Brand Failures

By The Drum | Administrator

May 28, 2003 | 8 min read

No doubt most senior marketers, or at least those big enough to admit failure, have at one time or another uttered the immortal phrase “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Despite our unerring belief in the power of brands, every now and again they come unstuck and fail all too spectacularly.

We can all remember the 1985 branding debacle that was “New Coke”, a marketing strategy designed to protect Coca Cola’s dwindling market leading position, but which in reality did nothing more than give rival Pepsi Cola a giant step towards stealing the number one position in the soft drinks market.

Other, more recent, high-profile branding calamities include the Royal Mail’s identity change to Consignia, the re-branding of Ondigital to ITV Digital, and how could we, and half the planet’s population, ever forget the undignified slaying of the Enron and Arthur Andersen brands after some rather shady business dealings.

These international branding nightmares, and around 96 more, are investigated and some conclusions drawn in the recently published book, Brand Failures, penned by marketing consultant and author Matt Haig.

Along with these high-profile branding blunders, Haig also investigates some of the lesser known, but equally ridiculous, brand miscalculations, such as:

ï Pepsi’s launch of Pepsi AM – the breakfast cola

ï RJ Reynolds’ launch of the smokeless cigarette

ï Cosmopolitan magazine’s extension into the dairy product sector

ï Heinz’s extension into cleaning products with its All-natural Cleaning Vinegar product

ï Gerber’s launch of baby food in jars for single adults

Speaking to Adline about his research for the book, Haig drew a number of conclusions as to how global companies still make monumental branding errors despite investing millions of pounds/dollars on research.

He said: “The question isn’t whether enough market research is being done by these companies, it’s whether it is the right research in the first place.

“For instance, the most expensive brand failure of all time – Coca-Cola’s launch of New Coke back in the 80s – was also one of the most well researched. They conducted thousands and thousands of blind taste tests with consumers, and found that almost everyone preferred the new formula to both Pepsi and original Coke.

“Yet what Coca-Cola failed to realise is that taste was not the only factor. Brand loyalty towards classic Coca-Cola was stronger than any taste preference and consumers boycotted New Coke as soon as it hit the shelves. Therefore, market research should focus on brand perception just as much as product reality.”

Clearly, global conglomerates don’t want their most spectacular failures paraded in all their glory in the pages of a hardback readily available from, so how did Haig conduct his research and select which case studies made the final cut?

“I carried out my research with great difficulty! Obviously, companies don’t want to disclose too much information about their biggest branding mistakes, so a lot of the time I had to deploy some lateral thinking.

“With major cases, such as New Coke, a lot has already been written so there’s already a lot of information to go on. With lesser known cases, such as Mattel’s ‘Gay Ken’ doll, I had to research original owners of the product as well as uncover material in online newsgroups and so on.

“Basically, I tried to include representative examples of each type of brand failure. For instance, sometimes brands fail because of an inappropriate extension. Other times they fail because it was a terrible idea – such as smokeless cigarettes. Sometimes they fail because of a stupid comment – like when Gerald Ratner referred to some of his jewellery as ‘crap’ and likely to last as long as an M&S sandwich.”

Haig groups his failures into nine specific categories: classic failures, idea failures, extension failures, PR failures, culture failures, people failures, rebranding failures, internet and new technology failures and tired brands, but which of the case studies does he think offer the best insights into why particular brand launches or extensions failed?

“I think the best cases are those which highlight the fundamental stupidity of some brand managers to understand their own brand. Cosmopolitan Yoghurt, Harley Davidson perfume, Bic underwear and Heinz’s cleaning products are all examples of extensions that only serve to confuse the customer.

“Another example is when baby food manufacturer Gerber launched a range of food for single adults. As one magazine said at the time, they might as well have called it ‘I Live Alone and Eat My Meals From A Jar’.”

Someone very important once said success and failure are two sides of the same street, so how important is it for brand managers to recognise and understand brand failure for them to achieve brand success?

Haig says: “It’s essential. In some markets brand failure is so common it is the norm, and almost every brand at some stage will experience some major setback. What matters is how you react and respond to these setbacks. Do you try and cover them up and ignore them, or do you try and be open and address them straight away? It is only by knowing how to behave when it hits the fan that brands can avert failure and rise to success.”

So, does Haig believe that many of today’s senior marketing directors and brand guardians opt to ignore a potential failure?

He says: “New brands and new brand extensions cost companies millions. Marketing directors are therefore unwilling to give up very quickly and often do more damage by denying that there’s a problem in the first place.”

So, after his research, has Haig discovered a definitive reason why many brands fail?

“Yes,” he says. “By pushing it too far. Customers don’t like it if they feel they are being manipulated or exploited. Brand extensions are fine when they make sense to the consumer, such as Gillette launching shaving foam after it was known for producing razors. They aren’t so fine when they contradict or jar with the original brand’s values.”

So, which of today’s global brands have got it right?

“Gillette, I would say, is the best brand extender. However, few could argue that Diet Coke wasn’t a successful extension. In terms of powerful branding, the leading fashion brands have got it right for being able to create an aspirational identity with different entry points for the consumer. For instance, Gucci catwalk shows feed the aspiration, then it’s left to the bottles of aftershave to sell in the big quantities. My favourite brands are those that are able to retain a warm, human aspect – such as Ben and Jerry’s or The Body Shop. If I could have freebies from one brand for life, though, I’d probably go with Gucci.

So, if Haig, a lowly branding expert, can recognise the fundamental problems facing companies looking to develop their brands, surely they too can recognise this and avoid future catastrophes. Or will they continue to provide Haig with more material for a second volume of Brand Failures?

“Many companies may have learnt from their old mistakes,” he says, “but there are always new mistakes to make. In fact, global brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are entering a very tough phase, as they now face a triple threat from anti-globalisation campaigners, a growing health-consciousness and anti-American feelings in various parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. Whether or not their attempts to appeal to local tastes and interests – such as McDonald’s launch of the ‘McArabia’ burger in the Middle East – will work remains to be seen.

“There are certainly brands that need to tread carefully. Amongst the biggies, Kodak has had a bumpy transition as it has tried to keep up with the emergence of digital cameras. Youth brands are often particularly vulnerable as they are so dependent on fashion and the ‘cool’ factor. I reckon that those big brands linked to the club culture of the 90s, such as the Ministry of Sound and Cream, are going to face very tough times ahead. However, no brand is eternal. Even Coca-Cola and McDonald’s could die one day.”

Now they did seem like good ideas at the time.

Brand Failures by Matt Haig is published by Kogan Page and is now available in bookshops priced £18.99.


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