I received such positive feedback on the recent column where we discussed the takeaways from the Bud Light fiasco that I decided to research some other marketing fails to see what we can learn from them—specifically, what not to do.
1. A Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad
The ad in 2017 follows along with a marching protest and features Jenner watching and then joining it. In the end, she walks to the front of the protest line and hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer as a peace offering. He takes the Pepsi and everyone cheers. Pepsi sought to promote global unity, peace and understanding, but it achieved exactly the opposite. The ad supposedly trivialized the movement and made the protest seem like a fun party. No one finds joy from Pepsi at a protest. Pepsi pulled the ad from the airwaves and YouTube within 24 hours.
The takeaway: Never use controversial topics or social issues to promote your products, services or business. If you want to capitalize on a trending topic, do your research to make sure there is no risk for polarizing your audience and losing customers.
2. Gap’s logo redesign
In 2010, The Gap replaced its 20-year-old logo with a new one: black, bold font with a blue square in the upper right. It was Gap’s attempt to transition from classic, American design to “modern, sexy, cool,” but it was immediately rejected by consumers. Gap tried to turn this into a crowd-sourcing project, saying it was “thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding.” The backlash was so severe that the company switched back to its old logo within six days.
The takeaway: People like new things, but they also like tradition. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance. If you’re going to make a major change in your branding, lower the risk of a negative response by getting outside input, interviewing customers or testing it on a small segment of your audience. And always keep your most loyal customers at the forefront while making decisions.
3. Burger King’s Women’s Day tweet
On International Women’s Day in 2021, Burger King’s UK division published a Twitter thread where the first tweet said: “Women belong in the kitchen” and was followed by two more tweets, one that said: “If they want to, of course,” and another tweet that announced their new scholarship program to help women get a degree in culinary arts and reduce the gender gap in the restaurant sector. Though the first tweet was intended to capture attention and the following two tweets were progressive, many Twitter users never got past the first tweet, resulting in a wave of backlash for the seemingly sexist statement.
The takeaway: Every social media platform works differently. What works on Instagram, where the user can see the big picture straight away, might not work over Twitter via a single tweet. And what looks right on desktop could look entirely different on mobile. So test everything before you hit “publish.”
4. AAirpass by American Airlines
In the early 1980s, American Airlines was looking for quick ways to raise capital. Instead of securing bank loans, the company introduced an “AAirpass,” which offered unlimited first-class air travel for a flat rate of $250,000. Unlike today when companies place restrictions on these kinds of offers to protect themselves from financial losses, the AAirpass was truly limitless and membership was life-long. The result? American started losing millions of dollars every year due to the high volume of flights taken by AAirpass holders.
The takeaway: If you’re offering a high-value incentive to your customers, include terms and conditions to protect your business and make sure the cost of the incentive does not outweigh the benefits to your business.
5. Bloomingdales’ spiked eggnog ad
In their 2015 Christmas catalog, Bloomingdale’s published an ad showing a sharply dressed man staring at a laughing woman who has her head turned alongside a caption that read, “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” The ad caused outrage as it seemed to encourage date rape. In response to the uproar, Bloomingdale’s tweeted an apology, calling the ad “inappropriate and in poor taste.”
The takeaway: Playful humor is a good way to engage your audience, but never take this chance with controversial and sensitive topics. Furthermore, be extra cautious with printed material. You can delete a social media post or stop running a digital ad, but it’s much harder to recall printed material.
6. Coca-Cola’s ‘New Coke’ Flavor
In the 1980s, the war between Pepsi and Coca-Cola was at its peak and Pepsi was closing the gap between it and Coke. To get back in the game, Coca-Cola introduced “New Coke,” which had the smooth and sweeter taste of Diet Coke but sweetened with corn syrup. When it finally went to market, customers hated it. Coca-Cola received 400,000 phone calls and letters from angry consumers. Coke returned its original formula—Coca-Cola Classic— to the shelves.
The takeaway: Coca-Cola did more market research than Gap, but taste alone is not the only factor in your customers’ satisfaction. Coca-Cola’s brand identity has been closely tied to friendship and nostalgia, and this new recipe did not align with that. When you have a successful product, be cautious about upgrades and improvements. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.