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6 Famous Marketing Mistakes We Can All Learn From


Experience is always the best teacher, but we can learn so much from the experience of others in how we organise and grow our businesses. While we often focus on reading the success stories of leaders in different industries and professions to do this, it can be just as valuable to examine their mistakes and learn what not to do, as well.

In this article, the Clearwater team reviews six famous mistakes put forward by well-known brands and examines what lessons we can take away from them.


1. Mass Spam from the New York Times – Failure to Review Campaigns Before Launch

Marketing isn’t always about flashy campaigns to drum up interest in new audiences. After all, it can cost considerably more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. The New York Times became well aware of this as it started losing subscribers in 2011, and they decided they needed to do something about it – quick.

Their solution was to create a tailored email for people who would cancel their subscriptions with a request to rethink their decision to leave, as well as offering a modest discount to help change their minds. It is a practice that has become standard in most modern email marketing campaigns.

Unfortunately, the Times’ marketing department was too eager to get the campaign up and running. They mistakenly forgot to use the list of just 300 people that had cancelled their campaigns, and it was accidentally sent to all eight million subscribers.

The repercussions were immediate. Recipients either flagged the email as spam, fearing hackers had taken hold of the Times’ email capabilities (shaking their credibility), or they were angered to learn they were not rewarded with a similar discount for their loyalty.

Apologies were offered with the incident written off as human error, but the damage had been done.

Key Takeaway

The lesson is fairly simple here. Not only should marketers always be sure to double-check their actions before launching a campaign, but it should also be a part of the process to understand the potential side effects of the campaign itself. By trying to recapture only a fraction of its subscribers with a discount, the New York Times risked alienating millions of previously loyal customers.


2. ‘New Coke’ – Innovation for the Sake of Innovation

Coca-Cola is a beloved institution worldwide, providing delicious beverages for celebrations and everyday life, and while they might have a range of different styles and flavours available (Coke Zero, Vanilla Coke and so on), for the large part, the formula has always remained the same.

Except for in 1985.

For reasons not yet documented, this was the year Coke believed it necessary to test a daring new formula for their cherished beverage known as ‘New Coke’. The release started promisingly enough, with control groups awarding positive feedback on the new, sweeter flavours. Many even stated it was better than the original.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.

The general public didn’t buy New Coke and actively hated its release with loud criticism. As it turned out, Coke’s previous marketing had cemented the beverage’s place in American culture. Consumers preferred to drink the same black, fizzy and exhilarating Coke they had for years, the same as their parents did, and their parents before them.

After an albeit brief battle to change the public perception of New Coke (made even more difficult with rivals like Pepsi taking pop-shots at the gaff), Coke finally went back to their tried and tested original formula.

Key Takeaways

Modern businesses are constantly being told to innovate for fear of being left behind by eager competitors – ‘survival of the fittest’, and all that. But this advice is rarely tempered by the common sense phrase, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’

Innovation and revolutionary marketing campaigns made for the sake of it can actually be damaging to the work you have done for previous products and offerings. What’s more, Coke failed to recognise their place in their target audience’s lives and risked upending that with the new campaign.


3. Kendall Jenner Crosses the Line with Pepsi – Leveraging Political Activism

To be fair to Coke, they aren’t the only major soft-drink company that has made serious mistakes with its marketing campaigns.

Recent history has seen a surge in mainstream political activism, with two sides of a social issue often locked in protest with each other, either separated by walls of armoured police, or with the police being one of the sides in question. They have been pivotal movements upon which countless people have urged for meaningful change.

And in 2017, Pepsi thought it was a good idea to make this the setting for their latest advertisement.

The ad began like a newscast, showing on the ground footage of protestors holding signs emblazoned with corny words like ‘Love’ and ambiguous statements like ‘Join the Conversation’, all the while hurling complaints to lines of heavily armoured police.

The conflict shows no signs of abating until supermodel and reality TV star Kendall Jenner makes a timely exit from a nearby photoshoot to weave through the protestors and hand a police officer a crisp can of Pepsi. After a quick sip of the delicious beverage, the officer shares a smile with his compatriots, the protestors realise they have something in common with their enemy, and the division between them ends with joyous cheers.

Naturally, the apparent disregard for real issues, such as police brutality against minorities, caused Pepsi to receive a slate of backlash and pull the commercial completely.

Key Takeaways

Political activism requires brave people to use their lived experiences and start authentic conversations to improve the world around them – not co-opting both every movement and none of them simultaneously to sell more units of soft drink.

This isn’t to say brands should avoid voicing their opinions and support on social issues. They just need to be sincere and genuinely care to continue a necessary conversation. Otherwise, consumers are savvy enough to see through such self-serving tactics and will actively avoid the object of the advertisement altogether.


4. Dove Loses Sight of Body Positivity with ‘Diverse’ Packaging – Commercialising Self-Love

In recent years, Dove has done a wonderful job promoting body positivity and acceptance for men and women of all shapes and sizes. With their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, they successfully showed real women in a positive light, rather than falling into the dangerous trend of airbrushed models in flashy advertising campaigns. It was empowering and lauded as one of the most revolutionary marketing strategies in the industry, and it has been running for well over 15 years.

Unfortunately, Dove didn’t respect their limits. They sought to spend the social credits earned from their previous campaigns to continue with a series of limited edition packaging for their products. The designs of these packages were in the ‘diverse’ shapes and curves of the female bodies – which didn’t settle well with women at large after being compared to the soap bottles.

Those once singing Dove’s praises turned to social media platforms to express their concern and even ridicule the brand, especially with only seven different soap bottle designs to choose from, suggesting women aren’t all that diverse, after all.

Key Takeaways

Dove fell into the temptation of commercialising its perceived standing in the self-love and body positivity movement. Sure, their previous campaigns were to shift positive perceptions towards their brand and, by extension, their products as a means to sell more units, but the message was clear and authentic. With the ‘shapely’ soap bottle debacle, they cheapened that message by making it transactional and flippant.


5. Timothy’s Coffee Limited Supply on an Unlimited Offer – Failure to Account for Demand

As consumers, we love freebies. In fact, we love freebies so much that it has become a commonplace marketing strategy for brands of all sizes to promise either mass giveaways or at least sizeable discounts to generate new interest in their offerings.

It’s just important to ensure you can afford to meet these promotions before the launch – something Timothy’s Coffee found out the hard way.

Several years ago, the Coffee supplier tried to drive new business by offering a coupon or free sample to customers who were kind enough to follow them on their social media pages. The campaign’s success was tremendous, with the company receiving an unprecedented amount of new followers in a matter of days. As such, Timothy’s was quickly positioned to deliver more free samples and coupons than they could offer, running out of their supply in just three days.

To make matters worse, Timothy’s Coffee waited a whole two weeks to post a message apologising to their followers, stating that the promotion was on a ‘first come, first serve’ arrangement to save their proverbial bacon.

Key Takeaway

Timothy’s Coffee had the right idea to build interest in their brand, but they failed disastrously in their execution and planning with the promotion. Despite issuing a video expressing their sincere apologies and trying to make amends by offering coupons delivered by mail at a later date, their reputation took a severe hit which they are still trying to overcome to this day.

As a result, when developing any promotion or contest, a business must first understand its capacity to deliver, and put measures in place to ensure they are not exceeded. Otherwise, the strategies released can backfire and end up costing you in both resources and reputational harm.


6. Gap Make a Gaff with Their Logo – Branding Outside Your Target Market

Gap is a brand known the world over thanks to its wide selection of affordable, no-nonsense clothing for everyday life. Many people build their entire wardrobe around the collection of shirts, trousers, jackets, shoes and more that they have on offer in countless countries.

We are all familiar with their logo – a navy blue backdrop with the capitalised ‘GAP’ emblazoned in white writing. And yet, in 2010, the clothing giant decided it was time to shake up its look and try and appeal to newer, trendier audiences. The result was a more generic font written in black with a little square hovering over the ‘P’. If it isn’t ringing any bells, that’s because the change was met with an instant swathe of backlash, causing GAP to revert to their original design.

So, what was the problem? Well, Gap’s attempt at being more contemporary, trendy and ‘hip’ was hated by their original target market – the people who detest all of those traits. Loyal customers who prefer to keep things consistent and straightforward were feeling their connection to the brand diminished.

On the flip side, the younger generation wasn’t swayed by the marketing attempt, and still saw the Gap as suited to older shoppers, or at least those who don’t necessarily care for the latest styles and fast fashion fads.

Gap failed on both fronts, alienating its original customer base and being completely ignored by the newer generations.

Key Takeaways

Gap’s logo redesign, albeit short-lived, was a prime example of losing touch with your ideal customer. Developing a keen understanding of the people who consistently spend money with your brand is a sure-fire way to cast your net so broad that you appeal to no one.

It helps to build a selection of carefully analysed buyer personas that outlines specific traits, preferences, demographics and other defining factors to help refine your marketing effects for greater return on investment.


EXTRA: DIY Digital Marketing Strategies

While the above are famously disastrous marketing examples performed by larger, well-known brands, every day, countless small to medium businesses are attempting to cover their own marketing strategies, simply to save on additional operating expenses, and making crucial and costly errors.

Are you performing your own accounting obligations? What about your legal duties? If the answer is no, why should your digital marketing strategy be any different?

Without the appropriate industry experience, technical skill and applied creativity, businesses can lose a significant amount of their resources through inefficient campaigns over months or even years before understanding what works.

Save time, money and hassle by partnering with an experienced marketing agency in Australia. Contact our specialists at Clearwater for a no-obligation, initial consultation and learn more about the potential for your campaigns.

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