Fame Without Fortune: When Popular Campaigns Ultimately Fail

by | Aug 31, 2017 | Branding, Creative, Marketing, Strategy

It is every advertiser’s dream to come up with a campaign or slogan that “catches on” and becomes part of our popular culture and vernacular, with people recalling it even decades later. The Cannes Lions, the international acclaim, the bragging rights … but one thing that is not guaranteed in conjunction with viral fame? Brand sales.

It may seem counterintuitive, but a superpopular advertising campaign does not always translate into increased sales. It’s entirely possible to be very memorable but miss the mark on convincing consumers to spend their money. To prove this point – and hopefully surprise you – here are a few famous and memorable ad campaigns that ended up as failures from a sales perspective.

Got Milk?

When I first heard that this campaign was unsuccessful, I was completely taken aback. The “Got Milk?” campaign dominated my childhood, and for years I saw celebrity after celebrity sporting the signature milk mustache.

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However, despite the massive amount of money poured into celebrity endorsements, its ubiquitous presence across the country and its now storied place in advertising history, it failed to accomplish its primary goal, which was to increase milk sales. Between 1970 and 2011 (the “Got Milk?” campaign launched in 1993), liquid milk sales dropped from 0.96 cups per person to 0.59 cups per person. It appears that a catchy phrase and silly celebrity photos were not enough to counteract the influx of other beverage options into Americans’ daily lives.

The Energizer Bunny

If I were to say the words “pink,” “bunny” and “battery,” what is the first brand that comes to mind? If you live in the United States, your answer is more than likely Energizer – unsurprising since the brand boasts a 95 percent brand recognition rate thanks to its indomitable little mascot. However, things were not always so rosy for our furry little friend. When the Energizer Bunny ad campaign launched in 1989, it was actually a parody of a pink bunny being used by its direct competitor Duracell. It proved so popular that the battery company kept it going, and going … and going …

While the bunny enjoys icon status now, its recognizability has not translated into increased sales for Energizer. Thanks to Duracell’s previous use of a pink rabbit, as well as the lack of awareness and interest in general about battery brands, many customers were unable to differentiate between the two companies. Duracell remained the market share leader in batteries throughout the 1990s, at one point even claiming that 40 percent of people thought the pink bunny belonged to Duracell instead of its competitor.

The Taco Bell Chihuahua

In the late 1990s, the phrase “Yo quiero Taco Bell” – and the chihuahua that uttered it – became national sensations. The wisecracking, stoner-voiced dog with a love for chalupas was not without its controversies, but ultimately ascended to icon status within the advertising industry. However, as we have seen with other examples, if notoriety does not translate into sales, brand awareness may not be enough to save a campaign.

After serving as the restaurant’s mascot during three years of declining sales, the Taco Bell chihuahua was replaced, along with Taco Bell CEO Peter Waller. Theories as to why there was an abrupt departure from a seemingly popular campaign include increased competition in the fast food industry and a growing focus on the quality of food instead of how cute the mascot was. In 2009, dog actress (dog-tress?) Gidget left us for the big Taco Bell in the sky, but her memory will undoubtedly live on in the minds of millions of Gen Xers and millennials – just not in increased gordita sales.

While no advertising executive would turn down the chance for one of his or her ideas to gain icon status, it is important to keep in mind that awareness is not the final goal. It is our job in this industry to help our clients sell their products, and if a campaign does not move the needle, you may end up losing out on valuable business. Popularity is a bonus beyond helping the client’s brand sales.

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Lisa Umar
Lisa began her career as a China analyst in Washington, D.C., before moving to Phoenix to attend the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Since then, she has gained experience in account service, project management, branding, media placement and campaign strategy. Her clients have ranged from resorts to transportation companies and nonprofit organizations, as well as both B2C and B2B companies. She holds a dual B.A. in international affairs and Asian studies from George Washington University, as well as a master’s degree in international marketing from Thunderbird.

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