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The Top 10 Marketing Fails of All-Time and What We Can Learn from Them

The Top 10 Marketing Fails of All-Time and What We Can Learn from Them

By Aaron Broverman

Out of the ashes of failure, the seeds of success are sewn. With that in mind, we bring you the greatest marketing failures of all-time in hopes that you may learn from them and not make the same mistakes.

10. Dr. Pepper Sees Disaster in Chinese Democracy

The Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy had reportedly been in development since 1994. But, with tensions running high and every member of the band’s original line-up except Axl Rose leaving and being replaced by new members more than once, the album became more of a rumour than a reality.

This is why Dr. Pepper was so confident when it announced that it would give a free can of pop to everyone in America if G.N.R. released Chinese Democracy in 2008. Too bad the band called Dr. Pepper’s bluff and completed the album in the allotted time. Suddenly, the beverage brand had to honour a promise that it had no real intention to fulfill. When the unlikely happened, Dr. Pepper directed people to a website where for 24 hours they could claim a coupon for a free drink. So many responded it crashed the site and many didn’t get anything. To make matters worse, Axl Rose himself sued Dr. Pepper and demanded the company apologize to fans who couldn’t claim their pop.

What We Can Learn: Never make promises you are unprepared to deliver, no matter how unlikely it seems you won’t get to fulfill them. Make sure you have the infrastructure and scale in place to meet the demand for your product or giveaway because without that, you could be facing a public-relations nightmare.

9. The Cartoon Network Bomb Scare

In 2007, The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block launched what would become the penultimate example of guerrilla marketing gone wrong. In a clandestine effort to promote the first full-length film based on the absurdist cartoon series Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a group of artists posted these Lite Brite-like circuit boards featuring the show’s  pixelated Mooninite characters Ignignokt and Err on public structures around the city of Boston. What they, and Cartoon Network’s parent company Turner Broadcasting, failed to take into account was that such a stunt wouldn’t be possible in the age of 9/11 without causing an incident, especially when these boards featured a bizarre creature waving his middle finger and complex electrical circuits laid out for no obvious reason. Many mistook the unorthodox ads as bombs and Turner had to pay $2 million to the Boston Police Department for the resulting investigation.

What We Can Learn: Guerrilla Marketing can appear random and spontaneous to the public, but it shouldn’t when it comes to the authorities. Always inform the local police of what you’re doing and get the permits and licenses that are necessary from the city to pull off such public spectacles. One of the mistakes the PR firm behind this campaign made was that they still didn’t tell the police or Homeland Security this was only an ad campaign for a movie even after the bomb scare investigation was set in motion.

8. Pepsi’s Grave Mistake

Pepsi was originally marketed as an elixir to put pep back in your step, so it’s no surprise that their slogan at one time was “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life.” Perfectly sensible for the North American market, but when it was extended to China, Pepsi’s powers of revitalization went far beyond the corporeal realm because in Chinese “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” translates to “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave,” which greatly confused those customers.

What We Can Learn: Pepsi’s mistake here shows a cultural arrogance that what works in one place will automatically work in another. Sure, the results are a little funny in this case, but the problem is so simple to solve. All someone would have to do to avoid this is a little bit of cultural research or, better yet, someone from Pepsi’s marketing department could have asked a native speaker what the English slogan really means in Chinese.

7. Good Thing You Don’t Have Ayds

Ayds was actually a popular diet candy in the 1970s and early ’80s until it was saddled with the unfortunate luck of having the same-sounding name as AIDS the disease. Not only that, but those battling the disease lose copious amounts of weight, so the product’s purpose became a cruel joke in more ways than just its name. Of course, the diet chew could not recover from the unavoidable association and eventually went out of business.

What We Can Learn: The story of Ayds is a lesson in re-branding and not doing it soon enough. The moment its product was confused with the disease, the company should have relaunched it with a completely different name, as if the old product never existed. When things change, you have to pivot fast. No sense going down with the ship by holding onto a past that isn’t serving you.

6. Life Call has Fallen and It Can’t Get Up!

We’ve all heard the tagline: “I’ve fallen… and I can’t get up!” It’s from an old commercial for a medic-alert system for seniors called Life Call. When they’re in distress, they would simply press the button around their neck and emergency personnel would be on the way. It’s a serious product that no doubt saves lives, but the stilted delivery of the actress that delivered the above line in a commercial that ran in the late ’80s and early ’90s ensured that Life Call would be ripe for parody and mockery,

What We Can Learn: A quality product doesn’t just end with the device itself, it’s also about the quality of the advertising and marketing behind it. In this case, it came down to not surrounding the production of this commercial with a quality script and a quality actress to deliver the line. Since they either didn’t have the time, the budget or the inclination to write a more authentic script or get an actress who could deliver the line in a more realistic fashion, the hokey commercial was the result and it almost sank the brand’s intended purpose in America.

5. Fail to the King

When ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky took over the Burger King account in 2003, it used a caricature of The Burger King character as a mascot in the ads. However, the painted, soundless and plastic expression on his face gave nothing but a creepy vibe that viewers instantly picked up on. At first, the commercials were a success on the strength of word-of-mouth, but soon that initial favour began to wane as viewers became confused about the message of such creepy commercials. Never really gaining an advertising foothold, Burger King finally fired CP + B and retired The Burger King character in 2011.

What We Can Learn: The Burger King fiasco was the reason focus groups were invented and it served as a lesson in testing your ideas against the real world before you release them. Feedback can be good, true and useful and had the group at CP +B been able to penetrate the bubble of its sanctum sanctorum, they would have seen they had a problem rather quickly and may never had visited The Burger King upon America’s unsuspecting consciousness in the first place.

4. Jagermeister’s  Poison Pool Party

Jagermeister knew its customers liked to party, but when the organizers behind a Jagermeister-sponsored pool party in Leon, Mexico combined the pool’s chlorine with liquid nitrogen in an attempt to create a “smoke on the water” effect, what it got was a noxious fog over the water that rendered partygoers unconscious and unable to breathe. The mistake sent nine people to the hospital and put one person in a coma.

What We Can Learn: This health and safety disaster could have been avoided if someone had just googled “liquid nitrogen and chlorine.” What they would have found is the chemical nitrogen trichloride, which is a lethal poison similar to ammonia with similar properties to the mustard gas used on the front lines of WWI. All this would have required was simple research at the very least and a health and safety monitor at the most. It probably would not have hurt to have EMS standing by either.

3. It Ain’t Easy Being Edsel

Often called the worst car of all-time, the Edsel is one of those legendary failures of automotive history. But it wasn’t the car that had problems, it was the marketing. After all, the car may have been a gas-guzzler and a tad expensive, but it was no less functional than a Mercury and that’s part of the reason Ford lost $400 million inside of three years on the car. Part of the problem was the Edsel suffered from overblown advertising hype – like the car could float on air – but was actually almost identical to Ford’s Mercury without adding anything new. Mercury and the Edsel were actually manufactured in the same factory, which led to a mix-up of parts that led to technical issues that killed any demand there ever was. Top that with 1957’s recession and the Edsel was doomed.

What We Can Learn: Of course the recession was a factor beyond Ford’s control, but it could have managed its quality control better and it could have made the Edsel different enough to appeal to the American public. As a business you can never rest on your previous successes, you must always be innovating – and as a marketer, it’s important to sell the reality, not the hype.

2. Adults Aren’t Lovin’ It

In 1996, McDonald’s spent $100 million on an advertising campaign for the Arch Deluxe. Billed as a burger for a more grown-up and sophisticated taste, it was a large patty on a potato-flour roll with lettuce, tomato and a secret sauce that was some combination of mustard and mayo. On its face it sounded okay. After all, McDonald’s has launched a lot of other products to great success like the McRib and the McWrap, but this disappeared almost as soon as it had arrived and the other products in a planned line of adult-oriented deluxe foodstuffs were put on hold.

What We Can Learn: Sometimes if you move too far from what you’re known for and good at too fast, your customers will rebel and that’s exactly what happened here. McDonald’s introduced a product that was vastly ahead of its time and may be better suited on a menu in today’s foodie culture. Not to mention that the burger was much more expensive than whatever was on the rest of the menu, which violated the promise of value McDonalds made their name on.

1. If it Ain’t Coke, Don’t Fix It

The number-one marketing failure of all time is widely considered to be this one. It concerns that time in 1985 when Coca-Cola decided to change the 100-year-old Coke formula into what it called a better and sweeter version that it insisted taste testers said was better than Pepsi and the old formula. However, people revolted and demanded the old formula back almost as soon as New Coke hit the shelves and one of the biggest corporations on earth had to do a swift about-face by bringing back the old formulation under the label of Coca-Cola Classic.

What We Can Learn: When you are the steward of a century-old brand it’s important to recognize what made it so successful for all those years. The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies here. What the executives at Coke underestimated when they took the positive results of the initial taste tests at face value was the population’s nostalgia for and attachment to the classic taste of Coca-Cola. Mess with the best, fail like the rest.

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