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Marketing Mistakes

A Marketing Disaster Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: 3 Lessons From Recent Big Brand Fails

Through watching the stumbles of national brands, smaller businesses can learn what to do -- and not do -- to move up to the next level.
Image credit: Smith Collection | Gado | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Brand Strategist and Leadership Expert

It's never been easier to build a brand. Right now with a little effort you can build a following on Instagram or Shopify, start selling stuff and create a nice small business for yourself. But, if you want to move things to the next level and become a real enterprise, you need to learn to market like the big guys.

Related: 3 Marketing Mistakes That Kill Tech Startups

Ironically, one of the best ways to do that is to watch what happens when they screw up. Branding failures aren't just entertaining. By illustrating just how terrible the fallout can be if you get things wrong, they illustrate the importance of having the right principles and systems in place. Through watching the stumbles of national brands, smaller businesses can learn what to do -- and not do -- to move up to the next level.

Helpfully, some of America's biggest companies have obliged with some pretty spectacular brand fails lately.

1. Amazon selling sugary cereals at Whole Foods

Like lots of other people, I was excited when Amazon bought Whole Foods. The whole premise of the deal was that the scale of Amazon would enable more people to access the quality, healthy food on offer at pricey Whole Foods. But, then recently I spoke to a few friends who reported seeing things like Honey Nut Cheerios on the shelves of their local Whole Foods.

Let me be clear: You're not supposed to be able to buy Honey Nut Cheerios at Whole Foods. The brand experience is all about health and quality, not processed, sugar-laden junk. Opening up a premium brand to more consumers can be a great move, but that's not what Jeff Bezos and Amazon appear to actually be doing with Whole Foods so far. Instead, they're violating the basic promise of the Whole Foods brand, and risking diluting it beyond all recognition.

This isn't just a temptation for behemoths like Amazon. Smaller brands face similar questions all the time as they start to grow and add new revenue streams. Is that new sponsorship or partnership actually in line with your values? Are you broadening the appeal of your brand or are you selling out? Adding new customers is great. Losing your own core identity isn't.

Lesson: Never forget your core mission. Filter all new revenue streams and partnerships through the lens of your values.

Related: The 5 Biggest Marketing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

2. IHOP's half-baked IHOB stunt

I'm all for clever, disruptive marketing. Stunts can get people talking about your brand. But, not if you do them in the half-baked way IHOP recently did when it briefly changed its name to IHOB (for International House of Burgers) to highlight its new menu options.

I understand what IHOP was going for -- these days lots of carb-conscious customers aren't excited about sitting down to a giant stack of starchy pancakes and IHOP wanted to get the word out that they offer alternatives. But, its execution of the idea was just really weak. If you're going to go and disrupt the market in a radical way, you need to go all in.

Wendy's is a good example of a brand that succeeds. Its logo might be a sweet looking little girl, but on Twitter that little girl deals out some serious shade. It's outrageous, hilarious and consistent.

You get that level of execution the same way you do in any other area of business -- you know what you're aiming for and then hire the right people to execute it. If you're going for humor, bring in a stand-up comedian, for instance. Don't rely on the same old advertising agency.

Lesson: Wishy-washy won't get you anywhere. Go all in on your concept and make sure you hire the right people to get you there.

Related: 11 Disturbingly Offensive Ads That Landed Big Brands in Trouble

3. Starbucks' one-day diversity training

When a national scandal erupted over a racist Starbucks barista who called the cops on two black customers who were just sitting in a store waiting for a meeting, the company actually did a lot of things right. Chairman Howard Schultz immediately came out with a strong and unequivocal statement that the company doesn't tolerate racism. He didn't hedge his words and he didn't delay. Second, the company demonstrated a real commitment to change by closing its stores and missing out on a day of revenue to train its employees to avoid bias. Again, bravo.

But, the problem is that brand building isn't about one-off gestures. It's about creating structures to make sure you brand is executed consistently over time. A crisis is an opportunity not just to make an authentic apology but also to change the way you do things long-term. Update your website underscoring your values. Develop a crisis response plan for the future. Create new training that happens not just once but on an ongoing basis. Set up policies that nudge your customer-facing employees to always behave in ways aligned with your brand.

To the best of my knowledge, Starbucks hasn't done any of that. Which creates a huge risk of a similar incident happening again in the future, and if it does there will be no way to rebuild a brand that's all about community and safe spaces for people to gather.

Lesson: Responding to a crisis isn't just about on-off gestures. The more important work is setting up an architecture that ensures problems don't happen again in the future.