Sales & Marketing

The lessons to be had from epic marketing campaign fails

6 min read

31 August 2017

When it comes to marketing  and advertising, causing offence can damage your reputation past the point of recovery.

Regardless of whether you have the right product, if you target the wrong audience your promotion could end up facing huge backlash and potentially ruin your brand’s image completely, falling onto a scrapheap of epic marketing campaign fails.

As a producer of content you might be full of ideas but if you don’t do enough market research or gain enough customer insight, your goals could be completely missed.

Thanks to the internet and social media, you can be sure that your marketing campaign fails won’t simply slip under the rug. But, even before the opinionated world of Twitter became popular, businesses still managed to fall short of the mark with some of their campaigns.

Here’s a few of the biggest marketing campaign fails we’ve seen across a range of leading industries over the last two decades, and the lessons marketers can learn from them.

Deodorant disaster

Nivea was forced to end it’s “White is Purity” campaign early after receiving backlash for being “discriminatory and racially insensitive”.

A spokesperson for Nivea attempted to pull it back by explaining that the advert was part of a larger campaign in the Middle East, that linked the colour black with strength and the colour white with purity.

But, as with all marketing campaign fails, the damage was already done in the Twitter-verse and a number of articles online, showed that the only true support the campaign received was from far-right wing political groups.

Lesson: Remember the different contexts that your campaign messages and slogans could be interpreted in; something that might not seem offensive to your marketing team could be taken in a completely different way by another group of people. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.    

Body-shaming on the daily commute

Back in 2015, Protein World’s “Are you beach body ready?” advert caused international uproar with an image of a woman in a bikini and a message that openly body-shamed women. 

The faux pas was noticed and London’s underground commuters fought back against the sexist campaign with punchy and witty one-liners and graffiti to deface the imagery.

New York’s subway passengers also joined in with the protest when Protein World gave the advert another go across the pond, despite its total failure with the UK audience. American and British audiences unite!

Lesson: Test and learn doesn’t work if you don’t learn anything from your first fail. The phrase “if at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again” won’t apply if you don’t change from marketing campaign fails that have already caused offence and been slated nationwide.

On the next page, find out which car brands fell into the trap of marketing campaign fails.

Cars that lack drive and direction

If we know anything about campaigns in the automotive industry, it’s that they like to target those who so desperately want to be cool but are, in fact, dull and boring.

The marketing campaign for the 1995-2005 Mazda Bongo Friendee was targeted at young people; the name aimed to give the impression to the youth that this van will bring you fun with friends and music and just a really great time

But, the car went on to be a low budget van and very popular with parents on the school run – not exactly who the marketing team tried to target.

Another example of marketing campaign fails from the 1990s is the Ford Probe misadventure. The name was meant to evoke technological advancements, but the Brits just found it entirely laughable.

However, success can occur in unexpected markets. For years, Honda tried to market models such as the Jazz and the HR-V known as the “Joy Machine” to younger drivers, only to find that the grey pound was, once again, providing the most revenue because of the car’s reliability, spaciousness and good engine.

Lesson: What is customer research without a simple common-sense-check? Surely only surfers or a certain type of outdoorsy youth seek spaciousness in their first car?

So, what else have we learnt?

Yes, controversy can be cool and spark interest and engagement, but only if it’s sensitive and well considered. And, obviously, the naming of a product should be one of the most crucial decisions in the marketing process.

All of the marketing campaign fails above could have been avoided with a greater understanding of the target audience and more testing.

We know it can be hard to please everyone in this often cynical and judgemental world, but when a brand hits a campaign bullseye, the viral advert kudos is immortalised forever.

Claire Wilson is content strategy director at Stratton Craig, a copywriting and language consultancy

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