What Are Some Of The Greatest Marketing Disasters/Failures In History?

Sometimes what you thought was a great idea could become a failure in the real world. These days competition is really intense in many industries and marketers are trying very hard to create very creative and memorable campaigns for their customers. And often, they fail.

Everyone makes mistakes, even the biggest companies with million-dollar budgets. Some mistakes don’t cause many losses but the others can turn into disasters and ruin the image of a brand.

What’s important is to try to learn from our and others’ mistakes. That’s why we’ve collected some of the greatest failures in marketing history. We’ll discuss what went wrong with these marketing campaigns so that none of you make the same mistakes in the future.

Let’s start.

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Fiat - Love Letters

The Italian car manufacturing company created a very unusual promotional campaign to increase sales in the Spanish market and promote their new car, the Fiat Cinquecento. The company sent out 50 000 anonymous love letters to “independent, modern, working women”. 

The letters were written on pink paper and contained compliments and flattering words, inviting them to indulge in a “little adventure”. They also contained messages such as “We passed by on the street yesterday, and I noticed how you looked at me with interest”, “I only want to be with you a few minutes, and I promise our experience together will be unforgettable”.

Surely, the brand wanted to sound romantic and bring good emotions. They were going to reveal the writer’s identity as the Fiat Cinquecento, in the following letter, 4-6 days later. Bit the campaign backfired before the second letter was sent. Instead of causing curiosity and romantic feelings, the letters sounded more like threats from a stalker. It brought fear and panic amongst women, they were greatly threatened.

Fiat stopped the campaign after many protests and received a fine from the Zaragoza High Court.

This campaign shows that it’s important to carefully write your message so as not to sound creepy. Besides, anonymous letters can freak out anyone, especially with that kind of content. Also, it’s a bad idea to tell your customers that you know what they’re doing and you’re watching them. Before launching such a big campaign, you can test it first and make sure people understand what you wanted to say with your message.

Lipton Tea - Buy One, Get Infinity Free

“Buy one, get one free” is a pretty common marketing promotion, that you can see everywhere in the stores. Yet, it’s not so common to meet the ‘buy one, get infinity free’ campaign. Lipton Tea gave its customers an endless loop of free tea. 

In every package, they included a coupon, which customers could use to get a free package. And people could use it not just once but an infinite number of times. Or until the brand understood its mistake and stopped producing tea packages with free coupons.

This mistake could actually be easily avoided. And once again it shows the importance of creating a clear message.

Dove - Real Beauty Bottles

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaigns are about women with real bodies, they are aimed to support body positivity and change the unrealistic beauty standards. These campaigns are quite famous and successful. Well, except for this one.

In 2017, Dove launched limited edition soap bottles with 6 different shapes, which were representing body shapes. They wanted to show that beauty comes in different sizes and shapes. But instead of inspiring women, the campaign had the opposite effect. Women felt labeled, the campaign made women compare their bodies to different bottles. Some were even wondering if they can buy the product if their “shape” was out of stock.

The brand tried to explain that they didn’t mean women to compare their shapes or only buy the bottles of their shapes. They just wanted to show that different shapes of bottles are equally ideal. But it was too late. Dove scrapped this campaign, but continued working on “Real Beauty”. And quite successfully, which means they learned from their mistake.

Dealing with social issues, inequality problems is hard. You need to be careful with such delicate topics and social issues, as your campaign might have quite the opposite effect.

Pepsi - Live For Now

This example is similar to the previous one. It is about an important social and political cause. Pepsi wanted to place its product as a unifying force. But it didn’t work.

Pepsi ran a two-and-a-half-minute spot “Live For Now”. It features reality show star Kendall Jenner, who leaves her modeling gig to join a random protest. When tensions between the crowd and the policemen got intense, Kendall Jenner steps forward, opens a bottle of Pepsi and offers it to the policeman.

Solving racism with a can of Pepsi? Not a very good idea. Besides, it was unclear from the video what the protest was about (we could guess it was Black Lives Matter). This ad will remain in the minds of people as one of the worst ads for quite a long time.

The spot was ridiculed on social media, on SNL. The brand apologized to people and Kendall Jenner by involving her in the ad.

Integrating into political and social issues is a bad idea, as you might end up trivializing the issue and alienating your audience.

Coca Cola - New Coke

Coca-Cola wasn’t spared of failures either. It all started in 1975 when Pepsi launched a campaign called “Pepsi Challenge”. They invited volunteers who would do a blind taste of two sodas and say which one they preferred. Most people in the United States preferred Pepsi over Coke and the campaign resulted in an increase in sales for Pepsi.

Years later, in 1985, Coca-Cola threw out its classic formula and introduced the New Coke. But it was such a fail that they stopped producing the new coke after a week since it was introduced. The sales dropped significantly. In fact, the brand returned to the original classic formula.

Coca-Cola has done a lot of research, advertising, analysis. They have spent enormous resources on developing the new flavor. They have even tried it in a blind taste along with Pepsi and original Coke. Surprisingly, people liked the new flavor more than the other two options.

Though, it all wasn’t enough to convince that the new flavor was better. People were already used to the original flavor and didn’t accept the new one. In fact, Coca-Cola has tried to introduce some new flavors after this, but people still mostly prefer the taste of the original Coke.

There are still too many questions and debates about this case and why it went wrong. Perhaps, people don’t like changes in their beloved products, which have a hundred-year history. But in this case, it’s important to note that the company acknowledged its mistake soon enough and was able to fix it.

Ben & Jerry’s - Black and Tan

Ben & Jerry’s is an ice cream maker, who launched its failure campaign back in 2006. The brand wanted to do something special for St. Patrick’s Day, so they produced a new flavor called Black and Tan. It had the flavors of cream stout and chocolate ice cream and was supposed to appeal to Irish beer enthusiasts.

There was one thing that the brand missed. The name of the product. It turned out that Black and Tan was the nickname of a notoriously violent British militia who worked during Ireland’s war of independence.

Using a name that refers to brutality and violence was a bad idea. The brand withdrew their new product and apologized with this statement: “Irish ice cream fans reminded us of the unsavory connection, and we apologized.”

When creating or promoting a new product for a different market or country, it’s wise to take cultural values and differences into account.

Gap - New Logo

You’re probably well familiar with clothing and accessories retailer Gap and recognize its logo. Throughout the company’s history, the logo remained the same until the brand decided to change it in 2010. For some reason, they weren’t satisfied with their old logo and wanted to add something fresh to the brand.

So they introduced a new logo. And received tons of criticism and a drop in sales of 2%. They were so harshly criticized, that they backed up after six days from introducing the new logo. People blamed them for choosing a too simple font and not being interesting to look at.

Fortunately, Gap returned with another logo that was quite similar to the original one.

In this case, Gap didn’t take its customers’ opinions into account. That’s why this new logo was a failure. If they have researched more and asked for opinions, the brand could have avoided this mistake.

Tropicana - New Packaging Design

And again no one paid attention to customers’ opinions. For many years customers associated the brand Tropicana with the plump orange with the red-and-white straw poked into it. And suddenly, in 2009, the brand decided to refresh its packaging and redesign it.

And it appeared to be a disaster. The company spent more than $35 million on the development of the design and advertising. But consumers didn’t recognize it. They were still looking for the plump orange with the red-and-white straw in the stores and when couldn’t find it, they turned to other brands.

For brands that have many years’ history and a well-known design, it’s not a good idea to try and change it. Tropicana was a well-established brand and its consumers had an emotional bond with the original design. That’s why their redesign didn’t work. In fact, it cost Tropicana a 20% drop in sales and a $50+ million loss. Besides, the brand received lots of criticism on social media.

Soon after the fiasco, they returned to the original packaging.

Osborne

We only added the company name here, as because of this failure the company filed for bankruptcy. There is also a term named after this failure – the Osborne effect.

Osborne Computers was a pioneer in making portable computers, quite a successful company, operating in Silicon Valley in 1981. They launched their first model, Osborne 1, and it was a great success. The company grew from 2 employees to 3 000 and they even struggled with the demand.

They got 50 000 orders for Osborne 1, and they have already developed a new model, far superior from Osborne 1 – Osborne Executive. The CEO Adam Osborne started showing journalists and dealers the next model, and dealers around the country started canceling orders of Osborne 1. Everyone knew there would be a new model soon, so who would want to buy the old one? This led to price cuts, but still, no one wanted to buy Osborne 1. With no cash flow, the company filed for bankruptcy and closed down.

As we can see, premature marketing can ruin a brand. And as a result, now we have a new term the Osborne effect – “a social phenomenon of customers canceling or deferring orders for the current soon-to-be-obsolete product as an unexpected drawback of a company’s announcing a future product prematurely.”

Audi - Chinese Wedding Commercial

Audi wanted to show how important it is to check out the car before buying it. They just chose the wrong way to do it.

The commercial presented a wedding ceremony, which was interrupted by the groom’s mother. She rushed to the bride and started examining her. After giving a nod of approval, the scene was transferred to a picture of a red Audi sedan on the highway, with the slogan “An important decision must be made carefully.”

The ad received tons of criticism and was labeled as sexist. Objectifying women and comparing them to a vehicle was indeed a very bad idea. After this ad, Audi really struggled to beat the competition from BMW and Mercedes Benz.

Objectifying people, reducing their value to some objects can never be a winning idea. So, make sure not to do it.

To Sum Up

Marketing is quite a tough job and even the best marketers working for world-famous brands can fail. Each of the failures on this list is different from another, but what they all failed in – is not knowing enough about their audience. If we dig deeper, it always comes to one thing – people. When they misunderstand your message, you fail. So, before launching any campaign, make sure you know the most about your audience to deliver a message, which they won’t interpret wrongly. 

Remember that people are not robots and their reactions can be quite surprising. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just make sure to fix them at the right time.

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Digital Growth Formula Team

Digital Growth Formula Team

At DGF we know the power of digital marketing, and we can prove that you can scale your business with us. Our team has a deep understanding of the industry, and we want to share our experience and expertise with you.

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