Epic Fail, Bro: 7 Major Marketing Fails

Okay, it happens. We all make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. We try our best and sometimes we come out on top, sometimes we fail miserably. But at least we tried our best, right? In our personal lives that all may be true, but unless we’re trying to impress the cute maid of honor in front of all the guests at the wedding, we’re rarely marketing ourselves in such a public forum that we stand to truly suffer.

But such is life in the public eye. When you’re a business, small or large, there are risks to marketing and advertising. And when putting your name out there as a business it becomes significantly more important to make sure your message and methods are well-planned and even more carefully executed. Otherwise, you’ll end up like New Coke or Crystal Pepsi — a marketing train-wreck from which people just can’t avert their gaze.

Not all marketing fails are globally bad; in fact some are fairly minor. But a marketing fail is a marketing fail is a marketing fail. Today, we’ll discuss several different marketing fails, and we’ll divide them up into two categories.

The Bad

The Mobile Marketing Fail

Mobile marketing is increasingly becoming a necessary marketing venue for companies. It’s relatively less competitive, very targeted, and your audience is captive. But even in mobile marketing it’s possible to completely and utterly fail — in fact there’s an entire website devoted to mobile marketing fails! Let’s read about this specific fail.

SMS campaigns can be a great driver for your business. The first mistake a lot of companies make, even if this one got step one right, is failing to include a call to action. But as demonstrated by iLoop, even if you get your CTA right, you still have plenty of opportunities to get everything else wrong. Just as important as your call, is the content you deliver after it.

iLoop forces a download on the user, they haven’t considered if their content will be viewed on a tablet or a mobile phone, their content is poorly created (low volume), and then they immediately send the user a text asking for information they already have.

Fail rating: 3/10

The Facebook Marketing Fail

Famously, General Motors decided to pull its nearly $40 million (yes, million with an M) in advertising from Facebook.com. While this started a massive debate on the merits of advertising on Facebook, it’s well understood that purchasing sponsored ads on the site isn’t the only way to market yourself on it. Likewise, it’s not the only way to find your way into a marketing fail.

This misleading marketing fail comes to us courtesy of yet another blog devoted entirely to epic marketing fails. Admittedly, it caught my eye because of its hockey logo — I’m a huge hockey fan. But reading further, that’s exactly what the advertiser in question was hoping for. The ad uses a misappropriated Ottawa Senators logo to encourage likes — for a dentist!

It’s a Facebook advertising bait and switch. Not only is the ad and the business misleading to its viewers, but it’s also a tacit admission that the business has nothing of value to advertise, and instead must use a completely unrelated brand to build their own following.

Fail Rating: 5/10

The Email Marketing Fail

Among some of the best ways to connect with existing or potential customers for your business is email marketing. It’s fast, can be automated, direct, specific, narrow-targeted, and can provide excellent calls to action. It’s also fairly easy to do. Unfortunately it’s hard to do right, and way too easy to OVER-do.

I’m a member of several email lists. It’s a great way, as a consumer, to stay informed with business happenings. Plus in rougher economic times, it’s a great way to keep abreast of sales and promotions that help me spend my dollar more wisely.

But there’s little worse in terms of business interaction than being bombarded by emails. Take, for example, this post by Marty Weintraub at Aimclearblog.com, who includes a screenshot that does well to illustrate the frustration of an overbearing email campaign.

While customers sign up for email lists to stay on top of your company news, they don’t sign up for lists to be nagged. If you send more than one or two emails a week, you’re sending too many.

Fail Rating: 5/10

The Ridiculously Bad

The QR Code Fail

With all the rage in advertising (mobile and otherwise) these days, the longevity of the QR code will be directly proportional to the ability of advertisers to use it properly. Based on the majority of examples though, QR codes are bound to disappear far before their prime usefulness is ever realized.

The web is filled with examples of poor QR code use, as well illustrated in this article at econsultancy.com. While there are more ways to do QR codes wrong than there are ways to do them right, my particular “favorite” is when a company includes a QR code in emails and email signatures.

It can be a very subtle mistake, but can be incredibly damaging to a brand when your target audience is web savvy. Why would someone use a QR code if they’re already online?

QR codes can be great for mobile advertising, but the use of a QR code in an email or its signature necessitates one of three things: printing the email to scan the code, scanning a computer screen with a smartphone, or scanning one smartphone with another smartphone.

Not only does this betray any sense a company has established about understanding online marketing, but it also serves as annoying and useless clutter in what could otherwise be a very useful and attractive marketing message.

Fail Rating: 6/10

The Harpo Fail

No, not the second-oldest Marx brother, Harpo is the name of Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia production company. Why is that important? Because her program helped to showcase our next marketing fail.

In 2009, KFC decided to boost the launch of a new product by introducing it on the Oprah Winfrey show. They, by Oprah proxy, promised two free pieces of grilled chicken sandwiched between a biscuit for every Oprah.com visitor that downloaded a specific coupon. While the coupon would only be available for 24 hours, KFC vastly underestimated the voracity of our nation, and our adoration of grilled chicken.

Just a few hours after introduction, the coupon was being used at thousands of KFC restaurants. So many, and by so many patrons in fact, that managers of stores began closing the promotion, ad hoc.

They refused service, they declined cash — and the patrons revolted. There were sit-ins, fights, arguments, and more. But the real damage was done to the credibility of KFC and its marketing partners. The problem wasn’t Oprah, it wasn’t the coupon, and it wasn’t the hungry, hungry public. The problem was a poorly thought out, and poorly planned marketing campaign.

Always consider the product (and discount!) you’re offering. Do this at the same time as you consider the medium by which you’re delivering it. Failing to do so could bring about a lot of embarrassment.

Fail Score: 7/10

The Invariable Insensitive Twitter Fail

While not part of a distinct marketing campaign, a recent kerfuffle by South American-based clothing store Celeb Boutique caused an innocent and completely unintentional Twitter uproar.

After the Aurora, CO theater tragedy, Celeb Boutique noticed that the hashtag #Aurora was trending. Completely unaware of the incident, Celeb Boutique took the opportunity to promote a product, by tweeting: “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;)” with a call to action and a link to the product they mentioned.

After about an hour, the offending tweet was removed, and CB began tweeting apologies — but not before plenty of people expressed their extreme distaste for the remark. While not necessarily a global failure, though that’s partially a good description because the company and its PR firm are based in Argentina, people in Colorado were most upset by the tweet.

However in the age of social media, just as your sales and specials can easily read a wide audience, so can your gaffes. CB spent the next several tweets apologizing for their mistake and informing their followers that they were located outside the US, and humbly added that they failed to research the trending topic before tweeting.

Apologies aside, the reputation of Celeb Boutique no doubt took a hit, and their mistake will likely be remembered for some time.

Fail Rating: 8/10

The Comprehensive Fail

In the fading summer of 2011, a popular content delivery service (pro-tip: think movies) committed not one, not two, but a series of blunders that many have compared to the infamous New Coke debacle. Who is it? Netflix!

Here’s the blog post that started it all, from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings himself. First, Netflix announced price hikes for its services and then their decision to split their streaming and DVD services at the same time. This prompted nearly two months of uniformly negative feedback. Where things really went downhill was in the 10th paragraph of Hastings blog apologizing for not explaining the changes better.

After raising prices and forcing users to visit a second service, Hastings expounded by letting people know that Netflix would stay as streaming, and the DVD-by-mail service would be renamed ‘Qwikster.’

In a post on Mashable, contributor Chris Taylor deftly recounts the ways in which the Qwikster launch and rebrand were so damaging to the brand.

The name was awful (easily misspelled, no product relevance, and of an antiquated design), splitting services lent itself to mass customer confusion, the fix caused problems rather than solving them, and the company lost the trust of thousands of subscribers. Almost a million, actually, according to Inc.com.

While the reputation hit to Netflix was famous and long-lasting, even more disastrous was the hit to their stock price. From a high of almost $300 in July of 2011, it closed at a low of $77 in late October. The stock saw a 60% drop after the price hike, and then another 35% drop after the Qwikster debacle.

Fail Rating: 9/10

While marketing mix-ups can range from faux-pas to all-out disasters, it’s important to consider the consequences of a marketing plan gone wrong during its formulation.

There’s no substitute for shrewd planning when creating your marketing campaign, and it’s just as important to consider off-the-cuff messages. But whatever you do, just make sure that your marketing campaign doesn’t end up like a fender bender on the highway: something people can’t stop staring at.

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Jason is a 30-something that lives in Denver, CO. He has very red hair, loves the outdoors, and all things homebrew. He has a social media addiction, and can be found at about.me/jason.jewett.

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  1. It’s not so bad as long as we learn something from these “failures” but unfortunately what usually ends up happening is we keep repeating the same failures until something more disastrous happens!
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