We all make mistakes; it happens. However, when the mistake is public and humorous, people will take notice. The more public and the more humorous, the more shares the mistake will garner. Your hard work turned embarrassing blunder could potentially live in Internet infamy forever.
With the world still suffering in the midst of a pandemic, we could all probably benefit from a little break for humor . . . with some lessons on avoiding “branding fails” infused along the way.
#1 Make Sure Your Potential Spokesperson Truly Loves Your Product
Oprah Winfrey named Microsoft’s Surface tablet one of her “favorite things” in 2012 and compared the device to a Mercedes. She continued gushing with a tweet, “Gotta love that SURFACE! Have bought 12 already for Christmas gifts. #FavoriteThings” . . . which she posted from Microsoft Surface’s main competitor, the iPad.
While any business would be thrilled to score Oprah as a spokesperson, you generally want to make sure the individual speaking on behalf of your product actually loves your product . . . or at the very least include lots of rules in his or her contract about product usage.
#2 A Mascot Should be a Positive Representation of Your Brand
Like a spokesperson, a mascot should also be chosen very carefully. While Oprah’s likability is hard to question, this figure should have raised some serious red flags.
Mallory Russell of Business Insider wrote:
“Bob Garfield of Ad Age described him best:
“’Likewise the King . . . is not only un-animated but frozen in place, a grotesque death mask of a grin, like something out of a John Carpenter movie. You don’t know whether you’re going to have it your way or he’s going to have his way with you.’
“Then commercials started showing him sneaking into people’s bedrooms. It was enough for Time to name The King one of the 10 creepiest brand mascots.”
#3 Location, Location, Location – Be Attentive to Ad Placement
You won’t always get the opportunity to see your ad in context before going live, but you usually will know the location of your billboards. Scoping out the area in advance will be worth the trip for sure. Even for those situations that can’t be predicted (for example: a laughably contrary sign popping up after yours has already been in place . . . or magazines and newspaper that you can’t see prior to print), always discuss placement with your ad sales representative. In some cases, the best you could do is to ask for their attentiveness to other products’ ads and article placement that may not sit well next to yours. You can even go to the extent of giving some examples that would not be ideal to truly highlight the issue. At the very least, you’ll have reinforced the importance of your ad’s location and hopefully have your ad rep attuned to the potential pitfalls.
#4 Logo Placement is Important, Too
Caution and thought should be devoted every time you use your logo. The greater the size of the intended logo placement, the more caution and thought that should be devoted. So . . . for the inclusion of your 1” logo along a slew of others as part of a charity sponsorship, you can probably feel safe with low-level caution. For a 5’ logo on the side of your van, high-level caution is warranted.
#5 Craft Contests Very Carefully
Free pizza for 100 years was to be awarded by Domino’s Pizza in Russa for any individual who – over a two-month period – got (and shared on social media) a tattoo of the company’s logo. (Talk about not being able to exercise caution for your logo’s placement!) Pictures of Domino’s body ink flooded the Internet, and the company had to quickly change the contest parameters from two months to the first 350 people to post their pictures; they warned “To those with [tattoo] appointments scheduled for later, we recommend canceling them.”
I remember working on a contest for a former employer over a decade ago . . . back when Kindles didn’t even exist and iPads were the new “it” item. Of the customers who elected to have their insurance policies delivered electronically (a new thing back in those days), a drawing would be held to award a few lucky paperless policyholders with iPads. Our legal team wanted a FULL PAGE in disclaimers! The legalities involved in the process became so onerous, we ended up abandoning the entire contest idea.
Having seen many examples since then of corporate contests gone terribly wrong, I take back some of the unkind words I privately muttered about our legal team.
#6 Know Your Audience
Kentucky Fried Chicken entered the Chinese marketplace in 1987 with their first restaurant touting “Eat Your Fingers Off” – a mistranslation of their slogan, “Finger Lickin’ Good.”
Sure, a lot of us may not have Chinese as a second language in our repertoire of skills, but research must supplement a lack of knowledge. If you’re entering a new market with different demographics, get to know your audience first. Ideally, you’d want to personally get to know some people in your target audience with informal or formal focus groups. At the very least, hire a trusted consultant who does have in-depth knowledge of your new demographic and can help your tailor your brand accordingly.
(Interesting side note: Kentucky Fried Chicken recently put their “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan on hold as the world practices enhanced hygiene and other protective measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.)
#7 Stay True to Your Brand
Coke was the leader in the soft drink market in 1985 when they decided to change their almost century-old secret formula. Pepsi was in second place and closing in, so the company strategized that a bold, new taste would catapult Coke into a lead far beyond the tight race. A fortune was spent in the unveiling . . . and was received not with fanfare or even indifference but contempt. Coke drinkers were furious. After 77 days of their new product launch, Coke gave in and returned to the original recipe.
CBS News quoted a Coca-Cola spokesperson in 2015 as saying:
“Thirty years ago, we introduced New Coke with no shortage of hype and fanfare. And it did succeed in shaking up the market. But not in the way it was intended. When we look back, this was the pivotal moment when we learned that fiercely loyal consumers — not the Company — own Coca-Cola and all of our brands. . . .”
While this example isn’t really humorous like the others, the message is powerful and a great conclusion to an article about branding fails.
About the Author: Carole is a lead content developer (along with Bob Thomas) for Brand Building for Small Business, a blog for entrepreneurs looking to create and develop their corporate identity. In addition, Carole owns and runs Instant Invitation (which also operates as Inked Invitation through Zazzle). She spent 15 years in the corporate sector in Communications at Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies (a national billion-dollar company) and has taught at Wilkes University and Northampton Community College. She is happiest while spending time with her husband and two children as well as their extended family and close friends. She loves the beach and all things wine.