Exploring Marketing Advice Fails: Learning from 8 Mistakes and Their Valuable Lessons

marketing advice

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You’d expect big-budget brands to sidestep marketing advice fails, especially as the global ad spending hovers around $1 trillion for the first time in 2024. But just because you’re spending hundreds of millions or more on reach doesn’t mean you’re delivering a billion-dollar strategy. Most importantly, you don’t need a multi-million-dollar ad budget to create a million-dollar strategy. Instead, tune in to market trends and, in this case, learn from the big mistakes made by big brands.

    The Biggest Mistakes Make the Best Marketing Advice

    If failure is the best teacher, then you’re in for a Marketing Advice for Small Business Masterclass. This curation of eight of the most colossal marketing mistakes ever made (by brands you expect to do better) is followed by the crucial insights they revealed for other marketers. Don’t let their mistakes go to waste; learn from these key lessons as you create your own billion-dollar strategy for success.

    When Seasonality Goes Wrong: KFC Fries its Reputation

    In 2022, global chicken mogul KFC, in an effort to better connect with its local audience (good thinking!), suggested via mobile app notification that Germans celebrate Kristallnacht with a tasty bucket of KFC. Unfortunately, Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) represents a brutal wave of attacks by the Nazis against Jewish Germans.

    #1 Lesson Learned from the KFC Marketing Advice Fail

    What KFC did right was attempt to connect with a segment of their audience (Germans). They also leveraged seasonality (connecting to a local event) and efficiently delivered messaging via an existing tool (mobile app). What they did wrong (as they later explained) was that they relied on an automated bot to decide what events to feature. Since Kristallnacht is prominent on the German calendar, the bot promoted it. In today’s rapidly growing world of Generative AI, the content marketing advice delivered is a perfect cautionary tale that underscores the importance of human oversight on automated or AI-generated activities.

    Inappropriate News-Jacking Part 1: Pepsi

    In 2017, amidst a rise of protests across the U.S., a Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner at an unnamed protest received significant backlash. In the ad, Jenner makes her way to the front of the crowd, hands a police officer a Pepsi, and the crowd cheers. The cringy ad was immediately panned for its insensitivity towards the reality of the protests and the rising tensions and division in the country.

    #2 Lesson Learned from the Pepsi Marketing Advice Fail

    The content marketing advice to have your finger on the pulse of culture that connects your target audience is a yes. But mindlessly inserting your brand amidst such severe and divisive matters is a no. Lightheartedness doesn’t always work.

    Inappropriate News-Jacking Part 2: Kenneth Cole

    Thanks to the viral, organic success of the timely Oreo Super Bowl Tweet in 2013, social media marketing teams are constantly looking for the next Oreo-style moment. Kenneth Cole seemingly aspired to such a moment (even though it preceded Oreos by two years) when the brand leveraged the news of the political riots in Cairo (where over 800 were killed) as a moment to feature its new spring collection. The resulting outrage was immediate and significant.

    #3 Lesson Learned from the Kenneth Cole Marketing Advice Fail

    News-jacking can be effective when you can promptly tie your brand to an event. It’s primed for backlash when those news events involve social and political uprisings, civil unrest, casualties, and deeply divisive issues. Unless your brand is tied explicitly to a cause or one political entity, the best approach is no approach.

    How to Anger Half the World’s Population Part 1: Burger King

    To celebrate International Women’s Day, Burger King U.K.’s social media team in 2021 Tweeted, “Women belong in the kitchen.” This “clever” Tweet was immediately followed by a series of planned messages addressing gender disparity in the restaurant industry. Unfortunately for Burger King, most people didn’t read that far and instead lambasted the brand for its insensitivity.

    #4 Lesson Learned from the Burger King Marketing Advice Fail

    Connecting with an international event is a good move. Seasonality (when done right) can increase awareness of your brand and help prospects and customers get to better know, like, and trust you. But as all seasoned marketers will tell you, clear is always better than clever. Getting too clever in your messaging is a risky proposition.

    State of Marketing Report 2024

    How to Anger Half the World’s Population Part 2: Audi

    Audi tried to boost its used car sales in China by comparing a woman’s looks to a car, but the results proved unfavorable, to say the least. In the ad, a groom’s mother aggressively evaluates a bride’s looks to determine if she’s good enough for her son. The ad and tagline left the impression that women are property.

    #5 Lesson Learned from the Audi Marketing Advice Fail

    Share your concepts before launch. Undoubtedly, this campaign wasn’t ad-tested, at least not to women. The best marketing advice for small business is that you don’t have to spend big money to ad-test every creative. Still, you should at least vet your approach with something resembling your target audience, whether it’s an internal panel, best customers, or a small pilot. Yes, it takes more time, but avoiding the backlash and potential damage makes it worth it.

    Racial Blunder #1: Dove, Surprisingly

    Unilever’s Dove brand is known for its amazing marketing that redefines beauty, body image, and diversity. So, it was surprising to see Dove make this level of mistake in its attempt to highlight diversity. In the ad, women of different ethnicities used Dove body wash and then removed their shirts to reveal a different woman. The problem came when the black woman washed and turned into a white woman at the end, implying the black woman got clean to be white.

    #6 Lesson Learned from the Dove Marketing Advice Fail

    Based on its body of work, Dove undoubtedly did not intend to create a racist message. As with the Audi lesson, the best way to avoid unintended interpretations is to vet your concept with the target audience in advance. Too often, the campaign creators are not in the target audience, so they’re not as well versed in the nuances. And that’s OK. Create your own council that you can run ideas past. Such a feedback loop will serve you well on many fronts.

    Racial Blunder #2: Heineken says, “Hold My Beer”

    Dove is hardly alone in racial blunders. Heineken easily topped the beauty care brand with its own light beer ad that proclaimed, “Sometimes Lighter is Better.” As racial tensions increase, such messaging can easily be perceived as racist, even though it was likely unintended. Chance the Rapper also Tweeted about the messaging, which caused a stir and created havoc for Heineken.

    #7 Lesson Learned from the Heineken Marketing Advice Fail

    Cultural sensitivity is real. Sometimes, marketers get so focused on their brand within its own category or industry vertical that they fail to step back and evaluate their messaging from a broader perspective. Even if you believe Heineken did nothing wrong, they faced backlash that could change a consumer’s perception enough to rethink their next purchase.

    Underestimating Ubiquity: Microsoft’s Bing Fails to Unseat Google

    Imagine if Puffs tried to convince consumers to ask to grab a Puffs instead of Kleenex. Even with an unlimited budget, marketers would have difficulty unseating the name that is essentially synonymous with personal tissue. Undaunted, computer titan Microsoft took its best shot at unseating Google by trying to convince consumers to “Bing it” instead. As expected, the campaign was poorly received and unsuccessful.

    #8 Lesson Learned from the Bing Marketing Advice Fail

    Just because your competitor is the market leader doesn’t mean your brand has no place in the market. Even though Oreos dominates the cookie aisle, retailers stock and sell alternative cookie brands from Keebler plus premium brands like Pepperidge Farms. Thank your market leader for establishing a market, and then promote what makes you different. You will attract a different audience and can build on that.

    Learn From Their Mistakes

    In conclusion, the marketing advice fails of major brands offers the best lessons and cautionary tales. Learn from their mistakes to build your own billion-dollar campaign strategy, regardless of your ad spend.

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