Face Palms, Pies to the Face, and Deep Sighs

Discover how these major global brands rebuilt their reputation despite their backfired campaigns

Lena Elkins
March 23 2018

From body shaming to using death as a ploy to sell fish sandwiches, these companies managed to release marketing campaigns that were anything but ‘PC’ or well-received by the public audience. Yet somehow, they maintained their strong brand reputations and kept their financial standings intact. In some cases, the companies even saw benefits from their tone-deaf marketing strategies. While marketing faux paus may seem like something to blame on ‘rookie error,’ giant corporations are well-trained to avoid these snafus. But unfortunately, their inflated size and tendency to lean on already strong brand reputations is exactly why they could afford to push the envelope.

Before going into a few specific examples from leading companies around the world, it’s important to first understand how to predict a marketing campaign backfire before it causes a social media meltdown and potentially tarnishes the company’s hard-earned reputation.

How can you predict a marketing backfire?

  • Success- Companies that have reached a certain level of success are surprisingly more likely to make marketing mistakes due to beliefs that their long history of triumphs will protect them from failure.
  • Pride- A long track record of success tends to foster pride and creates big egos within the company. Relying on this inflated sense of self can be dangerous when it comes to creating campaigns.
  • Creativity- Don’t let creativity kill the campaign! Companies that honor creativity above all else are also more likely to fall into traps. Why? They hone in on abstract ideas that are simply too hard to grasp by their broad target audience.
  • Hierarchy- Junior employees are often urged to defer to the opinion of the most senior employee in the room, instead of speaking up when they know there’s a serious and imminent issue.

Keeping all of this in mind, I’ll showcase some real-life examples of how these themes show up in today’s media. Here are some of the best marketing campaigns that backfired.

Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Political Protest Campaign

 If the Black Lives Matter movement was led by a 22-year-old white supermodel armed with a cold can of cola, then maybe everyone could finally get along, right? Wrong! That was the vision Pepsi unsuccessfully presented in their ad campaign featuring reality TV star and top model Kendall Jenner. The ad was pulled on Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 after widespread criticism and accusations that it appropriated a nationwide protest movement that followed multiple police shootings of African Americans.

It wasn’t long after they rolled out the add that Pepsi pulled the plug and began begging forgiveness. Within 24 hours of their blunder, Pepsi released a statement that read, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.” It’s safe to say they missed a lot more than the mark, but this surprisingly wasn’t a total bust for the soft drink giant.

The Morning Consult survey found that “about 44% of people had a more favorable view of Pepsi after watching the ad. Only 25% of those surveyed has a less favorable view.”

And while the ad was criticized for what some saw an exploitation of the Black Lives Matter movement, a large percentage of minorities viewed Pepsi more favorably after watching the ad.

A shocking 75% of Latinos said the ad made them more favorable to Pepsi, while 51% of African-Americans said the same. When it came to whites, only 41% said the ad made them more favorable toward Pepsi. Jenner, however, didn’t share the same fate. According to the same survey, 28% of people said they saw Jenner in a more favorable light after watching the ad.  What also suffered was Pepsi’s social media standing. The day the advert was pulled, they drew 1.25 million mentions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, with 58.6% of them negative, according to social media monitoring company Brandwatch.

McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish

Clearly, all methods are fair game when it comes to selling a fish sandwich, and McDonalds UK took a low swing while formulating marketing tactics for its Filet-O-Fish sandwich in 2017. The fast-food giant was accused by critics of using bereavement to increase sales. The commercial showed a young boy asking his mother questions about his deceased father, trying to discover some commonalities between the two of them. Eventually, mother and son walk into a McDonalds where the boy inadvertently orders his father’s famous sandwich and it seems that all is well…at least on the silver screen.

In the real world, the chain quickly nixed the ad to put out the flames of negative social media backlash which spread rapidly. The fast-food chain put itself at serious risk for alienating even more customers as it has been struggling to attract more millennial diners.

Starbucks ‘Race Together’ Cup Campaign

Turns out this coffee house’s customers prefer their coffee without a side of unsolicited opinion. Although short-lived, On March 15, 2015, Starbucks went live with an ad campaign encouraging its customers to participate in discussions about race with its baristas. Employees were invited to write “#Racetogether” on coffee cups, and let’s just say it wasn’t well accepted. The campaign was nixed after six days, following public condemnation on social media imploring that a coffee brand shouldn’t be directly involved in racial politics. The misfire also resulted in a SBUX stock slump of 0.12 percent.

Although it never came to successful fruition, the seeds of the “#Racetogether” campaign were noble. The idea for the campaign was traced back to December 2014, when Starbucks founder Howard Schultz found himself deeply saddened by the racial protests following the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the cop who gunned down Michael Brown.

While Starbucks weathered what seemed like an initial storm they ultimately came out on top. On April 23, 2015, the coffee giant released its second-quarter earnings report boasting an 21% leap which drove them to an all-time high! “There was no indication that the move to wade into the complex and divisive issue [of race relations] hurt sales,” noted The Wall Street Journal. What’s also important to note is that customers never strayed from the brand and if anything embraced it even more!

Protein World’s ‘Beach-Body Ready’ Fail

If you took a ride on the London Underground or used the internet in general, then chances are you were subjected to Protein World’s controversial ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign in 2015. From racism to body shaming, the advert that featured a bevy of bikini-clad women running around a tropical oasis sparked outrage for unfairly targeting women’s bodies and body shaming the British public.

Although the ads were removed in 2016, the protein brand didn’t back off without a bark. Instead of apologizing for any harm done the company decided to clap back at Twitter users by leaving subtly snarky comments. Responding to a comment on Twitter that the company is “insanely bad at PR,” Protein World commented claiming to have gained 5,000 customers in four days following the campaign. Another Protein World employee boasted that their sales had tripled and even the PR department received a bonus!

And much like we’ve seen in previous examples, bad press doesn’t always equate to bad sales.  Protein world managed to rake in around $1.5 million in four days after being boosted by enormous backlash from body shaming campaigners.

Dove Body Wash Commercial

As part of its “Campaign for Real Beauty” Unilever’s Dove has launched a plethora of ad campaigns, but it was the dreaded ad in 2011 that completely missed the mark and got people all riled up.  After a 30-second TV commercial was released in the US, featuring three women of different races with a label “before” over a black woman and “after” over a white woman, viewers were left dumbfounded about the new level of tone-deaf dove had managed to ascend.

It wasn’t long after the clip was published that Dove rushed to unequivocally apologize for any offense caused by the ad, releasing a statement via Twitter and Facebook. The group made it clear that an internal review process for making and approving social media ads was underway to prevent this kind of mistake in future. While an apology like this would have been sufficient in an ordinary case, it was the second time that Dove was accused of racism, and this time people weren’t so willing to forgive.

The brand’s track record of distasteful advertisements, however, hasn’t marred Dove’s financial standings. Since embarking on its unique initiative Dove has not only won a plethora of ad awards and sold tons of product, it has also enjoyed a hefty sales jump to $4 billion today from $2.5 billion 14 years ago in its inaugural year. But has the company managed to accomplish its main goal of changing perceptions of race and body image?

Research conducted by Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff, who examined the campaign then and now, found that more women today define beauty on a broader spectrum of qualities, particularly confidence. Etcoff’s research also concludes that nowadays women form beauty ideals more so on social media than traditional media. The research project was funded entirely by Unilever, but Dove isn’t taking all of the credit. “I’m sure we’ve played some part,” said Steve Miles, senior VP-global marketing.

Ultimately these campaigns serve as textbook examples of what happens when big brands rely solely on their reputation, numbers, and statistics, instead of trying to anticipate the emotional responses each campaign will evoke within real human beings. While moments of misjudgment are inevitable, the way your business remedies a blunder will usually be just as, if not more, memorable in the media’s mind than the actual misfire itself. When executed properly and in a timely fashion, the following steps can help rescue your company’s reputation after a logo, advert, or packaging design fail that results in a media meltdown.

  • Assess Social media scandals blow over almost as quickly as they blow up, the question is whether the scandal in question revealed a real problem with the product or brand itself. It will be necessary to quickly assess whether the mistake will cost money, or distract consumers every time they glance at your product.
  • Apologize Yes, kiss and makeup. And in this case, your business will need to be the one to pucker up. You’ll always fair better admitting the error, delivering an authentic apology, and withdrawing the content in question.
  • Be Humble Real people buying your product need to know that the company doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is willing to humble themselves while admitting to a mistake.
  • Get Back In The Game After falling off the horse don’t stay distracted or fixated on the error for too long. Get back to work on a new plan!

Although the results of these campaign “fails” have shown to be nothing that a little damage control couldn’t fix, it’s important to understand how brands can utilize marketing initiatives to better connect with their audience on an emotional level. Relationships with clients are built on trust, respect, and loyalty and these attributes cannot be quantified or predicted just by numbers, but rather fostered by transparent interaction, a deep understanding of your audience’s psychographic analyses, and sincere emotion.


Keep Your First-Time Customers Coming Back


Lena Elkins

Lena Elkins is a Business & Marketing Coach, international speaker, influencer, and a member of the elite Forbes Coaches Council. Specializing in digital marketing, copywriting, sales funnels, and personal branding, Lena takes a no-BS approach to breaking through major barriers and reaching accelerated success for her clients. Lena has been featured in over 100 media outlets worldwide and hosts the popular Facebook group, Millennial Go-Getters. Originally from San Francisco, Lena now resides in Tel Aviv.

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