a sip, and everyone cheered. Crisis averted.
Pepsi claimed that this ad was a move to encourage peace, understanding and global unity, but it’s safe to say that they missed their mark by a landslide. Public outcry and backlash took Twitter by storm, with people finding the commercial tone-deaf, insensitive and foolish as it made public protests seem like fun, harmless parties. In doing so, it trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. Among the flood of activists who criticized this ad was Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
Within days of the ad’s release, Pepsi had no choice but to issue a public apology and take down the whole campaign.
The lesson? Brands capitalizing on social issues to market their products is always risky and disingenuous. However, if your campaign’s aim is truly genuine and authentic, make sure that you do your research to ensure that it is executed in a sensitive, thoughtful and self-aware manner.
AUDI’S WEDDING COMMERCIAL: COMPARING WOMEN TO VEHICLES
In July 2017, Audi aired a bizarre commercial that outraged its customers. In the advertisement, a bride and groom are about to be married when the groom’s mother halts the entire ceremony to conduct a public and aggressive inspection of the bride’s body by pinching her nose, inspecting her mouth and pulling her ears. Even after she gives her approval amid sighs of relief from the audience, she gives one last look at the bride’s chest. The scene immediately changes to a red Audi driving on a highway and a man’s voiceover saying: “An important decision must be made carefully”.
Audi’s intention was to promote its properly-inspected second-hand cars, but it’s clear that their execution was incredibly offensive. They received massive and instant backlash, and people from all around the world criticized them for objectifying women and reducing their value to that of a mere vehicle. It also received 200,000 views on Weibo which unanimously called it “disgusting”.
Audi expressed regret for its insensitivity, and the ad, which was made exclusively for a Chinese audience, was withdrawn.
The lesson? Humorous advertisements may be profitable, but not at the cost of harmful or stereotypical messages.
AIRBNB’S “FLOATING WORLD EMAIL”: SPECTACULARLY WRONG TIMING:
Airbnb’s “Floating World Email”: Spectacularly Wrong Timing
A few years ago, Airbnb launched their “floating world” marketing campaign, advertising water-themes homes and attractions like waterfall slides and houseboats with headlines like “Stay above water” and “Live aquatic life with these floating homes”.
This was launched in August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey raged across Houston.
Several Twitter users felt as though this was extremely insensitive and expressed no hesitation in calling out the brand’s fiasco. This was doubly complicated because Airbnb had build disaster relief into its brand, making it potentially devastating for their public image and reputation.
Airbnb apologized, saying that “The timing of this email marketing campaign was insensitive and we apologize for that. We continue to keep everyone affected by Harvey and all the first responders and their families in our thoughts.”
The lesson? Shortly and simply: timing is everything.
SONY’S “alliwantforxmasisapsp.com”: DO FAN-SITES WORK IF THEY’RE FAKE?
In order to create viral buzz for its PlayStation Portable handheld console, Sony created a fake fan site called “All I Want For X-Mas Is A PSP”. This site had t-shirt transfers, downloadable PSP cards, and a YouTube video
While the official story was that it was created by two random friends, the community quickly grew suspicious and believed that it was a sham website. Although the site administrators initially dismissed the claims, gamers quickly tracked the domain to the cooperation, and it was discovered that it was created by Sony Computer Entertainment US.
This unleashed a flood of anger and ridicule at Sony’s brilliantly terrible inauthenticity, and the company eventually posted a comment at the top of their blog admitting that they had been “Busted. Nailed. Snagged.”
The lesson? Don’t pull wool over your consumer’s eyes.
COCA-COLA’S “NEW COKE” FLAVOR: CHANGE ISN’T ALWAYS GOOD
The 1980s were the peak of the legendary “Cola Wars” between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Coca-Cola was constantly on top, but Pepsi was gaining traction with spectacular campaigns like their “Pepsi Challenge” in 1975.
To make sure they remained No.1, Coca-Cola introduced “New Coke” in 1985, with the sweeter taste of Diet Coke. To be fair, Coca-Cola didn’t just take a leap of faith: they tested it on around 200,000 subjects and 53% of them preferred the new recipe over the original one.
However, when “New Coke” was finally launched, their customers loathed it. Coca-Cola received 400,000 furious phone calls from customers who were extremely dissatisfied with the new flavor. In the wake of this backlash, Coca-Cola soon returned its original formula, “Coca-Cola Classic”, to the market.
The lesson? Sometimes, market research cannot accurately predict the results of campaigns, and your brand needs to be prepared to adapt and compromise. Furthermore, change isn’t always required. If your product is successful in the market, do not make sudden upgrades or transformations and expect your customers to keep up.
Marketing failures, fortunately or unfortunately, are actually quite common. While these are some of the most iconic examples, there are millions of other marketing campaigns which have ended in disaster for a variety of reasons, and this is primarily because of a gap between research and execution. Marketing can begin with the best (or worst) of intentions, but if it’s not done right, it’s bound to flop!