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Five Ways to Keep Brands Out of Trouble

Every once in a while a brand will screw-up. If you go online and google “Brand Blunders,” you will find annual lists of the latest and greatest mistakes that brands have made. Social media has given us all the opportunity to see, almost in real-time, the latest and greatest gaffes. An advertising campaign with the goal of reaching a million customers can turn into billions of thrill seekers who will never buy your brand in the first place. The size of the mistake will determine how famous you will become. Famous for all the wrong reasons, I might add. Some brands have gone to the extremes to fake real people product situations with the hopes of becoming a viral sensation, but in most case this too back fire.

Big brand mistakes are self-inflicted wounds based on ignorance, arrogance, tastelessness and just poor judgement. But, sometimes, the reward of free publicity and fame are too hard to give-up.

There is always the temptation of getting your brand noticed – there is good awareness and bad awareness. Generally the bad awareness doesn’t build your brand, but can seriously damage your brand.

Here are some tips on how to keep your brand out of trouble:

Fine Line Between Funny and Offensive

Humour is a great way to communicate your brand. Nothing is better than getting your customer to laugh. In a study conducted by Millward Brown, over half of all ads around the world are considered either ‘funny’ or ‘light-hearted.’ The funnier the ad the more memorable it is likely to be. This is where some brands have gotten themselves into trouble. It is generally when a brand tries too hard and misses the mark or just doesn’t understand their consumers.

Spy Sunglasses tried to be witty and humorous with their outdoor campaign when they plastered the slogan ‘Happy to Sit on Your Face’ on billboards.  Clever, but it didn’t sit well with their customers.  The billboard, slated for a six month stint, was taken down after only one month.

The British grocer Sainsbury’s wanted to promote their ‘low-price guarantee’ and used John Cleese to break down Sainsbury’s aloof image. Lecturing the customers and the staff misfired badly and successfully alienated the target audience.

Skittles is known for their entertaining and fun brand – Touch the Rainbow. The experience of eating Skittles is just as important as the candy itself. In 2008, they crossed the line when they portrayed someone who turned everything to Skittles that he touched. He could no longer hold his baby and he accidentally killed a man on the bus. Depressing rainbow.

Sloppiness

There are countless examples of typos, wrong prices and misinformation. I am sure you have your favorite blooper. Here are a couple examples that will put fear into you to make sure you double and triple check everything you publicly display on your brand.

La Redoute a French fashion chain has had a number of embarrassing moments. On their website, they had a photo of kids promoting their children’s clothing line, but clearly in the background is a naked man. On the same website, they are also selling a t-shirt with a spelling mistake. Instead of having ‘Enjoy Holidays’ written in the garment it read ‘Enjoy Holydays.’

Remember the launch of Apples iOS 6 mobile operating system with the new and amazing Apple Maps? This system would no longer feature Google Maps.  The issues in the Apple Maps were endless to the point that a Tumblr blog was setup to document all the map errors. Every media outlet had a wonderful example in their backyard of wrong bridges, wrong towns and cities, airports turn to parks and parks turn to airports. One reporter stated, “While they are not enough to stop the iPhone 5 love-fest, I sincerely hope that the massive flaws in Apple Maps do not cost anyone their lives.” I am sure there were a lot of Apple employees who didn’t get much sleep until they solved all the problems.

With the desire to offer the widest range of product choices and selection Walmart’sHalloween promotional web pages included a category called “Fat Girl Costumes.” By the time the company understood its error, it was national news and the brand damage was done.

There are many examples of sending the wrong email to the wrong customers or sending out tweets that don’t reflect well on the company like US Airways, who accidentally send a customer a tweet with a pornographic image with a naked woman with a misplace model plane. This tweet was re-tweeted hundreds of times before the company noticed.

Contests and promotions are another area that has high potential of messing up a brand. Getting legal advice is a no brainier, but also making sure the contest fits the brand promise and builds on the brand. Malaysian Airlines still reeling from its misfortune of losing two planes launched a ‘bucket list’ campaign, asking customers to tweet places they’d like to see before they die. I think you know how this ended.

Double and triple check everything before you release it and ask the question does this fit our brand values and promise?

The Shock Value

Fashionista blog says “people are pissed about Harvey Nichol’s new pee-stained ad campaign.” It seems that the British department store Harvey Nichols knows how to get people’s panties in a knot and the Daily Mail said that the campaign has “soiled many customers’ opinion of the store.”

If you ask Tom Ford, he’d say that the shock value works just fine. He built a fashion empire (worth over $275 million) on pornography.  “When I shaved G for Gucci into the model’s pubic hair it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek statement about branding,” Ford said in People. “We had Gucci emblazoned on everything in those days—so I said why not the pubic hair too. It wasn’t just about sex.”  Really! Somehow he continues to get away with this type of thinking. But there is a limit to what people will allow a brand to do with their brand relationship.

Unlike most advertisements which centered on a company’s product or image,United Colors Benetton’s branding building focused on social and political issues like racial integration, AIDS awareness, war, poverty, child labor, death, pollution, politics, etc. The advertisements initially succeeded in raising the brand’s profile, but eventually began to cause dissatisfaction among customers, retailers, government bodies and various international non-profit organizations.

Some of Benetton’s most provocative advertisements were of a priest and a nun kissing, a just born baby with uncut umbilical cord, a black stallion and a white mare mating, a colourful mix of condoms, a black woman breast- feeding a white baby, AIDS victim and his family taken moments before his death, people on death row, a bloody uniform of a dead Bosnian, and senior political leaders kissing each other. I am still trying to figure what all this has to do with buying a sweater or a new polo shirt.

I never thought Microsoft would be an example of shock value. In 2009, they introduced the IE8 with an online commercial called ‘Oh my God! I’m gonna puke (O.M.G.I.G.P.). The purpose of this ad was to showcase their private browsing feature that is ideal for keeping your online porn habits a secret from others people who might share your computer.  As the Microsoft spokesperson said “some of our customers found it offensive, so we have removed it.”

Super Bowl is the Olympics of branding position new and old brands.  InsurerNationwide created a buzz, but the jury is still out if it helped or detracted from their brand.  They ran a campaign depicting the death of a child, due to a preventable accident at home. The negative reaction is largely based on why share this message at a time when people want to enjoy a game. USA Today describes the ad as “depressing, upsetting, and even brought down the uplifting Super Bowl atmosphere.” You be the judge.

Understand Your Customer’s Relationship with Your Brand

Where are the brand boundaries? For Tom Ford there are no boundaries as it concerns beautiful naked people, but see if he can sell food products or toys for children. Somewhere in the process common sense must prevail.

In 2010, Gap clothing store launched a new logo to portray the brand as more modern. In two days, they heard clearly that they change wasn’t what their customers wanted.  While their goal was to appeal to a more hip crowd, their existing customers who pay the bills didn’t want anything to do with the new image. Gap was smart enough to listen to their customers and quickly react.

In 1996, McDonald’s invite “adults back to McDonald’s by enhancing [their] adult and food image” as reported in the Mac Today magazine. It took two years to develop the adult burger Arch Deluxe. McDonald’s research revealed that 72% of consumers think the chain has the best burgers for kids, but only 18% said it has the best adult burger – a huge opportunity.  McDonald’s spend an estimated $200 million in a promotional blitz to launch this new product that failed miserably. The McDonald brand is based on friendliness, cleanliness, consistency and convenience. If someone at McDonald had asked their customers if they wanted a” burger with the grown-up taste,” they would have said no.

 Does It Make Good Sense?

Or, better yet does it make common sense? Just because you have a powerful and very recognizable brand doesn’t mean people will allow you to sell them anything.

Bic, the company that sells disposal pens, lighters and razors decided they should be also selling disposable underwear – actually, a line of women’s disposable pantyhose. Besides that they were disposable, there was no credible link between the Bic brand and the product. What were they thinking? Maybe they were thinking that they could do sexier advertising now that they were into underwear like Calvin Klein.

Colgate, the toothpaste company and the first to put fluoride into toothpaste had the bright idea to market frozen meals. They failed completely. Nobody wants a toothpaste-flavoured meal. Yet there must be many bright people at the Colgate Company who reviewed and approved this opportunity with the goal to succeed. Maybe they are too close to seeing the big picture beyond the consumer’s mouth.

Final Comment

The moral of the story is use the ultimate acid test – stand back from the situation and ask yourself does this message build on your brand promise. Is it building goodwill? Will you be sending the wrong message to your existing customers? Common sense should prevail. If you screw up, be transparent and fix the problem. Time and honesty will heal most errors.

And finally, double and triple check everything and if possible get as many eyeballs on everything before it goes out. In this instant world on digital communications, it becomes even more important that you communicate clearly and honestly.  Once it’s out there, it is out there for life.

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