Cautionary tales of #brandfail

Whilst products are tangible and robust, brands are not. They're fragile and ethereal and rely on emotional ties that need to be handled with care.

Speaking to a group of business leaders at the CBI recently, Anna Donaghey, Bray Leino’s Head of Planning, examined what happens when the emotional bond between consumer and brand goes awry.

We trust brands to deliver. We trust them to behave according to the values they espouse. Sometimes that trust is broken.

This concept of trust applies equally in the B2C and B2B sectors. If anything, it’s more crucial in the latter as professional reputations and even careers are factors in B2B purchase decisions.

So why ‘cautionary tales’? The beauty of hindsight means it’s easy to learn from tales of misfortune. Failure is often so much easier to understand than success. And to illustrate this, Anna provided some classic examples:

New Coke

First up, one of the most notorious examples of #brandfail. In the early 1980s Coca-Cola was losing ground to Pepsi, who, with their silver and blue branding and Taste Challenge, were criss-crossing America proving they were the country’s best tasting cola.

In 1985, in a spasm of logic, Coca-Cola relaunched with a sweeter recipe as New Coke. Despite consumer taste tests indicating people preferred the new recipe, the move immediately backfired, to put it mildly.

Coca-Cola represented an eternal slice of Americana. Consumers felt betrayed by New Coke, and weren’t shy about voicing their disapproval. After 77 days of national debate and rejection, the company announced a return to the original formula.

That we’re still talking about it today is evidence of how brilliant an example it is of what not to do. The irony of relaunching Coca-Cola, a timeless brand, an unchanging foundation of US cultural identity, part of the fabric of the American Dream, as New Coke is now plain to see.

Successful brands understand what they represent and enshrine those values as sacrosanct within the business. That certainty creates the confidence to stand firm, but on this occasion Coca-Cola found themselves dragged into Pepsi’s game. #brandfail

Harley Davidson

Another iconic brand with one of the most loyal and evangelical customer bases anywhere; it’s fanboys (and girls) love the authenticity and masculinity that the Harley Davidson badge, machinery, sound, lifestyle, look and attitude it represents. But how do you harness and monetise this brilliant brand equity? Not like this…

In the late-1990s Harley Davidson decided that the time was right to diversify. They invested in high street shops and a huge range of brand extensions – including household ornaments, perfume, socks and underwear, to name just a few.

But the move rang a bum note with the brand’s loyal customer base. Harley Davidson baby grows and eau de toilettes had a monumentally negative effect on the toughness and mystique that the brand had come to represent. This ‘Disney-fication’ of the brand burst a bubble, effectively evaporating its aspirational and mysterious soul.

Consumers were not reticent about sharing their views, and after a couple of years in high street retail, the business decided to “focus our attention, move boldly and do the right things for our future”, which translated as ditching the majority of its retail lines and concentrating on the things that made them great; big, manly, rugged, noisy motorbikes.

Your values, alongside regular checks on what your customers believe to be your strengths, should constitute the decision making compass for your brand. Harley Davidson fell into the trap of overestimating the importance of their role in people’s lives. They abused and diluted the deep loyalty consumers felt for the brand. #brandfail


Two of the key values of VW, as stated by the brand itself, are ‘responsibility’ and ‘sustainability’. The consequent irony of the recent emissions testing scandal, that’s got auto manufacturers across the world looking nervously at their own testing protocols, will, unfortunately for VW, forever be associated with their brand.

How do you recognise a potentially damaging PR crisis? Are people talking about it? Do those people know more about it than you? Will the public and media be outraged enough for it to scale-up?

For VW, the answers to all these questions were ‘yes, definitely’, indicating a high likelihood of massive crisis. But, armed with this insight, they still let the Environmental Protection Agency break the news. They surrendered ownership of the story and with it any chance to salvage their honesty and integrity.

This was compounded by a series of statements playing down the company’s responsibility for the scandal, laying the blame at the feet of a few rogue engineers. As more details emerged and it became clear this wasn’t the case, the crisis unfolded in the worst possible way for a brand that looked like it was optimistically casting out in search of a scapegoat.

This story is still yet to play out fully; hindsight will inevitably deliver further lessons from this classic brand fail. But as of now for VW, it’s meant a failure to live by the values they espouse, from the most senior executive all the way to the most junior member of staff; a failure of honesty, transparency and the inability to recognise and deal decisively with problems early on. #brandfail

Avoiding #brandfail

It’s always useful to revisit tales of woe like these for their cautionary value. Again and again, they teach us valuable lessons to avoid your own #brandfail:

  • Have a clear brand vision – everyone in the business should know where you’re going and what needs to happen for you to get there.
  • And a brand proposition – it’s easy to say what you do, but it’s also important to be able to clearly articulate why you do what you do. This is as important to your people internally as it is to your audience.
  • Brand guidelines – be clear about how your brand behaves; what it says, what it sounds like and what it doesn’t sound like.
  • Social media guidelines – the potential for instant brand damage on social media is massively tempered when people have a clear set of guidelines on how to accurately represent your brand there. Also…
  • Crisis management – learn how to spot an embryonic crisis, especially on social media or in the industry. How you react (or not) in the first moments will have massive implications on how it plays out.
  • Internal comms and business buy in – when everyone, and we mean everyone, clearly understands all the brand values, are engaged in the vision and live the proposition in their work, the probability of #brandfail decreases dramatically.

Anna Donaghey is Bray Leino's Head of Planning

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