Fast is Good. But Triple Check Your Communications!

Examples of Brand Communications Blunders to Learn From

Today, we live in a world of instant, global, 24/7 communications and heightened sensitivities—if not polarized antagonism—around issues of race, gender and cultural relations. In this environment, offense is easily given to one or more groups of people, with objection occurring swiftly and mercilessly. For anyone who is in the public sphere—brands included—it is a volatile and treacherous environment to navigate successfully.

What can or should brands do to protect themselves from making a mistake and suffering an electronic lashing that can hurt the bottom line and brand reputation for years?

Here are a few things brands can do to minimize such damage and some examples of the failures.

1. Recognize that the line between what’s cool and cutting-edge vs. insensitive—if not outright offensive—is thin and definitely not straight. So, before putting out a piece of brand communications, make sure to run it by a wide range of people for a sensitivity check. That should help you catch some of the recent brand communications blunders shown here.

Spy Sunglasses thought up a clever line for a billboard that backfired for what would have been challenged by a more representative sample of internal reviewers as being “over the line”:

And retailer H&M would have chosen not to put this particular model (left side) in this particular hoodie on their website, if they had conducted a broader review. Instead, they had to deal with the predictable fallout.

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2. Before “news-jacking” or “trend-jacking”, brands should think long and hard whether the hot issue they are trying to piggyback on for promotion purposes is appropriate for the brand. When in doubt, ask a few people who are directly involved in the hot issue at stake to find out how the intended brand communication would be “received” by those on every side of the issue.

That just might have saved Pepsi a lot of indigestion when they jumped into the middle of heightened civic protests and race relations around #blacklivesmatter. By having Kendall Jenner imply that a can of Pepsi could remedy the situation, all they did was come across as callously minimizing the relevance of the movement to those who feel strongly about it.

…and Mark Zuckerberg when he chose to demonstrate the Facebook virtual reality platform, Spaces, by having his avatar discussing hurricane relief aid for Puerto Rico as though he was there. What may seem like a good idea born of good intentions can, nevertheless, come across as belittling and disrespectful. Mark Zuckerberg ended up apologizing for streaming the VR footage including the hurricane damage.

Or Gap wading into the fray of a life- and property-threatening storm to sell more apparel…

3. Be very careful with what you show, say and promise publicly. Run it by a jury of pessimists and risk avoiders to understand the worst-case scenario before you “go live”.

Consider the following two failures as illustrative:

A Domino’s Pizza promotion called Dominos Forever went off the rails before being canceled. The promotion initially promised 100 free pizzas per year for 100 years to anyone willing to have Domino’s tattooed on their bodies. So, unexpectedly, when many people with Domino’s tats came forth to claim their prize, Domino’s had to restrict the promotion and ended up canceling it altogether.

And when Heineken said in an ad that “sometimes lighter is better” while a beer was sliding down a bar top past three black men to stop in front of a light-skinned woman, the reaction was, no surprise, swift and punishing.

And here, the French fashion brand La Redoute posted the following image online and in its catalog without realizing there was a naked man in the background of the image – especially disturbing as they were promoting children’s fashion.

Brands today have to be fast and dialed into a sleepless cycle of communications opportunities and imperatives. But, more than ever, they also need to be hypervigilant regarding the appropriateness and sensitivity of those communications.
Well, no one ever said it would be easy.

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Frank Schab
An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

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