When Marketing Fails

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Every week there is a new one – a marketing idea that spectacularly backfires.

Dove is the latest company to fall into a PR pit due to what commentators now refer to as ‘tone-deaf’ marketing and advertising ploys. For Dove, it was a GIF recently posted on the company’s Facebook page to promote body wash. The shortened version of the made for television video immediately sparked online outrage, deemed racially insensitive for showing a black woman transforming into a white woman after using their product.

Dove’s public relations gaffe fell into the category of an intended positive message that missed the mark, and it is far from an isolated incident in the fast-paced world of online marketing.

An ever-growing list of companies – large and small – are backtracking, apologising and being forced to manage sticky situations when their marketing initiative generates a wave of negative publicity.

There’s been the Meat and Livestock Australia’s campaign showing deities from various religions sitting down to a lamb meal - including the non-meat-eating Hindu God Lord Ganesha. Then there was Coopers Brewery and its association with the ‘Keeping it light’ campaign; Pepsi and its ‘join the conversation’ ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a protest; the Melbourne gelato business, which created gender-specific flavours for an online campaign; and the Adidas ‘You Survived’ email to Boston Marathon runners.

Of course, a lot of these campaigns and initiatives are borne from the wish to stand out and grab attention in an increasingly noisy marketplace. Companies are feeling the need to be extra creative and maximise their use of the latest social media and online trends and tools. Many may realise they are pushing boundaries but wrongly believe they can successfully manage potential issues.

For larger companies, like Pepsi, Dove and Adidas, marketing initiatives that go pear-shaped are unlikely to significantly impact their long-term financial bottom line. Their size and existing reach provide a buffer. The biggest blow is to their credibility, particularly when trying to attract new brand ambassadors or marketing influencers.

However, smaller businesses don’t necessarily have the same margin of error to withstand fallout from a PR fail. They have neither the financial security nor customer base to wear the economic ramifications from a drop in integrity and reputation. If just one thousand people (or even 100) boycott their services or products because of a misjudged marketing idea, it will hurt.

The most common public relations threats from the marketing efforts of small to mid-sized businesses are ill-timed or misjudged social media posts, hijacked hashtags, or poorly-considered advertising taglines.

Therefore, before rushing into a marketing idea, consider how the wider public - not just your immediate circle of friends and associates - will perceive it. Take time to understand other events or news that may be occurring at the same time and could lead to your idea being tainted as insensitive or as a mistaken attempt to piggyback on an issue. Finally, be prepared to seek and heed external advice or support to keep your reputation intact.

I am positive we will hear about another marketing mishap next week. Let’s make sure it is not from your business.

Sue Cartwright is the Director of Communication Tree Strategic and Online PR Advisory. When we roll our eyes and think ‘there they go again’, she sees an opportunity to turn our frown upside down with pointed public relations strategy. That’s why we like it when she shares what she knows.

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