There are lots of ways a brand can shoot itself in the foot. Mike Teasdale analyses the brands that did it so you don’t have to.
A brand can starve itself of advertising support. Tango became UK market leader in fruit-flavoured carbonates in the 1990's on the back of iconic advertising that dramatized the hit of real oranges. But twenty years on, Tango has slipped far behind Fanta because Coca-Cola invested in Fanta while Britvic prioritised other brands in its portfolio. There have been no Tango ads since 2015, no good Tango ads since 2003, and no great Tango ads since 1997. Muscle memory still twitches for the brand thanks to YouTube but it’s a far cry from its swaggering heyday.
A brand can blunder into a PR shitstorm. United Airlines did exactly that in 2017 after video footage of a passenger being violently dragged off one of its planes went viral. They had tried to “re-accommodate” the passenger so that a staff member who was needed in another location could board. Unfortunately, the re-accommodation involved hauling the passenger in question down the aisle like a sack of potatoes. The passenger lost a couple of front teeth in the incident but United lost a lot more as ten years’ brand-building went up in smoke.
A brand can fail to spot a threat or an opportunity. For threat, think Motorola in mobile phone handsets. It managed to misread how the US market was moving and failed to respond to new rivals coming to eat its lunch. For opportunity, think Kodak in photography. It designed the first digital camera way back in 1975 but bet on physical photo printing rather than digital photo sharing.
A brand can over-reach itself. There’s a reason why we don’t want Bic underwear, or Harley Davidson perfume, or Colgate ready meals, or Clairol “Touch of Yogurt” Shampoo. Because they are crap ideas that stretch those brands too far from their respective comfort zones.
A brand can fall foul of cultural sensitivities. Clarks (which has a reputation for top-quality school shoes in the UK) got into hot water after it named one of its girls’ shoes "Dolly Babe" while the boys’ equivalent was called "Leader". Worse, the boys’ shoe was sturdy, weatherproof and had soles clearly designed with running and climbing in mind, while the girls’ shoe had less grip, was not fully covered and looked like it would scuff more easily. Cue Twitter feeding frenzy, and rightly so.
Another example of a brand falling foul of cultural sensitivities is Pepsi following its 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner as a model who leaves a photo shoot and joins a protest. It was a clunker of an ad but they managed to make things much worse by the way they reacted to criticism of it. They failed to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement and as a result they came across as tone deaf and managed to turn something bland into a culturally offensive landmine.
But perhaps the dumbest way a brand can shoot itself in the foot is when it tries to update and fumbles the ball.
A brand can botch a re-vamp. Brands need to evolve from time to time to ensure they keep delivering price premiums and ROI. However, it’s vital that you don’t throw away your brand’s history and heritage in pursuit of future profits.
The Post Office in the UK did exactly that back in 2001 when it re-named itself Consignia. The logic must have seemed appealing at the time… we’re not just a mail organization, we’re a logistics company. The problem was the new name. It was terrible and made them sound like a 1970’s aftershave. After months of constant criticism, they U-turned and called themselves Royal Mail Group.
Weight Watchers is the latest example of re-vamp gone wrong. After 56 years of being Weight Watchers, the company has changed its name to WW. Weirdly, it says it doesn’t stand for anything, certainly not Weight Watchers and not their new tagline "Wellness that Works".
Aside from the merits of making such a change, the timing was awful. It did this in late 2018. Q1 brings in about 40% of its annual recruits as people re-boot after Christmas excess, so for it to change its focus away from weight loss just ahead of that sales period was madness for a subscription-based business. Unsurprisingly, 2019 has got off to a disastrous start, with share price and subscription numbers and operating profit all taking big hits.
Sure, Weight Watchers might need to modernise, to create greater connection with millennials or men, and to tap into body positivity trends. But did it need to change its name to achieve all that?
I don’t think so. Brands are about culture, not just collateral. Brands are about macro impact, not just micro contact. Brands are not rational, explicit memory palaces but emotional, implicit memory traces. For me, it’s way better for a brand to be messily right than efficiently wrong.