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Marketing Horror Stories: The not-good, the bad and the ugly

This past Halloween I thought I'd share a compilation of marketing horror stories with my students at the Notre Dame's Mendoza School of Business. Halloween is, of course, already in the rear view mirror for this year but that doesn't mean we can't learn from some of the odd or questionable decisions, or outright mistakes made by marketers past and present. Some of these examples of "what not to do" are relatively inconsequential. Others had serious implications for the brand reputations of the organizations in question.

Not so smart moves by some very smart people

One would think that those in the educational community would know how to spell (and proofread), but...

  • The U.S. Department of Education once tweeted a quote by W.E.B. DuBois. Unfortunately, they misspelled the author's name. OK, not the end of the world. Names are tough. But in their rush to correct the error with an updated post, they said, "our deepest apologizes for the earlier typo."

Lost in translation

Unless one is fluent in multiple languages, being sure English name meanings appropriately translate in other countries can be tricky. Consider these...

  • Puff Tissues marketed its products in Germany under its U.S. brand name. "Puff" just happens to be German slang for a brothel.
  • Mercedes-Benz was originally marketed in China under the brand name "Bensi" which, sadly, means, "rush to die." Probably not a great thing to say about a car brand.
  • Even Coca-Cola is not immune. The Coca-Cola brand name is sometimes translated in China as "Bite the Wax Tadpole." I have no idea what a wax tadpole is but somehow it doesn't seem like a positive association for the brand.

Nightmares on Brand Street

Even big brands drop the ball once in awhile. For example...

  • Colgate once came out with a line of frozen meals branded Colgate Kitchen Entrees. Hmmm. Sometimes brand extensions are just not a very good idea.
  • Not so many years ago, Radio Shack decided it would be hipper to rebrand simply as "The Shack." But then again, maybe not. "Radio" was such an integral part of the brand name that, despite spending $200MM to promote the new name, consumers resisted. And while a brick and mortar retailer like Radio Shack faces other serious headwinds these days, the company has gone through bankruptcy and its footprint is a fraction of what it once was.
  • Apple is, of course, considered one of the most successful and innovative brands the world has ever known. But long before Apple brought us the iPod, iPad, iPhone and other amazing devices, they tried to introduce one of the world's first Personal Digital Assistants. Branded the Apple Newton, this product was so far ahead of its time that consumers were unwilling to drop $700 on a product they had no clue what to do with.


  • Remember "Back to the Future" and the converted DeLorean automobile. Despite one of the best branded product placements one could ever hope for, John DeLorean's dream of a major new automobile brand never came true. Sadly, over-estimating consumer interest, production cost over-runs and delays, and unfavorable exchange rates all contributed to the company's demise, after building less than 9000 vehicles and going bankrupt. Postscript, DeLorean was later arrested by the FBI on charges of smuggling cocaine, but was later acquitted due to entrapment by the Feds.
  • Speaking of movies and celebrities, Arnold "I'll be back" Schwarzenegger was the inspiration for driving the popular military Humvee into the consumer market as the Hummer. Unfortunately, low quality scores and high gas consumption meant "Hasta la vista, baby" for this almost iconic brand.

Epic fails

Two of the poster children for failed products are the Ford Edsel and New Coke. Here are their stories and a few others...

  • Ford managed to hit on all cylinders in terms of the mistakes it made with the introduction of the Ford Edsel in 1957. The product was ostensibly based on car shopper polling data, but then the company disregarded much of the research. The marketing department also over-hyped the Edsel as the "car of the future" which it decidedly was not. Add in quality and reliability issues and a design flaw that necessitated an ugly, oversized vertical grille and, well, the rest is history.
  • In 1985. Coke was losing market share to Pepsi because of the perception consumers like the sweeter taste of Pepsi – reinforced by consumer taste tests. So Coke offered a sweeter cola and launched it as New Coke. Turns out Coke loyalists hated it. In fact, no one wanted it because Coke was a symbol of the American way of life and no one wanted that to change at all. Lesson – always be clear on what the consumer wants before making changes for the sake of change.
  • Pepsi, of course, has had its share of marketing faux pas including a more recent episode in which they attempted to equate their flagship product as a culturally unifying force through social media. The company hired a reality show celeb, Kendal Jenner, and had her show up at a Black Lives Matter standoff between protesters and police during which she offered a police officer a can of Pepsi. Result: Outrage, ridicule on social media and a parody on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Needless to say, Pepsi quickly pulled the tone-deaf social media campaign and Pepsi's president resigned saying this "was the most gut-wrenching experience of my career."
  • One of the best cautionary tales for crisis management occurred April 20, 2010. That's when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, operated on behalf of British Petroleum, exploded, taking the lives of 11 rig workers. Referred to as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the uncapped wellhead spewed oil and methane gas for 87 days. The federal government estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

    According to NPR, BP's action has become a textbook example of how not to do crisis management. BP executives declared it was not their accident, blamed their contractors and made the company look arrogant and callous. CEO Tony Hayward repeated insensitive comments in public, like this one: "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back." He also suggested that the environmental impact of the spill would be "very, very modest."

Suffice it to say marketers everywhere would be well advised to think through their decisions carefully. Otherwise, be afraid. Be very afraid.

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