25 Brand Blunder Lessons

Great Brand Blunders

Be it American Apparel, Campbell, Honda, Sony, Starbucks, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or a small local brand; at some point all brands make and have made mistakes. Promotions, new product introductions, events, ads, commercials, and social media are all places where brands try creative new ideas – and at some point errors creep in. Whether in execution or in judgement, when errors happen the key is to contend with it quickly, with a sound mind. Face up to the error, own it, and correct it quickly. Rob Gray’s book Great Brand Blunders highlights some hilarious embarrassing yet innocuous mistakes in marketing campaigns – right through to sadly tragic examples. However, Gray does not just tell the story of the promotion, intent, and blunderous results; he reviews marketing lessons learned, and how to avoid similar mistakes with your brand.

Great Brand Blunders Review

Rob Gray Quote

Quote by Rob Gray, Great Brand Blunders

At first blush, as a marketer I was not sure why I wanted to read about these disasters. Being in marketing, category brand management, and owning P&L’s – I understand the risks, intent and aspirations of running events, promotions and campaigns. It is never initially designed or run to tarnish the brand, create a shortage, and embarrass or hurt anyone. However, the best laid plans do not always consider all factors, mistakes happen and markets react in unexpected ways. That is exactly why you will want to read and study Great Brand Blunders. The idea is to learn from these meltdowns, and avoid them! As my high-school history teacher often mused, ‘study history or be doomed to repeat it.’

Gray reviews a broad swath of marketing blunders. He structures the book into 11 chapters covering:  advertising, deals, social media, new product implementations, stunts, rebranding, false claims, mistargeted products, brand extension flops, translation errors (personal favourite), and terrible marketing reformulations. All told the chapters capture a range of marketing activities that are at the heart of marketers from one end of the spectrum to the other. The only missed area that calls out for a chapter of its own is blunders in communications. Examples here are plentiful, perhaps warranting an entire book as a distinct topic. Recent PR and communications blunders remind us of brands like BP, Malaysia Airlines, Microsoft and GM; just to name a few.

Real world examples of projects gone badly are used throughout. The book reviews the brand launching the campaign, the background on their hopes, and what happened to consider it a disaster. Most importantly each chapter ends on the actions taken or NOT taken by the marketing team with summary lessons learned. There are many lessons summarized with the following being the top 25 (direct and indirectly quoted).

25 Key Brand Blunder Lessons:

  1. Humour can make an ad memorable and create affection for a brand. But it can also offend. Consider very carefully what you say and how you say it.
  2. Make sure the claims you make in your ads can be substantiated
  3. Using the phrase ‘while stocks last’ in your T&C’s may not save you from public anger or media grilling if consumers are disappointed
  4. Do NOT delete! Take criticism on the chin, responding where appropriate if correction or clarification is required. Material should only be removed if it is offensive or inflammatory
  5. Open-ended posts, such as those asking people what they think of your brand or to complete a phrase – invite trouble!
  6. Be unambiguous in what you say and don’t use hashtags that could be misinterpreted
  7. Google Trends and Boardreader can provide useful insights into what people are saying online about your brand
  8. Put in place social media crisis management procedures that define what constitutes an issue and set out the escalation process if a crisis occurs. Who should respond – and how?
  9. Always ask yourself whether you will be meeting a genuine customer need
  10. Consumer safety MUST be paramount
  11. ‘Capture attention’ isn’t enough. Any event must sit comfortably with your brand and fit your marketing objectives
  12. Timing can be crucial. Rebranding at a time of bad news for your product, service or corporate brand may be perceived as a smokescreen
  13. Photoshop – don’t use it to deceive
  14. Never lie to the public. Brand reputation is more important than short-term gain
  15. Be clear on who your audience is and how your product sits in the marketplace – segmentation, targeting, and positioning are cornerstones of marketing best practices
  16. Gap in market à is it an opportunity or does it NOT warrant filling?
  17. Never patronize your audience
  18. Too many line extensions confuse consumers and is often detrimental to the core brand
  19. There will be a backlash orchestrated on social media if you are seen to be taking liberties with a cherished brand for which the public feels a degree of ownership
  20. DO NOT rely on Google Translate or other free online tools to create local language content!
  21. When creating a new brand, avoid names that sound ridiculous or offensive in other languages (be mindful of slang)
  22. Be sensitive to the taboos of other cultures and religions
  23. Research customer opinion before making significant changes to major products or your brand strategy
  24. Changes that are disadvantageous to loyal customers will likely trigger a backlash
  25. Always be clear on what your brand stands for

Unintended Marketing Humour

Great Brand Blunder by Rob Gray

Great Brand Blunder by Rob Gray

If you want a good laugh – chapter 10 on “Lost in Translation” – includes hilarious examples of branding and marketing internationally. Having experience first-hand examples of such translation errors – it was hard not to burst out in laughter at these foibles.

All told Great Brand Blunders is an easy read, and amusing collection of stories of marketing gone wrong. At first I found it difficult to read, as my heart cried out for the poor marketers and category managers responsible for some of the disastrous campaigns. However, the key interest to keep you hooked is the opportunity to learn without experiencing these disasters first hand. Examples of events with tragic consequences paints a particularly important lesson. Brands and the marketers responsible for them must use good, ethical, and people focused judgement. That means making sound decisions in the heat of an event or under the pressure of customer demand or public scrutiny.

It is true that Great Brand Blunders cries out for images. In many cases, a photo of the event, marketing campaign or brand ad would help paint a more vivid picture of the blunder. Despite this – the lessons do not lose any significant or importance without images.

Key Brand Takeaway

Your brand goes beyond hiding behind what is legal or not.
Your brand goes beyond whether the terms and conditions clearly stated one issue or another.
Your brand is a reflection of what your customers perceive of your product, your company, and your promise to them.
Take actions and make decisions that always let you stand proudly behind your brand’s promise.


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Article by Charles Dimov


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