What Startups Can Learn from Big Brand Failures


Some new businesses intend to remain small, but other startups hope to attain the size and pervasiveness of the biggest brands like Apple and Starbucks. Even the corporate giants were startups at one point, but despite their success, they still make their fair share of marketing mistakes. They usually recover, but fresh-faced enterprises do not always find the same forgiveness or forgetfulness. A wrong move can mean death for a startup thanks to smaller audiences.

Startups have the chance to not repeat the same mistakes as bigger brands (or one another). Here are some of the most significant social media and marketing failures in the past two years that new brands would be wise to learn from:

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Lesson 1: Don’t exploit

Brands naturally want to stay on top of what people are talking about, but some subjects and events are off-limits. In December 2016, beloved actress Carrie Fisher passed away—and Cinnabon was quick to leverage her death as a marketing opportunity. Fisher’s famous Star Wars character, Princess Leia, adorned a double-bun hairstyle in the movies, so Cinnabon tweeted “RIP Carrie Fisher, you’ll always have the best buns in the galaxy.”

What the company intended to be a simple pun made light of a tragic passing. The company quickly deleted the tweet after fan outrage. Startups should take note: puns are funny and draw attention, but they need to be in good taste.

Pepsi exercised excruciatingly lousy judgment in early 2017 when it released a TV commercial depicting Kendall Jenner leaving a photoshoot to join a protest and offer a can of Pepsi to a police officer. Brands are always trying to find ways to stay relevant, and protests are indeed receiving more media attention nowadays, but the nature of protests and the ad itself were tone-deaf. As activist Feminista Jones articulated, “Brands should never make light of social issues related to people’s suffering; they should, instead, focus on selling their products in ways that don’t exploit the pain and suffering of marginalized people.”

The online publication Wired mentioned that the ad was so awful that it did something previously thought impossible: it brought the internet together. Memes, jokes, specific current events, and entertainment are all fair game for marketing campaigns—but death? Oppression? No.

Lesson 2: Tread carefully

Wendy’s regularly employs a brilliant marketing tactic: it roasts its followers over Twitter. It may seem ironic that people love being mocked, but most of Wendy’s tweets are in good humor (The person or people behind the account are remarkably witty, and sometimes target other restaurants), and folks enjoy a good laugh.

What Wendy’s is doing is treating its followers like individuals. Brands often establish themselves as faceless entities, existing only to take the customers’ money. When they attempt to act like “one of the people,” they try too hard and rub consumers the wrong way. Wendy’s walks a thin line between corporate intention and legitimate humor, but it balances well.

However, Wendy’s does stumble now and then. One follower asked the company over Twitter, “Got any memes?”, to which Wendy’s replied with an image of the brand’s signature character combined with “Pepe the frog.” Pepe was once a silly internet figure, but white supremacist radicals had recently commandeered it as their own—and apparently, the restaurant was unaware of that. Startups can learn from this mistake and tread carefully. Being relevant is a delicate art, and the internet changes so quickly that marketers need to stay on top of its evolution.

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Lesson 3: Be alert

User-generated content is an excellent way to get customers involved with their favorite brands. People feel validated when brands recognize them for their contributions, and the process fosters a community around a common interest. Walkers Crisps presented customers with an opportunity to participate in a marketing campaign in 2017, asking them to send in selfies that would accompany Gary Lineker’s image and feature in a unique hashtag.

Unfortunately, it all went awry. Walkers’ Twitter followers sent in pictures of people like the serial killer Harold Shipman, mass murderer Fred West, and dictator Joseph Stalin. The process lacked proper filters because it was automated, so Walkers Crisps found itself tweeting numerous offensive pictures to the world. Other platform users noticed what was happening and alerted the company that it failed to screen submissions.

Startup companies can learn a valuable lesson from this event: anticipate “trolls.” Expect at least a few people to take the most well-intended campaigns and twist them. Opening up the marketing process to the public can be beneficial, but do not allow individuals to take advantage of personal and technological oversights.

New businesses need to ensure that their marketing materials, slogans, and logos (and there are online tools to help with crafting these) are both relevant and non-offensive—or it could result in many rightly enraged people.

What other marketing lessons can you learn from big brand failures?

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