Hubspot’s chief marketing officer, Mike Volpe, advises marketers to experiment creatively with their marketing. However, even the most creative marketing has to be tempered with some thoughtfulness. History has shown that many companies were perhaps a little too creative in their marketing, with efforts that cost sales and damaged reputations. While it’s always a good idea to learn from our mistakes, what better way to avoid making them than a glimpse at the world’s most popular brands’ marketing mishaps?

Here are several well-intentioned but disastrous marketing mishaps, along with tips on how you can avoid the same fate.

In this article:
H&M
McDonald’s
Dolce & Gabbana
Chick-fil-A
Snapchat
Miele
Heineken
Lockheed Martin

H&M

Campaign: In early 2018, H&M faced widespread backlash on social media when it featured a picture of a young African American boy in a green sweatshirt with the slogan, “coolest monkey in the jungle.” When Twitter users criticized the photo as insensitive and racist, H&M quickly removed the picture from its website, social media, and global product offerings. H&M apologized for the offensiveness of the image and promised to take steps to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Lessons Learned: It’s essential to consider the historical context and perspective of your audience when you’re designing advertisements or marketing materials. Whether or not H&M intended its post to be racially offensive, the criticism on social media damaged the company’s reputation and may have prompted otherwise loyal customers to shop elsewhere.

McDonald’s

Campaign: To promote a Halloween-themed ice cream dessert, a McDonald’s in Portugal created an ad with the headline “Sundae Bloody Sundae.” The phrase “Bloody Sunday” originally refers to a massacre that occurred in 1972, when British soldiers brutally killed fourteen unarmed Irish protesters. After an Irish customer in Portugal visited the McDonald’s store and complained about the ad on Twitter, McDonald’s promptly pulled the commercial and other materials featuring that slogan.

Lessons Learned: In this example, McDonald’s unwittingly referenced an event that disturbed its Irish customers. One of the main lessons here is to research historical events and holidays for their origin before you use them in your marketing and advertising materials. It’s also critical to realize that, even if your ad or promotion is only targeting a specific locale, individuals from any ethnic background or demographic group may see it. A good rule of thumb is to avoid referencing any violent and discriminatory historical events in your promotions.

Dolce & Gabbana

Campaign: Around mid-November 2018, Dolce & Gabbana, an Italian fashion company, ran a series of video ads on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, to promote an upcoming runway show in Shanghai. In the videos, an Asian woman wearing a Dolce & Gabbana dress attempts to eat pizza and cannoli with chopsticks. As Chinese folk music plays in the background, a male narrator mocks the Asian woman’s unsuccessful fumbling. Understandably, people angrily wrote about the belittling tone and demeaning messaging. The massive amount of backlash prompted the fashion company to cancel its Shanghai runway show.

Lessons Learned: While it’s okay to be creative and humorous, Dolce & Gabbana was downright condescending in its ads. Their messaging approach came off in a way that was demeaning and belittling, which caused a wave of exclusion. A good rule of thumb is: If you’re considering an ad that includes cultural perspectives, be sure to do your homework on any traditions or values. Do your due diligence to ensure you’re creating a message of inclusion and respect. 

Chick-fil-A

Campaign: National Sandwich Day is a great promotional opportunity for a company that specializes in making chicken sandwiches. In 2019, however, the holiday occurred on Sunday, when the Chick-fil-A’s doors were closed. After realizing its mistake of promoting National Sandwich Day, Chick-fil-A emailed a sheepish apology that reinforced its “closed on Sunday” policy and invited customers to their stores between Monday and Saturday.

Lessons Learned: One of the main lessons to take away from Chick-fil-A’s mistake is to be aware of the day on which your holiday promotions will fall and to make sure you’re open for business to serve customers who respond. 

Even more, this is a lesson in logistics. Beyond the days of the week or hours of the day, if you’re running a promotion, be sure you can pull through on every promise made to customers. Nothing is worse than committing to something that you’re unable to deliver on. It leaves a bad taste (pun intended) in the mouths of customers and does more harm than good. Note: Not all press is good press — especially when there are brands around every corner, just waiting for their competitors’ marketing mishaps. 

Snapchat

Campaign: If you’re involved in your company’s marketing strategy,  you’ve most likely heard of influencer marketing. Companies increasingly use influencers to strategically promote their products in a way that’s authentic and more appealing to their target customers. For example, Snapchat’s PR agency, PRC, hired Instagram influencer Luka Sabbat to promote Snapchat’s new product, Spectacles. Specifically, Sabbat was to feature Spectacles in one Instagram feed post and three Instagram stories of him wearing the glasses in New York, Milan, and Paris during their fashion weeks. Before posting, Sabbat was to send his Instagram posts to PRC for approval, then submit analytics for each promotional post within 24 hours.

Although Sabbat did create one Instagram feed post and one story post, he failed to submit posts to PRC for pre-publish approval and didn’t provide post analytics to PRC within the 24-hour timeframe. Sabbat’s failed performance prompted PRC to sue Sabbat and demand that he repay the $45,000 they initially paid for the Instagram promotion (though Snapchat has stated it is uninvolved with this action).

Lessons Learned: This failed performance highlights the importance of establishing a mutual understanding between you and any influencers you hire to promote your company or products. As in the case of Sabbat, misunderstandings and a lack of collaboration can be costly for everyone involved. It’s also important to note that when dealing with partnerships, you should always draw up co-branding agreements to cover all of your bases. 

Miele

Campaign: For International Women’s Day in 2018, Miele, a household appliance manufacturer, posted a picture of four women excited about their washers and dryers. The caption read, “May all women remember to embrace what makes them unique.” However, women on Facebook didn’t appreciate being told to embrace their uniqueness by fulfilling a dated stereotype. Miele soon removed the offending post.

Lessons Learned: The main lesson here? Be sure to avoid reinforcing stereotypes in your social media posts. Especially considering today’s evolving landscape of neutral and fluid identities, you have a better chance of winning customers over with forward-thinking, inclusive attitudes. 

Heineken

Campaign: In a 2018 promotional push, Heineken ran an ad depicting a bartender sliding a bottle of Heineken Light past three African Americans to a light-skinned woman. Accompanying this visual background was the slogan, “Sometimes lighter is better.” Chance the Rapper described the ad as being racist, a reaction shared by his more than 7 million followers. Facing this backlash, Heineken quickly pulled the ad and apologized for its offensiveness.

Similar to H&M, Heineken created their promotions without considering possible misinterpretations. Where Heineken’s story differs, however, is in how they apologized for the post’s offensive nature. Following the outrage on social media, a spokesperson for Heineken stated that although “… we feel the ad is referencing our Heineken Light beer, we missed the mark and are taking the feedback to heart ….” The first part of this apology seems to indicate that Heineken doesn’t understand why the ad was offensive.

Lessons Learned: If things do go awry, it’s better to fully own the marketing mishaps than to offer half apologies. To recover from these mistakes, you’ll need to understand the why behind the issue and identify how to prevent it in the future.  Be sure to clearly express that understanding in your follow-up statements.

Lockheed Martin

Campaign: Companies often encourage their followers to tag them in their social media posts to drive brand awareness, but it doesn’t always go well. In August 2018, Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defense technology company, encouraged Twitter users to tag them in its photos for a chance to appear in a post for World Photo Day. The effort backfired when people began tagging the company in pictures of bomb fragments and other war-themed violence. Lockheed removed the post a couple of hours later.

Lessons Learned: This failed post was right on the heels of an article describing how a bomb made by Lockheed Martin had destroyed a school bus in Yemen. The biggest takeaways here are to be aware of current world events and to avoid vague tagging invitations on social media.

What Can You Do to Avoid Marketing Mishaps?

These eight marketing mishaps serve as a cautionary tale for anyone involved, at any level, in direct-to-consumer (D2C) marketing. While millions of companies have successful social media campaigns, it only takes one misstep to damage trust. Consider possible misinterpretations of your ads and be aware of noteworthy events that may relate to your company.

Jaime Lee
Author