You might have this fantastic idea that has everyone at work talking; and when you finally pitch the new digital marketing campaign to test groups, you receive less-than-thrilled responses. Maybe your excitement got the better of you or no one in the company bothered to wonder how others might perceive the new campaign.
Either way, we’ve compiled a list of the top failed marketing campaigns, along with our insights, to show you how some of the biggest names in business today set themselves up for failure—and how they might have avoided it.
1. Jägermeister - pool party turns into chemical warfare
No, Jägermeister, the company known for its 56-herb and spice didn’t launch an actual chemical attack—but they did toss liquid nitrogen into a swimming pool ‘for effect.’ In Leon, Mexico, Jägermeister hosted a part in which its staff poured liquid nitrogen into the pool to ‘create a cool effect,’ an act which created a poisonous cloud, hospitalizing eight and putting one man into a coma.
This campaign’s blunder is pretty simple: party responsibly.
It’s one thing to support drinking responsibly and it’s another to have employees that thinks it’s wise to pour four buckets of an already volatile chemical into a pool filled with chlorine. The disaster could have been avoided with a little forethought and the use of a dry ice/smoke machine. Really, Jägermeister? Liquid nitrogen into a pool?
2. American Airlines - free first-class travel
A one-time fee for unlimited first-class air travel. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, American Airlines learned the hard way that sometimes the consumer is smarter than the business. After offering unlimited first-class flights for a flat rate of $250,000 USD, the airline thought they’d be able to raise millions during a time of record-high interest rates. That’s when they introduced the AAirpass in 1981. The problem? The people who’ve purchased and used these passes have more than since made up for the investment—and some have done it in as little as a month.
American Airline’s response was to launch an investigation into these frequent fliers, to see if any of their system’s rules had been violated. This pass meant to convey airline loyalty seems to imply a one-way system. That’s a no-no in the business world. Successful companies treat their customers as they want to be treated, which is why loyalty and reward programs succeed so often—they “return the favor” so to speak.
Instead of offering the golden ticket of airline passes, American could have simply doubled frequent flyer miles or offered incentives for committing to loyalty programs. Their interest in making a quick buck backfired and in the process they wound up alienating long-time customers and some of their AAirpass holders, not to mention the huge loss in profits at all the free flights AAirpass holders took advantage of.
3. Coca-Cola - changing the formula
Coke went nuclear during the cola wars between its drink and its competitor, Pepsi. While Pepsi played their campaigns smart with ad campaigns like the Pepsi Challenge in 1975, Coke only succeeded in demonstrating how confused they were. At first Coke railed against sweeter colas—until they developed New Coke. New Coke was a sweeter version of Coke they claimed had been sampled in over 200,000 taste tests, and which had received glowing reviews.
The problem? Tasting a soda is one thing, but that taste had to measure up to how people actually consumed soda, which was by the can or bottle. When customers started to purchase cans and bottles of New Coke they were instantly turned off by how sweet the new brew was.
Coke could have just fought fire with fire—with better ad campaigns. As soon as they touched the actual product, they risked the integrity of their brand.
While they took out cocaine of their recipe a very long time ago, a study by Medical News Today shows that Coca-Cola is still 'comparable to heroin' because it stimulates the brain and your pleasure similarly to the drug.
4. Colgate - frozen dinners
You know that company that makes toothpaste? Yeah, that one. Well, they tried their hand at making frozen dinners. They might have succeeded if they hadn’t been so good at their flagship product, toothpaste. People just didn’t associate healthy or good tasting food with a brand that had, up until that point, brought them products intended for the bathroom medicine cabinet.
A simple fix would have been to invest in a subsidiary company, or purchase a smaller one—giving the consumer a different brand to focus on while they pumped out a new product. Colgate could have just simply stuck with making our smiles brighter and left well enough alone.
5. Pepsi - bringing loved ones back from the dead
We couldn’t mention Coke without pointing out a gem in Pepsi’s marketing past. In the 1950’s, when Pepsi became the stale soda of choice for stay-at-home-moms, they started working on a new slogan: “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation.” Once the 60’s rolled around, Pepsi quickly became the rocking cola of youth—a trendy, cool brand that could once again compete with Coke.
Wave after wave of jingles and television commercials re-launched the brand; but then overseas sales began to drop.
Disclaimer: Pepsi has neither confirmed nor denied exactly what happened, but the rumored drop in sales is that it had something to do with mistranslations. In languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Thais, and German, small nuances in the phrasing caused translated versions of the new slogan to read as “Come alive out of the grave with Pepsi” and “Bring dead ancestors back from heaven.”
It’s not hard to imagine that this might have been strange to some customers.
While those of us in America might have been down with the idea of bringing back Great Uncle Bob from the great beyond, those in more religiously inclined cultures would have found such ideas bordering sacrilege. Moral of the story? If you’re embarking on a global marketing campaign, consider all the cultures and countries you’ll be reaching. Glossing over the fine details of translations and cultural differences can literally come back to haunt you.
At least, if Pepsi has anything to do with it.
6. Sony - white vs. black PSP ad
Marketing is a field that sometimes rewards the brassy, but when your ad metaphors take human form, you run the risk of drawing fire. In commemoration of the release of their new ceramic white PSP, Sony used giant billboards with several different images all centered around a central theme: a “white PSP” avatar subduing a “black PSP” avatar, depicting the new white PSP model’s dominance over the older black PSP.
The campaign itself might not have been the mistake, not unless Sony was being intentionally vulgar, which is doubtful. But where the real misstep may have occurred is in how Sony handled the negative PR coming their way. Rather than roll with the punches and capitalize on the PR firestorm, they threw up the surrender flag and attempted to defend themselves.
That so many people took the photographs in the campaign literally speaks for itself. Sony would have been better off using actual images of the consoles as opposed to human models, and letting the new system speak for itself. When you try to be artistic, you open yourself to more than just your own interpretation of the material—and in Sony’s case, those other interpretations were all crying foul.
7 . Starbucks - collapse into cool
Imagine a picture of two ice cold, frosty Starbucks drinks standing side by side on a field of grass, surrounded by summertime insects. Above the image is a caption: “Collapse into cool.” Nothing wrong yet, right?
Apparently, Starbucks exhibited some not-so-cool behavior when they charged EMT workers $130 for water following the collapse of the WTC towers on September 11. It seems that bad press followed them, resulting in public outcry over their “Collapse into cool” campaign (note the word ‘collapse’) that came out in April 2002. Many took the combination of imagery and word selection to be in extremely poor taste.
This brand blunder is a difficult one to pick apart given the events that lead to up to the marketing campaign. Starbucks might not have gotten any flack had they given EMT workers free water, or maybe picking any other word besides collapse would have sufficed.
Like Sony’s marketing blunder and Pepsi’s cultural mistranslations, it’s possible that Starbucks’ mistake came down to not realizing how their imagery and slogan would be perceived, culturally, by their customers (most of which are American).
8 . Nike - runner charged with firearm murder referred to as “a bullet”
Double-amputee Olympian Oscar Pistorius was featured in a Nike ad that depicted various athletes in motion, with a voice-over stating that an athlete’s body was their weapon. For Pistorius, his caption read, “I am the bullet in the chamber.” This is the same Olympian who was later charged with murder, using a firearm.
While there is some morbid irony at play here, it was out of Nike’s hands for the most part. This blunder is a good example of marketing mistakes that simply can’t be foreseen or avoided. All the company could do was release a few press statements and pull their sponsorship. Companies take certain risks when they endorse individuals and groups, because those same people then become faces for their company’s brand; and their mistakes can easily damage companies who back them.
Nike isn’t alone in having its brand or marketing campaign spoiled by celebrity endorsements, however.
One solution to the problem of potential misbehavior is to utilize licensing deals, an act that essentially attaches a celebrity’s name to that brand. Licensing deals puts that celebrity’s name at stake and promotes accountability, in turn, it can foster trust between the company and individuals, and encourage more responsible behavior.
9. Gap - a gap in brain signals
Last on the list is Gap’s brand blunder, which was a revised logo. This particular campaign was fairly straightforward—the company wanted to freshen up their look and tested out a new logo. The problem? It seems that our brains are hardwired to react negatively to this sort of change. Particularly, sharp edges. When neuroscientists at NeuroFocus studied how volunteers’ eyes reacted to the new Gap logo, their findings showed that the new logo didn’t register as new or cool to the brain.
For a company in the apparel business, a lack of style is a huge loss of brand value.
A simple fix to this mistake would have been... to do absolutely nothing. Like Coca-Cola learned, don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Despite Gap’s intentions, they tried to redesign a familiar logo and the results weren’t positive. When it comes to visual ad campaigns and logos, everything from the colors used to the font of the text can affect how we perceive things. Careful thought has to go into every visual element or else marketing campaigns could ride or die on something as trivial as an out-of-place line.
Moral of the story is to always put a lot of thought into your marketing campaigns. Every business wants to go viral when it comes to content marketing, but make sure you are going viral for the right reason...not because of marketing fails like these that people just won't forget.