5 Big Marketing Disasters — And What You Can Learn From Them

by Susan Johnston on May 5, 2011
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Social media has accelerated the speed at which businesses communicate with customers. But a faster pace also means it’s easier to rush and say something you’ll later regret. And it’s not just small businesses that fall into this trap, nor is it confined to social media.

Even major brands like Gap and Groupon have fumbled, and these mistakes can spread quickly through social media, even if they happen through more traditional channels. Here are five recent marketing campaigns gone awry, as well as what you can learn from them.

  1. Kenneth Cole’s Insensitive Twit(ter)
    Fashion designer Kenneth Cole probably thought he was being clever when he tweeted about the political unrest in Cairo, saying “rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” But he created an uproar of his own as countless Twitter follower and bloggers reacted, calling the brand culturally insensitive. Some even called for a boycott. Several hours later, the tweet had been removed and the company had issued an apology on Facebook.
    Lesson learned: Sure, it’s hip to relate your brand to current events or pop culture, but it’s not always appropriate, especially when people are being killed. And some said the apology should have appeared on Twitter instead of Facebook, since that was the original channel that sparked the controversy.
  2. Groupon Forgets One Important Point
    Groupon’s Super Bowl ad (pictured above; click link for the full video) had a pseudo-documentary vibe as it panned across the mountains of Tibet. Then it took an unexpected (and some would say offensive) turn by plugging a Groupon deal at a Himalayan restaurant. Groupon had actually launched a charitable campaign to benefit organizations like the Tibet Fund, but that wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the ad, which was almost universally dismissed as tasteless and downright lame.
    Lesson learned: Again, tying in current events could have made the ad feel relevant but without context about Groupon’s charity initiatives, the ad fell flat. Remember, cleverness can backfire if it’s not carefully executed.
  3. Gap Re-Brands Without Asking Anyone
    Last fall, The Gap unveiled a new logo, which was immediately criticized as uncreative and poorly designed. Websites like Gapify and others sprung up to parody the new logo’s design. Eventually, the clothing brand listened to critics and switched back to its old, iconic logo.
    Lesson learned: If it ain’t broken, don’t try to fix it. However, some say Gap actually increased brand loyalty by admitting failure and returning to its roots. Be willing to change course if something isn’t working.
  4. Marc Jacobs Intern Kills Career
    In another fashion industry faux pas, a disgruntled Marc Jacobs intern publicly bashed the brand – using Marc Jacobs’ own Twitter account! Though the tweets were deleted, the damage was done, as bloggers had already posted screenshots.
    Lesson learned: Many companies delegate social media to an intern, because they wildly underestimate the power of a tweet or a status update. When entrusting it to someone on your staff, make sure they understand your brand’s voice (and whatever you do, don’t mistreat them).
  5. Motrin Takes on the Moms of the World
    In 2008, Motrin posted a video on their homepage that claimed “baby-wearing” was trendy but caused back pain. The ad angered baby-wearing mothers across the blogosphere who said the centuries-old practice is hardly a trend and doesn’t cause back pain. Word spread across cyberspace until Motrin finally apologized and removed the ad three days later.
    Lesson learned: Know your audience. Blogging mothers are an influential group online, and if Motrin had researched this group more thoroughly it might have anticipated these objections. Also, three days is an eternity in the blogosphere, so companies need to act quickly to minimize damage.
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