From Marketing Success to a Pitfall: How Not to Cross the Line

From Marketing Success to a Pitfall: How Not to Cross the Line

What lessons can be learned from past marketing mistakes, and how can you plan a better campaign?

Marketing is a fickle and unforgiving part of business. It can either make or break your brand’s image or, worst of all, be utterly forgettable. This ultimately means you’ve wasted vital time, money, and resources for nothing.

Thankfully, by looking at how other campaigns have gone wrong, you can learn valuable lessons about what works and what doesn’t. Avoiding common pitfalls can help set your future campaigns up for success.

So, what campaigns are of particular note? And just what exactly did they do wrong in the first place? This article will run through some infamous marketing mishaps, analyzing what went wrong and how to avoid a similar fate.

Seven marketing mishaps—and what you can learn from them

Below are seven critical pitfalls to marketing mishaps around the world. In each example, you’ll discover what went wrong and, more importantly, easy ways of avoiding a similar fate:

1. Be precise in your messaging

First impressions matter, especially when marketing is concerned. Often, a customer will decide in the first few seconds of seeing an advert. You must convey your message quickly and not just assume people will stick around for a follow-up message.

Take food giant Burger King as an example, which came under immense scrutiny over tweets posted for International Women’s Day in 2021. The food brand tweeted that ‘Women belong in the kitchen,’ leading to immediate accusations of sexism and ‘click-bait’ marketing.

Burger King subsequently followed up in replies to the tweet by explaining they had plans to change the low number of female chefs through a new scholarship program. But the explanation was utterly overshadowed by the initial tweet, causing considerable reputational damage at the time.

The company subsequently deleted the Twitter thread and apologized to users for any offense caused by the original tweet. It’s a textbook example that brands can’t afford to delay their messaging or hope customers wait for the punchline.

2. Avoid inappropriate activism

While it’s perfectly fine for companies to stand for critical issues and support causes they feel are worthwhile, they must be careful how they approach them.

If done correctly, marketing can trivialize events, be sensitive, and feel out of touch with public opinion. One of the most famous cases of this in action was Pepsi and Kendel Jenner’s collaboration in 2017, which made worldwide headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The ad saw Jenner join a staged protest where civilians and police clashed. She approached a police officer and offered him a can of Pepsi, to which the crowd stopped their protests to cheer and celebrate.

Many people claimed the marketing campaign trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the issue of police brutality, and was tone-deaf in its messaging.

Experts have noted that since neither Pepsi nor Kendal Kenner had a history of political activism, it only fuelled accusations of the campaign being tone-deaf and ‘cashing in’ on what was happening across America.

So, what can we learn from Pepsi? If your brand wants to become involved in social or political issues, it must treat the topic with more reverence and sensitivity. Use the campaign to educate consumers and amplify the voices of those involved in activism.

Additionally, if a campaign is planned, and a worldwide event or political tensions suddenly arise, consider postponing your campaign until the situation changes. This way, you can avoid accusations of pulling focus from a cause or ‘cashing in’ on trends.

3. Moderate user-generated content

Using your customer’s content in marketing can be an innovative way to boost engagement and reward loyal fans in a fun, creative way. But without proper controls, content submissions can quickly be abused by trolls. 

In 2017, snack company Walkers ran a campaign with the hashtag #WalkersWave, encouraging football fans to post a selfie of themselves on social media to win tickets to the Champions League Final. 

Photos were automatically reposted on the official Walker’s Twitter account, with an automatic video featuring spokesman Gary Lineker.

It soon became clear there was no moderation team in place to check submitted content, as users hijacked the campaign by posting pictures of notable murders, sex offenders, dictators, and other highly controversial figures—all of which were subsequently reposted.

Although the company quickly deleted offending videos and closed the campaign, tweets quickly became viral and served as a harsh lesson about user-generated content.

If a campaign asks for public involvement, only automatically accepts submissions before proper moderation occurs. Otherwise, trolls can hijack a campaign and damage a brand’s reputation.

4. Don’t let a lack of cybersecurity take center stage

Marketing is all about creating a positive image of a brand. But sometimes, other areas of your business can be just as impactful. Take cybersecurity as an example.

We live in a world where customer data drives so many business decisions. Protecting that data from criminals is essential to building a positive relationship with your audience. No matter how big a company is or how successful a brand becomes, a significant breach in security can have devastating consequences.

Take Meta as an example. The social media made headlines for all the wrong reasons worldwide when, in 2021, it was discovered that a data breach of over 533 million users had occurred in the previous years. 

Sensitive user information, including full names, birthdates, phone numbers, and email addresses, was posted on hacking forums. This resulted in Meta being fined $276 million. Not only can events like these incur massive fines from government agencies, but they can cause long-lasting reputational damage to a company.

Thankfully, these issues can be avoided if marketers adopt proper cybersecurity procedures and take measures to protect their customer data. 

You can help avoid potential hacks and data breaches by practicing good cyber hygiene. This can include upskilling staff on identifying and reporting a violation, learning how to set stronger account passwords, regularly checking files for viruses, and updating software to the latest versions.

5. Don’t send mixed messages.

Changing your brand’s message, appearance, or tone can be incredibly counterproductive, especially if you’re already leading a well-respected brand. It can confuse customers, and they might be unable to identify or relate to new changes.

Beauty brand Dove is a classic example of this. Despite previously running critically acclaimed campaigns on body positivity, a redesigned version of their plastic bottles in 2017 came under heavy criticism.

The company changed the shape of bottles to reflect six different body shapes to celebrate women of all sizes. However, there was substantial public backlash over the repackaging, which many found to make customers more self-conscious over their shape.

Experts have said the campaign came across as ‘off-brand’ for Dove, and the appearance of the bottles counterproductive to their legacy message of body positivity.

One of the learning points from this is the age-old saying, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ A brand like Dove did not need to push their message in this new direction. Changing the tone of your marketing can alienate your loyal customer base.

6. Be sensitive to past events.

While marketing often looks to the future, you must also be mindful of the past. This is especially important when dealing with significant world events, disasters, and tragedies.

One of the prime examples of this happened in 2017, with sports brands Adidas and the Boston Marathon. Adidas congratulated several successful event runners after the race with an email titled, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”.

The message was met with widespread condemnation, as it was deemed insensitive to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, which saw three people die and hundreds more injured.

While Adidas quickly apologized, their goodwill gesture to runners of one of the world’s most esteemed marathons went viral, escalating the problematic messaging worldwide.

Brands can avoid this marketing pitfall by thoroughly researching an event they are interested in. Marketing teams should get various perspectives on the copy used. Ensuring that a message’s language, images, or content will not trigger or harm potential victims, survivors, and family members of a related tragedy is crucial.

7. Be careful of linked services and advertisements.

Finally, another often overlooked part of a brand’s image is its links with other brands and services. Their mistakes can cast a sour look on you purely from association. For example, if your company platforms show inappropriate advertisements, this can derail marketing, even if you don’t endorse it.

In 2018,  Snapchat made headlines worldwide when a third-party advert for the game ‘Would You Rather’ asked users if they would slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown.

The advert was incredibly distasteful, given that Brown pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna back in 2009. Following the adverts, Rihanna responded in a post on her Instagram page, accusing the platform of ‘bringing shame’ to victims of domestic violence.

As a result of the controversy, shares in parent company Snap Inc. dropped by 5% overnight, wiping up to $1 billion off its overall value.

Marketers are reminded that a brand can be guilty through association and that if you are platforming advertisements, content creators, or other businesses directly and indirectly, their image is just as important as yours. Content must be thoroughly checked and approved.


As you can see throughout this article, even well-known brands can get it wrong sometimes. Marketing can be an unforgiving industry, and mistakes in your tone, the type of content you produce, or even your cybersecurity can be incredibly costly.

By examining common pitfalls that have happened in the past and learning from their mistakes, you can set yourself and your marketing plans up for a better future.

When in doubt, remember that while marketing should strive to be creative and eye-catching, sometimes the best messages are simple, straightforward, and come from the heart.

Sawaram Suthar (Sam) is a Founding Director at Middleware. He has extensive experience in marketing, team building and operations. He often seeing working on various GTM practices and implement best one to generate more demand. He is also founded a digital marketing blog - TheNextScoop.

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