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Epic fail! Five marketing campaign flops to learn from

4th Mar 2010
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Benjamin Dyer looks at the lessons to be learned from his top five marketing campaign blunders.

In our media savvy age, advertising, marketing and brand strategies have become so ingrained into our culture, that I would argue there is no better barometer of public mood or confidence. I am sure we can all name a TV advert instantly. However, for every well executed marketing campaign there is probably an equally memorable disaster.
In this article I want to look at the top five marketing disasters that have caught my eye. I’m sure that you have your own favourites and I will look forward to hearing about them in your comments.
Viral campaign fail: Starbucks
A confession, I am a huge Starbucks fan. It’s almost bordering on obsessive so it pains me to put my favourite brand into my top five marketing disasters’ list. Unfortunately, it’s justified.
Back in the heady days of 2002 the coffee giant quickly learnt that viral marketing campaigns can backfire, and spectacularly. Starbucks issued a free coffee coupon via email to a few of its staff. The  suggestion was that they "mail it to a friend". It turns out on the internet we are all friends. Several coupon boards and photocopiers later Starbucks were in trouble.
One Starbucks employee described the scene at her local store as "utter murder". Coffee shops all over the world were literally besieged with customers claiming their essential Venti House Blend. Unfortunately for Starbucks the voucher omitted an expiry date. A few days later they had to issue numerous statements that they would no longer honour the deal.
Starbucks of all people should have known that getting in the way of someone’s first cup of Joe in the morning is a dangerous sport. The company were not only heavily criticised, one angry customer even tried to sue Starbucks for over $100m. The real winners were the enterprising competitors such as Café Nero that opened their doors to disgruntled Starbucks fans by honouring the coupon, but only for a day.
Product placement fail: James Bond, Die Another Day
A trip to the cinema is a golden opportunity for advertisers. In the old days it started as soon as you walked into the foyer, extended into the 30 minutes of ads but stopped once the film commenced. These days however the movie itself has become the platform for advertising, known as "product placement". Some brands even offer up to half of the production cost to make sure the hero swigs from their particular brand of cola while saving the world. I have no problem with it... when it’s subtle. In the case of the less than brilliant Bond film 'Die Another Day' it was completely over the top.
Bond movies have always been about material objects, the car, the watch and the gadget. However, in Die Another Day it went into intergalactic warp drive. By the end of the movie I knew which brand of Vodka went into the Vodka Martini; what life is like in BA first class; and how the perfect sweeping second hand of an Omega Seamaster could win the Oscar for best supporting actor. I would like to say that it ruined the movie but the acting, direction and script take that particular plaudit.
However it felt like an exercise in brainwashing. Critics branded the movie 'Buy Another Day' - a pun used by both BBC and Time, in their damning assessments of the strategy. It wasn’t MGM’s finest hour.
Ad fail: MPAA, Movie Piracy
The anti-piracy lobby makes my list for being so out of touch with its audience it’s laughable. For an alternative take see:
It’s targeting the wrong people, as if you’re seeing the ad you probably rented or bought the movie. In addition, it must be the single most irritating thing that an industry has inflicted on its own paying customers. If I previously thought piracy was wrong, I had second thoughts after watching their ad, with skip disabled, for the two hundredth time. The only good news is the genius of the parody videos.
TV appearance fail: Bill Gates, Windows 98
In my book there are two golden rules of television appearances. The first is to have a compelling reason to be there, the second, if you are selling the virtues of a product, is to be sure that it works. Poor old Bill Gates failed on both counts during the launch of Windows 98:
Bill looked uncomfortable in the first place but his discomfort got worse as his flagship software product crashed live on TV and the whole world got to see what a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) looks like. It could have all been laughed off, but the real-life experience for millions was of the same blue screen.
Microsoft doesn’t really have a great TV track record:
Spokesman fail: Brylcreem and David Beckham
Sometimes when brands need a little helping hand the answer can be found with celebrity endorsement. The logic is sound; we live in a celebrity obsessed age and success by association can definitely work. Sadly as many brands have discovered, celebrities are a fickle bunch. Just ask Tiger Woods’ sponsors.
My final example of how brands can get it wrong, goes to Brylcreem and its man of the hour, David Beckham. All the ingredients were in place for a happy marriage. Brylcreem as a brand was stagnant, its products generally associated with WW2 fighter pilots and anyone else over the age of 70 that had managed to cling onto their hair. Golden Balls on the other hand was on the way to the top, and the number one male icon in Brylcreem’s target market. To make things even better, his hair was an even hotter topic than his football.
Sadly the marriage didn’t even last a year. To sell the product, the single pre-requisite required Beckham to have some hair, which he had decided, very publicly, to shave off. Brylcreem were in trouble. The advertising campaign had just got into gear, the company was stuck with pre-bought air time, and to make matters worse every kid in the country was following Beck’s advice and opting for the more streamlined look.
It took me a long time to distill this list. The problem is there are far too many examples of brands getting it wrong. During research for this article I asked the question on Twitter "what is the worst advert on tv?" I had over 100 replies, each one with a different answer. However, it did strike me that the bad campaigns were often the ones that we best remember. So one final thought. Is an awful marketing campaign such a bad thing, or is it true that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all?
Benjamin Dyer is director of product development for ecommerce & EPOs supplier Actinic.

Replies (3)

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28th Mar 2010 16:57

 how about coke.

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By Neil Davey
29th Mar 2010 09:19

The Coca-Cola 'New Coke' marketing debacle would certainly be amongst most people's choices, though of course these kind of lists are completely subjective.

We've covered the infamous New Coke campaign before on, so click here for our coverage.


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By lauren_dill
14th Oct 2010 16:15

The so-called 'blue book value' of Coke has continued to degenerate and I really believe it is directly related to their campaign and New Coke.  Why do successful companies continue to 'fix it' if it 'isn't broke'?  Take Starbucks completely re-doing their assembly line -- why in the WORLD would you want to INCREASE WAIT TIME for ANY REASON?  That's crazy talk, son!

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