Big-name brands have failed, and what you can learn from them – News Couple
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Big-name brands have failed, and what you can learn from them


There has always been a failure in branding, but in the digital age, public disapproval can form faster than ever. Some failed brands became legendary: There were motorcycle-themed perfumes, illegible logos, and Super Bowl shells, while one unfortunate campaign left a sticky pink flood on the streets of New York. Here’s our guide to some of the biggest and worst brand failures in history.

Illustration by OrangeCrush

Why brand failure is important

Brand failure provokes strong reactions. Some people may feel betrayed by a product that no longer represents their values, while others may only be delighted to see a giant company shrink in size.

But the failure of the brand’s history isn’t just about angry demonstrations or cheerful retweets. These were strategies that companies believed in, and in some cases spent millions of dollars on. But they got it wrong and ended up making their brand look unattractive, hypocritical or confused. If you’re launching a new product or campaign, these big-name mistakes help you decide how to market your product — and figure out what you should never do.

Pepsi and North Face got into the controversy

Tying your cart to a prominent issue can be a great way to make your brand part of the conversation. But if you don’t walk, your speech may sound a bit empty.

Shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping American cities, Pepsi released a 2017 commercial in which Kendall Jenner crosses protest lines in the street to give a police officer a can of Pepsi. Calls to boycott the brand soon followed, with observers noting that Jenner passed her wig to a black woman before joining the protest, questioning whether decades of racial oppression and violence could really be resolved with a cool box-pop model.

Via Business Insider Youtube

Then in 2019, North Face took photos of models in their outerwear everywhere from the Scottish mountains to Brazilian national parks and published them on several Wikipedia pages. The result: when people searched for certain locations and activities – on a specific site independently – they arrived in the middle of a PR campaign. Wikipedia and its users were not amused, and North Face canceled the campaign and issued remorse statment They say they “deeply believe” in Wikipedia’s mission and “apologise for engaging in activity that goes against these principles.”

The problem, of course, was that their actions showed that they had little respect for Wikipedia’s objective editorial position. Like Pepsi, they tackled an issue on a very superficial level, and the gap between their pious message and profit-chasing tactics made them look like fools.

learningAssociating your brand with a cause you are closely related to is one thing, but if the audience feels hypocritical, they will hit you where it hurts.

Wrong Slogans: The London Olympics and the Gap

Twitter Olympic Long Jump
The Olympics rose in London. Her motto, below, cross London 2012

The logo is the central brand. Who can forget the textured but instantly recognizable curls of Coca-Cola, or the apple fruit? When logos work, it’s a modern alchemy that combines brand associations with sharp design. But when they don’t work, they are baffling and often an expensive mess.

Let’s take the 2012 London Olympics slogan, which sought to “make people reconsider the Olympics, to think of it differently,” according to Wolff Olins’ Branding Agency Director, Ije Nwokorie. Sure, the logo designed for Wolff Olins messed up something, but arguably it was people’s ability to read: while the games went well, the logo was annoying and ugly.

Gap rebranding 2010
The 2010 new Gap logo ran for a week, via Wikipedia Commons

The London Olympics brand has at least some fans, but clothing giant Gap’s attempt to rebrand itself has soured that it faltered within a week. The company has flipped its old logo—a simple, clean box-text badge that talks about its classic line of Ts and jeans—for an alternative that places Helvetica lettering over a small blue box that screams “Anonymous Accounting Firm.” It is said that developing the logo and changing it again cost Gap $100 million.

learningDisruption can fall unchanged: The best logos tend to talk about brands’ strengths and heritage, rather than just embracing existing patterns or trying to pull the brand in a different direction.

Burgers, bikes and know your customer base

Chef's Burger Packaging
Fast food can be developed by Khramova

In 2013, keen to bring health-conscious people to their restaurants, Burger King introduced Satisfries to their menu. Thanks to the less porous mixture, the saturated products contained 30% fewer calories than standard French fries. But a combination of the high price tag, the tongue-twisting name, and the fact that most visitors to Burger King weren’t looking for healthy food, led to the new product failing. This was not helped by a potentially blunt social media campaign that used the hashtag “WTFF” – which stands for “what are french fries” but was drowned out by fewer family-friendly tweets.

Ark Deluxe Burger Detail
Arch Burger Deluxe Detailed from an ad via Wikipedia

They weren’t the first fast-food chain to try to appeal to a more sophisticated audience: In 1996, McDonald’s sought to attract discerning adult customers with a massive marketing campaign led by Arch Deluxe. The “Big Taste Burger” was promoted with a campaign that focused on “secret” mustard sauce and mayonnaise and premium ingredients. But while fine-dining burgers are big business these days, the product was unsuitable for a family-friendly restaurant whose customers value old favorites at competitive prices. The campaign cost McDonald’s $300 million; Arch Deluxe was completely phased out by 2000.

These failed fast food are just the tip of the iceberg of lettuce. Other brands that have misread the target market’s appetite for new products include gun brand Smith and Wesson, which briefly sold mountain bikes, and famed motorcycle maker Harley Davidson, who made several attempts to make perfume.

learningDiversification can open up new profitable areas, but not sticking to what you’re good at is risky. If new products conflict with your brand’s personality, loyal customers may feel confused or frustrated.

Snapple and Nationwide are getting the wrong kind of attention

The world’s biggest lollipop in New York City in the summer? It sounds so perfect, and it was. Instead of amassing a Guinness World Record and some sensational social media coverage, soft drink maker Snapple 2005’s PR stunt let kiwis and strawberries spread over Union Square. “We didn’t see pop music, just pink water pouring in the street,” a local worker told the New York Times.


Snapple registration attempt led to disaster, via AP . Archive

The combination of a vibrating delivery truck and high temperatures may have melted the center of a giant flavored ice sculpture, which Snapple had to quickly arrange. Instead of the giant 171.5 tons, they ended up serving up supporting ice sculptures, which remained frozen but were about the same size as a regular TV.

More evidence that if you’re going to take the bigger stage, you better be sure you’re leading, comes from the 2015 Super Bowl. The game saw the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in front of 114 million viewers. The first half of the ad break saw a very dismal commercial for Nationwide Insurance about a boy who had never experienced life’s great milestones – because he died young.


Nationwide Insurance’s Super Bowl ad, via USA TODAY Sports

The ad clearly resonated with test audiences, but surrounded by the allure of the Super Bowl, it seemed like a paradoxical piece of fear-mongering. The site alone costs more than $4.5 million, which is a lot to pay for in a Twitter furore. Nationwide claimed they were glad they started a conversation, but the following year they reasonably cut their losses and didn’t run a commercial.

learning: attention seeking is good, but if you are not well prepared, and do not read the mood correctly, you can end up looking very stupid.

orange
Tropicana did not change their oranges, but they did change their brand via Engine Accurate

Beverage giants are losing loyal customers

Changing the product packaging is usually a fairly safe move — but the brand’s failure hit Tropicana with $50 million. The company’s flagship orange juice has always had an orange with a straw. The company decided to change the handle and instead show the juice itself, shimmering in a clear glass, with the opening cap reshaped to look like a small orange and the main line focusing on the juice’s 100% purity.

Tropicana rebranding
The renaming of Tropicana was far from fruitful, via Quizco

The change was intended to appeal to health-conscious consumers, but customers found that the new brand seemed cheaper (something perhaps compounded by the fact that the drink’s “pure premium” message is now less clear), while many of them had an emotional connection to the image of straw-pierced oranges. By swapping out multiple parts of product design at once, Tropicana alienated its markets. Sales fell 20%, and the company quickly returned to its original artwork.

The most famous soda that failed came from Coca-Cola, which in 1985 New Coke turned into a legendary disaster. Realizing that they were losing market share to Pepsi, and believing that Boomers were moving on to diet drinks, Coke decided to hook the Gen X audience with a sweeter cola. The beverage that became New Coke fared well for focus groups, and Coke made a critical decision: Instead of running the new drink alongside Coke, they streamlined their growing product lines, getting rid of the old brew.

New Coca-Cola
via Coca-Cola

A massive marketing campaign backed the launch, with old Coca-Cola being phased out and new cans and bottles, complete with a “new” brand and a larger line. At first, the signs were good, but resentment was growing, especially in the American South, Coca-Cola’s historic heart. Coca-Cola hired a psychiatrist to listen to some of the complaint calls: They said some of the callers looked like they had just lost a loved one. With sales struggling and bottlers worried, after 79 days, Coca-Cola accepted failure and reintroduced the old flavour. The move was praised in the US Senate, and by 2002 New Coke was completely scrapped.

The Coca-Cola experience shows the problem of rebranding itself as the “real thing”. Once you mess with tradition, you mess with people’s memories of their youth and their stories about who they are.

learningA sudden change of a much-loved product, or the packaging it comes in, is dangerous. People who like familiar things and change many aspects of a brand can feel like a threat to your audience, especially when you take away their ability to choose the product they like. It is better to do innovation carefully.

Brand failure and how to avoid it

All of these companies believed in their branding strategies at the time and backed them with millions of dollars in funding. It seems silly in hindsight, and there are lessons to be learned. Brands should treat the causes they do exactly, they should treat existing logos carefully, they should stick to what they are good at and they should be wary of new stunts.

We love to tell stories about brand failures that few have been amplified in their narrative—for example, the much-mocked Colgate lasagna didn’t actually exist. Several companies claim to have pulled something positive out of the fire: a Coca-Cola executive said in 1999 that New Coke was a “success” because it had “revitalized the brand and reconnected the public with Coca-Cola”. These case studies should help you create better campaigns, but every brand will fail sometimes. If your marketing isn’t implemented, you can listen, learn, and try again.

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