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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

  1. James Chartrand Sep 03, 2010 at 8:08 am

    One other brand mistake I see big companies make is spreading their brand thin. Car manufacturers are noticeably lead players in this mistake.

    Kia. What are they THE go-to guys for? They make small, affordable cars. Well, so does Honda… and Kia has that SUV thing too. Who’s the SUV go-to people? Jeep, maybe? But Jeep doesn’t do many actual Jeeps anymore… And Ford isn’t just about trucks – they have small, medium and large sized cards, not to mention sedans and station wagons.

    So when you say to people, “I own a Chevy!” they might think ‘pickup’ when in actual fact, you’re driving a sportscar.

    Branding fail.

  2. Exactly James! That kind of brand dilution and disassociation can backfire on companies that want to be everything to everybody. Case in point – Bic used to make underwear. It flopped because everyone knows Bic makes pens. Colgate used to make microwaveable dinners. Yes, the very same Colgate toothpaste company.

  3. Some great examples, Sherice. I’m sure there are a million more.

    I know your point was to illustrate examples of failures, not really delve into them, but every time I see the Domino’s thing mentioned, I cringe.

    First, I’m not a Domino’s fanboy.. I’m more of a Papa Johns guy (or the local mom and pop pizza place) but after not really eating much Domino’s since my teens and recently reacquainting myself, I found it had much the same sauce and crust flavor I remember. With the addition of the Philly cheesesteak pizza lighting new interest for me in the brand, I added it back to the rotation of infrequent pizza ordering.

    Then these ads come out about how people complained and they’re changing stuff. Ok, that’s fine, let’s see what they did. The two times we’ve ordered from them since, I found the pizza to be only half edible.

    Speaking as a man of somewhat larger carriage (and an iron gut who eats just about anything), the idea that a pizza could be bad enough that I didn’t enjoy eating it.. and only got past one bit of the leftovers the next day before tossing it in the garbage, just amazes me. I hate wasting food and I couldn’t believe their new formula was so bad that my beloved cold pizza breakfast was ruined. :) I’ll leave the jury still out on this one and give them another try sometime. Maybe it was two flukes in a row.

    My point in bringing this up is even before I tried the new formula, I was groaning to myself whenever I saw the commercials. This was another kind of branding fail in my opinion. These ads weren’t saying “we made our stuff better”, it was a fabricated mea culpa saying “you’re right.. our stuff SUCKED… now it’s better, we’re sorry”.

    You aren’t the king of the pizza delivery business for a bazillion years with crappy pizza. Objectively speaking (to me), the pizza was far from crap. I’ve had better, but it was a good solid product. The fail for me is what the commercials said between the lines to me. The message I got was: “We’re looking for something to make you pay attention, so we’re going to listen to a handful of the most vocal malcontents and change things based on the lowest common denominator’s opinion of our product.”

    Screw that. Have some faith in your own product and have some faith in your ability to improve. It’s fine if you want to test market new ideas, but don’t tell me you’re going to listen to someone who honestly thought the crust tasted like cardboard and the sauce tasted like ketchup. Those people obviously have no freakin clue what they’re talking about. Either that or maybe their local Domino’s franchise WAS using ketchup and cardboard. Who knows. Either way, I lost a lot of respect for Domino’s as a corporation if they seriously made a decision like that and it’s not a marketing ploy to just say “try us again.. we’ve changed”.

  4. Great list Sherice.

    To the example James added, Bayer (the aspirin makers) now make pesticides. Seems like a really odd mix to me.

    The other blunder I can think of is whatever Burger King is doing with it’s commercials with “The King”. I’ll call it a category of “Insulting Our Intelligence”. There may be a better term.

  5. In a nutshell you need to know the pulse of the market.

  6. Hi

    Very intersting compilation. As an expert in the elected cars world, I have also seen a lot of products designed to fail from the very beginning. Tesla in this case is like apple, making a lot of good things.

    Thank you


    • There one of the few companies in that industry that do incredibly well because of both performance and design.


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