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Marketing Faux Pas and How to Avoid Them

Marketers aren’t perfect, as much as we’d like to think we are. We make mistakes too. The difference is, our mistakes can have incredible reach and cost, both to our clients and to our brands’ reputations. Here are some ways that things can go wrong, and how not to make the same mistakes yourself.

Tone Deaf Tweets

In 2010, the “Arab Spring” was under full swing in the Middle East, with young people rising up by the millions on social media and in the streets to protest antiquated and corrupt governments.

Kenneth Cole, trying to hitch a ride on a trending hashtag, tweeted the following: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor has it they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” The tweet was signed “KC,” indicating that it came from Cole himself, not a social media manager.

Twitter users were outraged, calling it “repulsive” and “in bad taste” for Cole to be making light of such a serious and, in some cases, deadly situation. Unfortunately, Cole never seemed to learn his lesson, tweeting a bad pun about the Syrian civil war in 2013 and a tasteless comment on recently deceased designer Kate Spade in 2018.

Frozen pizza giants DiGiorno’s found themselves in similar hot water when they tweeted “#whyistayed You had pizza.” The problem was, what they thought was a harmless joke was actually a serious misinterpretation of the #whyistayed hashtag, an outlet for women to explain why they hadn’t fled abusive relationships.

The solution is pretty simple: make sure you know what you’re talking about. Twitter moves fast, and it’s tempting to jump on a trending hashtag as quickly as you can, but it’s easier to take half an hour to figure out what a hashtag means, where it came from, and whether it fits your brand than to clean up the mess afterward.

Losing Sight of Your Core Customers

You’ve probably heard of the 80/20 Rule, but if not, the gist of it is this: 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers. Most businesses have a core group of customers who, though not as numerous, are much more valuable than the rest.

In 2011, Netflix got a harsh lesson in the 80/20 rule. At the time, they were still primarily a DVD-based service, but they wanted to break into streaming. Rather than keep their services rolled together, Netflix opted to spin off streaming into a service called Qwikster.

Not only was it confusing for consumers to maintain two separate accounts, but the combined cost of Qwikster and Netflix was higher than the package had been before the brands separated, and existing customers weren’t grandfathered in.

The backlash was immense. Netflix lost 800,000 subscribers and 77% of their stock price in a matter of months, losing over $12 billion of their market value.

Want to avoid the same mistake? Keep a close eye on where your sales come from. Don’t be too eager to change things up. There may be a vocal contingent who want change, but if the 20% of your customer base who keep the lights on are happy, don’t make them mad.

Offering Free Stuff — And Then Running Out

Timothy’s Coffee ran a pretty straightforward, commonly used promotion on their Facebook page: free coffee for new followers. The problem was, they didn’t anticipate the demand they’d get. They ran out of samples in only three days.

Worse than that, their page went silent, ignoring the hordes of angry customers who weren’t getting the free coffee they were promised. It took Timothy’s two weeks to apologize to customers, and by then the damage to the brand was done.

The fix? Make sure you have enough free stuff. Demand can be hard to predict, but you can work around that too. Clarify in your giveaway rules that the contest is first-come, first-served. Throw in a “while supplies last.” You can even make a game of it — lots of Major League ballparks offer free t-shirts or bobbleheads to the first 15,000 fans, incentivizing quick action. Just don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Fixing Things That Aren’t Broken

It might be the biggest marketing mistake in history: the appearance of New Coke. In the early 80s, upstart beverage company Pepsi had just burst onto the scene, leveraging celebrities and musicians to promote a fresher, younger image than Coca-Cola. Worse still, Pepsi ran ads saying that in a blind taste test, customers preferred them over Coke.

In response, Coke revamped their recipe, making it sweeter and calling it New Coke. They thought customers would love the new taste, but they couldn’t have been more wrong.

Customers didn’t want a better-tasting Coke — they wanted the same old secret recipe that they and their parents and their grandparents had been drinking for generations. Coke was an American icon – the de facto official beverage of movies and picnics and baseball games and beach days.

The original recipe was re-released only 78 days later, as Coke Classic. New Coke stuck around for a little while, but never caught on, and was eventually shuttered.

Coke’s mistake was in failing to understand why their customers bought Coke in the first place. The emotional connection that people felt to such a staple of their childhoods was stronger than Coke realized. Don’t lose track of what people love about you, and don’t overreact to new competition.

Honesty Is (More Than Ever) The Best Policy

In 2012, Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chik-fil-A, brought a hurricane of criticism when he said, in reference to the debate over gay marriage legalization, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.”

The company’s position cause the Jim Henson Company to pull their toys from Chik-fil-A’s children’s meals, making it clear in a Facebook post that it was Cathy’s anti-gay politics that were the reason.

Taking a political stance as a brand isn’t an inherently bad idea, but it will inevitably come with some consequences. Chik-fil-A should have known that their politics would lose them some friends – the best course of action would have been to take their lumps and move on. Instead, they issued a recall of all Jim Henson toys, pretending it was for safety reasons. They even backdated the recall to before the Henson Company’s announcement.

As we all know in this day and age, the internet doesn’t miss much. Users flocked to Chik-fil-A’s Facebook page, calling them out for the phony recall. On several threads, a young redhead named Abby Farle defended the fast food chain, denying that the recall had come after the Henson company pulled their toys. Unfortunately, Abby was outed within hours as a fake profile with a stock photo avatar.

The lesson is simple: don’t lie to the public. Sure, marketing can occasionally be a game of spin and embellishment. But if you have to pull a product for safety reasons, say so. If you have to raise your prices to cover new costs, just tell your customers. They’ll appreciate your honesty and are more likely to stick around. The collective sleuthing power of the internet is enormous, and lies go viral on social media. It’s not worth it just to try to save face.


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