How to Handle a Crisis: 5 Lessons from the Biggest Marketing Gaffes Ever

Everyone makes mistakes, but brands are at the public’s mercy following a business blunder. In an age where the news cycle and social media never sleep, a single mis-tweet, outspoken CEO, or raunchy advertisement could have everyone in the market talking for weeks to come – and not positive talk, at that.

If your business has committed a public blunder, the good news is that many major brands have had their fair share of missteps and recovered. From Chick-fil-A to Starbucks, numerous chains have waded into the political spectrum only to land in hot water. While these blunders have been largely erased from the public’s mind, there are some marketing gaffes cringe-worthy enough for the history books.

Be Different, Not Offensive

There are over 100,000 tweets per minute, 3 million new blogs every month, and 103,680 hours of footage uploaded to YouTube each day. With so much data being created, it’s no wonder brands are trying to be different. However, there’s a fine line between being different and being offensive. While being different can attract attention a la Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, offensive behavior can result in a PR crisis.


Consider British fashion brand Harvey Nichols, which created a marketing campaign to visualize the iconic phrase “try to contain your excitement.” The ads featured models peeing themselves, which was interesting, but virtually had no effect on sales and ultimately backfired.


Or consider PETA, which claimed that boyfriends who go vegan transform into “tantric porn stars.” Needless to say, domestic violence groups and other organizations found no humor in the ad.

There are many ways to attract attention online, but being offensive isn’t the best strategy.

Monitor, Respond, Engage

To combat struggling ratings, Cartoon Network crafted a guerilla marketing campaign in major cities across the US. LED signs were placed in various locations to promote a new cartoon. Unfortunately, a resident in Boston thought the LED lights were bombs and contacted the police. A concerned resident’s simple worry quickly escalated into a full-blown terrorism scare, bringing in federal authorities and shutting down many public transportation avenues.


Though an innocent blunder, Cartoon Network’s gaffe is a reminder that brands must be conscientious of current events and public sentiment. Furthermore, monitoring ad campaigns 24/7 ensures that everything is running smoothly, giving brands the opportunity to respond and engage should an issue arise.

Double Check Your Word Choice

Remember the SciFi Channel? If you’ve tuned in recently, maybe you noticed the name has been subtly changed to the Syfy, a “text-friendly” rebranding effort meant to give the station a new image. Since the company couldn’t trademark the term “sci fi,” they decided to change the spelling completely.


The only problem? It turns out “syfy” is a slang word for a sexually transmitted disease: syphilis. The response was overwhelmingly negative, though the station ultimately decided to keep the brand new name, alienating long-time viewers and becoming the subject of ridicule.

Aside from double and triple checking word choice, the primary lesson is to avoid letting short-term thinking destroy your brand’s long-term value.

Invest in Content Marketing

Grammar and spelling fails can cause damage everywhere, even on social media. During Susan Boyle’s album release party, the following hashtag was tweeted:


Gross, right? Did the pop singer really want to talk about bottoms on her Twitter account? Fine, I admit that I messed with the capitalization a bit – the original hashtag simply read #susanalbumparty, which provided room for misinterpretation. Instead, to avoid confusion, the tweet should have been capitalized as #SusanAlbumParty. Big difference.

Professional content marketers are aware of these potential issues, crafting blog posts, tweets, newsletters, and more with utmost clarity. The biggest way to respond to a marketing crisis is to prevent one. Investing in content marketing is the most cost-effective way not only to grow brand awareness, but also protect the positive image surrounding your brand.

Advertise with a Purpose

It might seem like common sense to have a purpose with every marketing move, but major brands have forgotten this basic rule. During the release of Hannah Montana: The Movie, Disney thought it would be a great idea to plaster the pop singer’s face on dozens of merchandise items. Some spinoffs were appropriate, but whose idea was it to put Miley Cyrus’s face on a bag of cherries? Your guess is as good as ours.


Colgate did the same thing, establishing deals to have their logo placed on frozen dinners. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried a frozen dinner after brushing your teeth, but I wouldn’t advise it.


This isn’t to say that product placement and cross promotions should be avoided. Rather, it’s a simple reminder that every marketing move must have a clear purpose. Remember, a brand’s reputation (image included) is directly tied to the products associated with it.

Knowing how to handle a crisis is paramount to ensuring your brand bounces back stronger than ever. But avoiding a marketing crisis in the first place is easier than resolving difficulties once they arise. By following proper guidelines, investing in content marketing, and fully vetting upcoming marketing campaigns, you can ensure that your brand doesn’t lose its luster in the public eye.

How is your brand equipped to handle a potential marketing crisis?

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Daniel Chioco is a writer living in Nashville, TN. He earned his Commercial Music degree at Belmont University, where he also studied creative writing and wrote for the student newspaper. When he isn't creating content, Daniel works as an actor and films YouTube videos. He is also a freelance musician and is authoring his first fantasy novel.

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