3 Lessons From Failed Branding Campaigns - cover image of PC with notifications
Brand AwarenessFebruary 27, 2022

3 Lessons To Learn From Failed Branding Campaigns

February 27, 2022
Ashley Lightfoot Photo
Ashley Lightfoot
Content Marketing Manager

We all know a healthy brand when we see one. They’re the big names that are always top of mind, always running killer campaigns, always being talked about for the right reasons.

But when it comes to unhealthy brands — the ones that are really struggling to connect, can’t find their audience, or can’t shake a bad reputation — they can sometimes be a little harder to spot. When a brand fails monumentally, it can get a lot of attention, but many other floundering brands just slip uneventfully into the background.

While there is much to learn from those top-performing brands that always seem to be ahead of the game, there are also useful lessons to be had from those that are making mistakes — whether it’s a single catastrophic campaign or long-term issues leading to a slow decline.

In this article, we shine a light on those brands that are failing (or have already failed) and pull out three important lessons that you can learn from them. Without further ado:

1. Change Your Brand’s Visual Identity With Caution

Your brand’s visual identity, including its logo, is one of the most important tools for building relationships with consumers. A good logo is an efficient and quick way to communicate your brand’s identity and build familiarity — and it should act as the foundation of your brand.

So it’s no surprise that when companies refresh their brands, redesigning the logo — alongside other visual elements —is one of the most important steps, and also one of the biggest challenges.

For established brands, this can be an excruciatingly tricky tightrope to walk, because consumers will have their own emotional attachment to a brand’s original look and feel. But even new players can get called out. Airbnb was only 6 years old when it updated its logo to the current design and, yet, it received a backlash all the same.

Here are some of the most infamous logo changes of recent years:

Gap

In 2010, clothing brand Gap decided to freshen up its brand following years of declining sales. At the time, Marka Hansen, then President of Gap North America, said the new look was “more contemporary and current, honoring the heritage through the blue box while still taking [the brand] forward”.

Consumers disagreed. Described as “cheap, tacky” and “ordinary”, the general public was extremely vocal about their distaste for the logo’s new look. Within days, Gap had reverted to their classic, original logo.

Amazon’s App Icon

In 2021, Amazon changed the look of their app’s icon to embrace the smiling arrow (that cleverly links A and Z in their full logo) and took inspiration from the cardboard boxes that their products are delivered in.

The company explained the logo change as a way to _“spark anticipation, excitement, and joy when customers start their shopping journey on their phone, just as they do when they see our boxes on their doorstep”.

While it makes sense to replace the anachronistic shopping cart image and put the smile front and center, Amazon failed to spot that their new logo had an uncanny resemblance to the infamous German dictator Adolf Hitler.

Reactions to the new logo were played out in typical fashion on social media, with commentators both ridiculing and condemning the brand’s shortsightedness.

Needless to say, a few months later Amazon updated the app icon to make the blue tape less evocative of a toothbrush mustache.

Tropicana

They don’t get much more infamous than Tropicana’s disastrous 2009 rebrand. For a cost of $35 million, PepsiCo updated the orange juice brand’s visual identity with new packaging that made the brand name hard to find and difficult to read while removing the industry-standard image of an orange.

The result was a flatter, more generic look that completely abandoned the brand’s visual identity, making it almost unrecognizable.

After losing $20 million in sales during the first month alone, Pepsico reverted to the original design.

What Can You Learn From This?

Mixing up your brand’s visual identity is not something you should do lightly. Not only do you risk upsetting those loyal customers with a nostalgic attachment to your original look and feel, but you could lose the very thing that made your brand stand out in the first place.

Make sure any changes are rooted in a strong sense of purpose — think about what your new look is supposed to convey and don’t deviate from that. Most importantly, once you have a design in mind, check in with your customers and gauge their reaction — see how it makes them feel and what associations it drives, and utilize their feedback.

Finally, think about any cultural sensitivities you might have overlooked, especially if you have a global brand. Images are loaded with meaning and different readings are possible in different parts of the world. Make sure to test your new look in each market to be certain that it translates well wherever you're using it.

2. Getting Political Can Backfire

In the last decade or so, the mass adoption of social media has allowed political causes to gain momentum with extreme speed, and as a result, consumers have become increasingly concerned with a range of issues.

On top of that, in this age of polarized politics our views on the environment, social justice, race, class, gender, and sexuality are now much more important to how we define ourselves than in the past.

So, it’s no surprise that brands have wanted to tap into this as a means of carving out their own identities and building stronger relationships with their target audiences. And while it’s easy to be cynical about brands taking part in our political discourse, they can play a vital role in how the discussion takes shape, acting as a force for positive change.

But it’s vital that brands get involved for the right reasons. Consumers expect brands to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. They have, and will, call out brands that don’t follow up with real action on campaigns relating to political causes.

And even if you’re leaping into a hot topic with good intentions, there are still plenty of ways it could backfire. Here are two brands that came under fire for political brand campaigns that didn’t resonate exactly how they expected.

Pepsi

Launched in 2017, the “Live for Now – Moments” campaign, aimed squarely at a politically active Millennial audience was met with criticism from the moment of its release. Critics described the campaign as “a tone-deaf attempt to co-opt a movement of political resistance” to increase sales”

The ad was pulled after just one day, with Pepsi releasing a statement of apology.

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

Burger King

Released on International Women’s Day 2021, Burger King’s “Women belong in the kitchen” campaign was intended to raise awareness about gender disparity in the restaurant industry.

Taking the form of a series of tweets, the brand’s choice to lead with a provocative message — that when taken out of context is deeply misogynistic — on International Women’s Day 2021, was something that many people took issue with.

Following the controversial opening tweet, the burger brand expanded on its initial message:

"...If they want to, of course, Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We're on a mission to change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career."

Despite having a good cause to promote, Burger King came under fire for using sexism as a way of creating clickbait. They eventually issued an apology and, as with Pepsi, clarified what their original intentions had been.

What can you learn from this?

It's vital that brands engage with political causes for genuine reasons — selling more of your product isn’t one of them, unfortunately. But brands needn’t be excluded altogether as they can contribute positively to many discussions, especially when they’re direct stakeholders in the issue at hand.

Remember that consumers value authenticity, so make sure your campaigns are backed up with real-world action and you’ll be rewarded for jumping into the fray. Finally, don’t let poor delivery stand in the way of a good message. If you’re showing support for a particular cause or movement, make sure the people involved in it are part of your process and let them help you shape your campaign to avoid unnecessary backlash.

3. Know The Right Time To Rethink Your Brand

At one point or another, many brands find themselves unwittingly isolated and forgotten about — their identity increasingly irrelevant and their product or service decreasing in popularity.

For many, this comes about not because of some huge mistake or misstep but simply because over time consumer trends change — what was all the rage yesterday may well be completely out of fashion tomorrow. When this happens brands need to have their ear to the ground to find out why consumers are no longer interested in their offering so that they can address their biggest problems before it’s too late.

Without further ado, here are two brands whose strategy just wasn’t working anymore and, to their credit, both are now in the process of fixing things.

Subway

With 42,000 restaurants in over 100 countries, Subway is still one of the largest fast-food chains in the world. However, since 2012, it suffered a slow decline, and in 2021 its share of the limited-service sandwich market had dropped to just 28% from 41% in 2013.

Following the conviction of their chief spokesperson Jared Fogle, discord between the company and its franchisees, and changing attitudes to healthy foods biting into their sales, the brand has struggled to define itself in an increasingly competitive and evolving fast food market.

In 2021, the brand started to address some key issues consumers had, particularly with the in-restaurant experience. With more than 20 changes across the menu and a new ad campaign to promote it, Subway’s CMO Carrie Walsh explained that:

“The creative idea was that it wasn't about any one individual change that we were making, but rather, it was about the sum of all of the different changes that added up to a better sandwich experience for our guests.”

Forever 21

American fast-fashion giant Forever 21 is a ubiquitous presence in many a shopping center across the USA and internationally. Despite this, in 2019 the company filed for bankruptcy as it struggled to adapt to a changing market where online competition and changing consumer attitudes to fast fashion ate into its profits.

Like Subway, change is already happening, with the company partnering with performance-driven branding agency WITHIN to refresh its brand identity and help it resonate better with socially-conscious Generation Z-ers.

What Can You Learn From This?

Consumers’ tastes are always changing, so it’s essential for you to keep to track of how your brand is being perceived and whether any negative associations are building up around it and your product that could harm your business.

Both Subway and Forever 21 could have benefited from taking action earlier, addressing negative brand associations with new campaigns, and refreshing their identity to fit changing tastes.

Final Thoughts

Steering a brand through times of change can be a difficult task — but sometimes brands have to evolve, whether that’s with changing taste, changes to politics, or simply to keep up with the latest trends.

However, brand managers shouldn’t get caught up in their own world — a strong brand identity is essential to connect with consumers, so it’s always vital that audiences are part of that discussion if they want to avoid a catastrophic campaign or fading into obscurity.

Indeed, listening to consumers’ opinions is vital and one of the best ways to set up a two-way conversation between your brand and them is to use brand monitoring software. With this set up, you can gauge your target audience’s reaction, check in on how they perceive your brand, and whether a recent campaign has influenced them in a positive way.

Having a strong understanding of your target audience segmentation is the often overlooked vital ingredient to a strong branding campaign — it’s what makes a logo change go down well, what makes a political message feel authentic, and it allows you to preemptively alter your approach if the market is changing underneath your feet.

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