The Biggest Business Blunders of 2015

Last week, I had just put my son down for his morning nap when my husband walked in and caught me watching my guilty pleasure: Wife Swap. Looking up ruefully from my bowl of Cheerios, I didn’t have time to snatch up the copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls I perpetually have in arm’s reach, hoping someday I’ll read it.

After 12 hours working in our local ER on the graveyard shift, he didn’t say anything, but plopped down on the couch next to me and was silent for a few minutes.

“How can you watch this stuff?” he asked me finally. “These people are terrible.”

“It’s like watching a train wreck,” I said by way of explanation. “I want to look away, but I just can’t.”

… And he proceeded to watch it with me for the next hour.

What’s our grim fascination with failure? More often than not, the subjects of this (tawdry, amazing) show return to their normal lives and chalk up their encounters as a failed social experiment.

We treat business news much the same way: media outlets gleefully catalogue failed company practices and social media campaigns, and we sniff them out like pigs during truffle season. But the truth is we can learn valuable lessons from these mistakes, no matter how trivial. Businesses rise and fall each day, and entrepreneurs can heed stories from these companies as cautionary tales. Don’t commit these blunders in 2016.

The Ashley Madison Scandal

Cyber security is the buzzword du jour for the foreseeable future. Most companies are grappling with ways to combat threats posed by hackers. 2015’s juiciest data breach scandal came from Ashley Madison, a website that connects people to extramarital affairs. A group of so-called “hacktivists” released the names of all 37 million people registered on the site, including a couple of well-known celebrities.

As if that weren’t bad enough (or good, depending on which side of the debate you fall on), Ashley Madison’s handling of the controversy was egregious. The hacktivists, who call themselves “The Impact Team,” alleged that Ashley Madison, who charges $19 to clear data, didn’t actually wipe anything – and proceeded to prove it by dumping 10 gigs of user data on the deep net. CEO Neil Biderman resigned a week later. We haven’t heard much about the scandal since September, but we’re assuming business is down (and divorces are up).

What We Learned: Follow through on your promises – and invest some serious money into protecting client information.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside (And So Are Your Quarterly Earnings)

Sometimes, companies make mistakes so cringe-worthy that you wonder who they’re hiring in the marketing department. If monkeys banging on typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare, then surely Bloomingdales can hire someone who would point to the inherent stupidity in its 2015 Christmas catalogue:

Image Sources:  http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/bloomingdales-egg-nog-ad#.opkp5e34wd http://imgur.com/0ymFfCh

Image Sources:
http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/bloomingdales-egg-nog-ad#.opkp5e34wd
http://imgur.com/0ymFfCh

 

What should have been a carefree, joy-filled moment takes a turn for the creepy when you read the text: “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” is sandwiched between a woman looking away, laughing, while some guy (her best friend) gives her a sidelong glance.

Suddenly, “what’s in this drink?” doesn’t seem quite so innocent. The public was quick to (furiously) point out what many allege amounts to the promotion of date rape. Bloomingdales apologized for the ad, calling it “inappropriate and in poor taste.” But it makes you wonder: who approved it in the first place?

What We Learned: Checks and balances are an essential tenet of any successful company. Don’t give any one employee too much power. Have each department run through an approval process before it’s out of your hands.

Victoria’s Secret Hashtag Failure

Women’s companies all over the country are striving to redefine what beauty means. Aerie, for example, is pushing for more plus-sized models in its catalogues and has eliminated air brushing. Melissa McCarthy is trying to do away with the term “plus size” altogether. So we have advice for Victoria’s Secret: if you’re going to start a campaign about the perfect body, don’t use Victoria’s Secret models.

The lingerie company is (in)famous for its use of women who reach a standard of “beauty” most women find unattainable, if not impossible. So when Victoria’s Secret launched a #perfectbody hashtag campaign using these models, women were not pleased.

Image Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/06/victorias-secret-perfect-body-campaign_n_6115728.html

Image Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/06/victorias-secret-perfect-body-campaign_n_6115728.html

 

Angry customers took to Twitter, snapping pictures of themselves in their skivvies with the combating hashtag #iamperfect. A week later, Victoria’s Secret quietly changed its ad campaign to “A Body for Every Body.”

What We Learned: Victoria’s Secret certainly didn’t stray from its brand by employing a more diversified set of body types in its models. But if you’re going to stay true to your brand, don’t attempt campaigns like “true beauty” unless you’re willing to take some serious rebranding measures.

Business blunders this year ranged from simple errors in judgement to truly horrendous public relations faux pas. In each case, though, the damage was done before the company tried to save face. While some enterprises handled scandal better than others (Bloomingdale’s act of contrition speaks to an authenticity consumers crave in today’s market), each suffered as a result. These are mega companies built to withstand the occasional storm; your small business or startup might not be so lucky. Take heed of these mistakes, and vow to use your head in 2016.

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Sarah Voightman

Sarah is a displaced Michigander who currently calls suburban Cleveland home. When not reading or writing, she can be found navigating the tumultuous waters of parenthood and dreaming of returning to her beloved Mitten State.

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