5 Epic Branding Fails from Mega Corporations (And What You Can Learn from Them)

Sometimes, you just have to look at marketing of mega corporations and shake your head.

Here they are with billions of dollars, hundreds or thousands of people to work on a single campaign, and supposedly some of the brightest minds in the business community giving them advice, and yet when we as consumers finally get to see what they roll out… sometimes it’s just stupid. You look at it and think, "How on earth did they ever believe this would work?"

We all know about classic blunders like New Coke and the Arch Deluxe, but really, those are just the tip of the iceberg. Look around, and the marketing world is full of epic branding fails.

I’ve been studying them for years, and while I can’t tell you why they continue to happen, I can say there’s a lot to learn from watching their products flop. Let’s go through a few examples, and I’ll show you what I mean:

Fail #1: Not Having Answers to “What Exactly Is It?" and "Why Should I Want It?”

Back in the early 80s shampoo megabrand Clairol introduced two shampoos named, “Look of Buttermilk” and “Touch of Yogurt.” And the products flopped.

For one, you have to wonder… are you washing your hair in actual yogurt? And if you are, why would you want to do that? Wouldn’t it be kind of… sticky?

For two, if you’re naming a product the "Look of Buttermilk," what exactly does buttermilk look like? Not everyone knows, and prospective customers were confused. Why would you want your hair to look like milk?

In both cases, the products were inexcusably vague. Not only did they fail to communicate the benefit, but they failed to communicate with the product actually was. It’s no wonder they flopped.

Fail #2: Lending Your Brand to Products in an Unrelated Market

Some brands have a name that makes anything popular “by association.”

Sony can release almost any type of electronics product, and people will buy it just because it’s Sony. Stouffer can release almost any type of prepackaged meal, and people will buy it because they know it’ll taste homemade (or close to it). Both companies regularly test new products, putting their name on them and seeing how they sell, and they often do well, solely on the strength of the brand.

The important point though is that they release products within their niche. Sony isn’t trying to make prepackaged food, and Stouffer isn’t trying to sell electronics.

It makes sense, but big brands forget all the time.

Harley Davidson fans will buy just about anything emblazoned with the famous logo: t-shirts, lighters, jackets – everything a biker needs. But when they tried to introduce Harley Davidson perfume and aftershave, fans revolted. If you drive a Harley, you don’t want to smell nice. You want to smell though, like leather and motor oil, and you don’t need perfume or aftershave to help you do that.

Fail #3: Failing to Evolve with the Market

Ask your grandparents about Ovaltine, the malted milk drink, and chances are they can hum or whistle the radio jingle that used to accompany it. These days, Ovaltine is promoted as more of a health drink or a breakfast shake, but it still fails to gain much brand recognition among anyone younger than 60.


Because it held too tightly and too long to its previous purpose: a sleep aid before bed. They thought they’d carved out a market niche, but as the market evolved, more and more customers moved to drinks like Ensure who marketed their ability to serve as a meal replacement. Ovaltine should’ve evolved with the market, but they didn’t, and now they are suffering for it.

The lesson: nostalgia does not always equal better sales.

Fail #4: Launching When the Market Isn’t Ready

No one but the most mobile of urban professionals carried a smartphone in the early 90s, but that’s precisely when Apple leapt onto the scene with its Newton PDA.

Unlike more modern Apple innovations, such as the iPhone and iPad, the Newton didn’t beget long lines of early adopters. Instead, it got blasted by everything from talk shows to comic strips for its poor handwriting recognition and massive price tag (~$700).

Since no trendsetter wants to align themselves with something unpopular, Newton faded into tech-antiquity while cheaper, smarter devices like the Palm Pilot and Blackberry began to stake their claim in the digital market, which was ready for innovation.

Fail #5: Promising One Thing and Delivering Another

If you say you stand for one thing, and deliver something completely different, you can bet customers won’t fall for it twice.

Case in point: Domino’s Pizza. The longtime king of fast delivery, good and cheap pizza was quickly unseated by complaints of cardboard-like crust and sauce that tasted like ketchup. Yes, it was fast, and yes, it was cheap, but it wasn’t good, and by promising customers good pizza, they raised expectations too high, setting themselves up to fail.

These days, Domino’s has finally stepped up to the plate and admitted their faults, promoting an entirely new type of dedication to the art of pizza-making. But is it too little, too late?

It’s Easy to Laugh at. It’s Also Easy to Do.

In retrospect, nearly all of the above mistakes seem obvious, even stupid. We laugh at them, roll our eyes, and wonder how anyone could do it.

But if you’ve been a marketer for any length of time, you also know how easy it is.

When you get excited with a particular product or campaign, it’s easy to overlook its flaws and forge blindly ahead, believing the market will fall in love with it and everything will work out. You feel like an idiot when it doesn’t happen, but it seems to make total sense at the time.

The only way I know to combat it is to look regularly at the branding failures and ask yourself, "Am I doing the same thing here? Is there anything I can learn from this?" Force yourself to think critically.

Sure, it sucks some of the joy out of the creative process, but it can also save you enormous amounts of time and money. Truth is always better than any delusion, no matter how happy it may be.

It’s our responsibility as marketers to remember that.

About the Author: Sherice Jacob helps businesses improve web design, performance and conversions at iElectrify.com.