Not every marketing effort can be a success, that’s why there’s testing and optimization programs – to find what works and build on those wins and learn from those losses. And usually when things don’t totally go as planned, the result is more, "meh," than "time to break the panic glass."
But then there are situations marketers never want to find themselves in, whether it’s a social media meltdown of their own creation or worse, a full-blown crisis.
Here are cautionary tales from 2015 where marketing definitely went wrong... in a major way:
Placing your brand in the hands of one person is living dangerously.
Brands often build long-term campaigns around recognizable individuals or spokespeople. Progressive Insurance is great example with its years-long campaign featuring “Flo.” Of course Flo is a fictitious character played by actress Stephanie Courtney. If Courtney were to make headlines, Progressive has a layer of insulation between Flo, the character, and the person portraying the spokesperson.
Hanging your brand on the shoulders of a real-life figure and their potential foibles is a far more dangerous marketing proposition.
“While a celebrity can be a great spokesperson and generate major interest and sales, brands also need to be wary of tying their entire reputation too closely to any one individual,” Patrick Hillman, a vice president at Levick Communications, a public relations firm that specializes in crisis management, told Marketing Dive when the scandal broke.
Sandwich franchise chain Subway found this out the hard way. This year it ended a more than fifteen year tenure of Jared Fogle as their main pitchman. Fogle had essentially been the face of its marketing and branding when he came under investigation and then later convicted of child pornography and sex with a minor charges.
Subway now finds itself in not only reputation management mode, but will need to reboot the way people view the brand because Fogle was such central aspect of its branding.
"They have to acknowledge they are in a horrific situation and then pivot back to the fact that the spokesperson’s actions will in no way affect the brand’s dedication to providing customers with a healthy fast-food alternative," Hillman said. That said, his money is on Subway surviving this crisis.
Implying date rape is, simply put, a bad marketing tactic.
Where Subway made the mistake of placing too much of their brand reputation in the hands of one person, the marketing team at Bloomingdale’s doesn’t have a spokesperson to pin the blame on for their extremely ill-conceived print ad from November.
Someone at Bloomingdale’s thought this ad was smart. I assume that person has been fired. https://t.co/VrxfDfSGQI pic.twitter.com/Tg96myLnx7— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) November 11, 2015
It ran a catalog ad featuring a man and woman standing next to each other with the woman laughing and looking away with the caption "Spike Your Best Friend’s Egg Nog When They’re Not Looking" floating between them. Not surprisingly, the retailer was immediately hit on social media as promoting date rape, which most likely was not the intention of the ad.
Bloomingdale’s immediately released a statement acknowledging the situation, saying, “In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale’s sincerely apologizes for this error in judgement.”
But, unlike digital ads that can be pulled so that shares are no longer coming from the brand directly, this faux pas was in print and already in the hands of consumers with no way for Bloomingdale’s to “recall” the offensive ad except with a tweet:
We heard your feedback about our catalog copy, which was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale's sincerely apologizes.— Bloomingdale's (@Bloomingdales) November 10, 2015
Bloomingdale's has declined to comment further than the tweet it sent out.
Watch the expiration dates on your marketing assets.
Google actually managed to briefly lose the rights to the URL – Google.com this year, and that’s not even the worst marketing failure around letting a marketing asset’s expiration date pass without keeping it up to date.
That distinction goes to Heinz with its QR code promotion that allowed consumers to scan the code, so they could head to a promotional website and design their own Heinz Ketchup label. The problem with the campaign is it only ran from 2012 to 2014, but QR codes were still on ketchup bottles as late as this summer at least in Germany.
In the time that followed, Heinz no longer held the domain for the promotion’s website, which in the meantime had been purchased by a German porn site. Of course, somebody scanned the QR code found on a bottle of ketchup, and instead of getting to design a custom label they were redirected to a hardcore porn website.
The consumer who made the discovery let Heinz know via its Facebook page that Heinz Ketchup bottles were no longer safe for minors (or work for that matter), giving the company a hard time for letting the URL expire. For its part, the porn company joined the social media conversation offering a free one-year subscription to its site.
Heinz apologized the consumer, Daniel Korell, and offered to ship him a bottle of ketchup with his own designed label.
When a marketing problem isn’t a Marketing problem
All three examples covered events that were caused in some way by the marketing team, whether through strategic decisions, bad planning or simple oversight. There are times, though, when Marketing as a department has to deal with a marketing flop as discipline problem that isn’t of its own making.
An example of this is when Volkswagen was hit with a clean diesel scandal, created in-house by its engineers. The net result for the marketing team however was a massive brand and reputation management cleanup. After the CEO was forced out and consumer confidence in any messaging coming from Volkswagen at a low. The scandal was severe enough to even harm the reputation of Germany as a nation.
Finding a solution
So what can brands do when hit with a marketing debacle?
Levick's Hillman said he urges his clients to do their due dilligence before any marketing campaign, but that it is crucical for companies to have "a crisis preparedness plan in place for when those personal issues come to light."
In a brand crisis management effort it’s important for companies to stay in front of the story and be as transparent as possible throughout the process. Hopefully, by addressing the issue head on and being sympathetic about it, they will be able to retain some brand advocates.
If all else fails, some marketing consultants have offered as consolation that with the media's quick news cycle and the public's short attention spans, most people will likely move on quickly enough.