10 Most Memorable Branding Fails of All Time

The Ad That Broke the Internet

On Nov. 21, 2019, popular fitness startup Peloton released a 30-second holiday-themed ad for its high-end stationary bike that rubbed people the wrong way. The ad, entitled “The Gift That Gives Back,” depicts a woman receiving a Peloton bike for Christmas from her husband and then chronicling her use of the bike.

Nearly two weeks later, on Dec. 2, the Internet was on fire after word got around about Peloton’s commercial—which, through social media platforms such as Twitter, was largely blasted as “sexist” and even “dystopian.”

One day later, on Dec. 3, Peloton’s stock dropped 9%. In a few more days, the dip reached 15%. The buzz around town was Peloton’s “The Gift That Gives Back” ad was a branding disaster and that the company needed to fix its branding message and fast.

However, Peloton isn’t the only brand to see negative reactions to its marketing. We looked at 10 memorable branding fails that got an overwhelmingly negative response from the public and sent CEOs scrambling. We researched branding fails across the decades as well as in different industries to share brand selections that exhibited memorable and interesting moments in advertising.

Read Also: How To Use Colors In Marketing And Branding

10. EA Gives Away Illegal Brass Knuckles

EA Gives Away Illegal Brass Knuckles

In 2009, Electronic Arts (EA) promoted the launch of their “Godfather II” video game by sending actual brass knuckles to the media, which was undoubtedly a memorable bit of swag. Unfortunately for EA, brass knuckles are illegal in several states in the United States, including California, which is the home of EA. Once realizing the potentially unlawful blunder, EA sent polite messages to each of the press contacts asking for the knuckles back. While on paper, “The Godfather,” violence, and brass knuckles all made sense as a marketing idea, the perceived violence of the giveaway made the company appear reckless, which is not a great look to investors.

9. Heinz’s ‘Hot’ QR Code Fiasco

Heinz’s ‘Hot’ QR Code Fiasco

It was 2015, and the quick response (QR) code craze was in full swing. Ketchup king Heinz had the perfect marketing gimmick using the hip scannable codes, allowing consumers to access a website where they could design their own Heinz labels. Unfortunately, one German ketchup-lover discovered to his amusement that the QR code on his bottle led not to Heinz, but to a pornographic site. The culprit turned out to be a lapsed registration on a URL, which was subsequently used by an adult website. Heinz issued an apology and sent the eagle-eyed customer a free bottle of their product. When relatively wholesome Heinz Ketchup gets associated with porn, a serious branding blunder has occurred.

8. Amazon’s ‘Nazi Makeover’ of NYC Subways

Amazon’s ‘Nazi Makeover’ of NYC Subways

New Yorkers were in for a shock when they entered a subway car plastered with Nazi insignia advertisements. Amazon made this happen in 2015 as a viral marketing campaign for their new TV show “The Man In The High Castle,” about an alternate reality where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II. New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped in swiftly and denounced Amazon’s ad campaign, declaring, “It’s despicable … I’m asking the company to take it down. If the company doesn’t take it down, I’ll direct the MTA to remove it.” Unsurprisingly, the ads were removed. Amazon never addressed the controversy directly but noted that the TV show was “thought-provoking.” Was this a branding fail or only part of a bigger viral win for the media giant? Because the show went on to have four successful seasons, some may argue that this stunt was just the right sneak peek to generate interest in the series.

7. IHOP’s ‘Misogynist’ Pancakes

IHOP’s ‘Misogynist’ Pancakes

Comparing your company’s product to a part of the female anatomy may indeed lead to a branding failure. Much of the public was questioning what IHOP was thinking when in 2015, they approved a tweet that not only made such a risque comparison but wrapped it up in a sexist sentiment to boot. The tweet in question featured a delicious-looking stack of pancakes with a seemingly strategically placed round pat of butter in the center and the phrase “flat but has a GREAT personality.” You may be shocked to discover that not only did this not go down well in Twitterland, but many news articles were written on the kerfuffle. The company deleted the offensive message and added this apology, “Earlier today, we tweeted something dumb and immature that does not reflect what IHOP stands for.”

6. Burger King’s Creepy Mascot

Burger King’s Creepy Mascot

Some branding fails are swift and spectacular, like Amazon’s Nazi subway “takeover” or IHOP’s tasteless tweet. Other fails, however, are like a slow burn over numerous ill-conceived marketing campaigns. A case in point is Burger King’s perpetually smiling “King” mascot, which made its commercial debut in 2004. While rival Ronald McDonald at least had some personality, the King was just a faceless person in a plastic “The Purge”-style mask. The off-putting ads, which featured the intimidating mascot suddenly popping up out of nowhere to offer burgers, ran for seven years. Finally, in 2011, the King was seemingly retired, Burger King Chief Financial Officer Josh Kobza explained that the character “scared away women and children” from the chain. Despite the costume’s creepiness, perhaps the campaign did pay off for the fast-food giant, as the Burger King returned in 2015 for a couple of publicity stunts and lives on in meme-land to this day.

5. Starbucks’ Unintentional 9/11 Reference

Starbucks’ Unintentional 9/11 Reference

Then there are the branding fails that seem to suffer from bad timing and possible mass hysteria as in this 2002 Starbucks poster ad for their new TAZO citrus drinks. Do you see a reference to the 9/11 tragedy in the above poster, with the drinks being the towers and the insects the planes? Many internet users did, some coupling their interpretation with outrage over a true story regarding the coffee chain charging 9/11 response workers for water. Now, would Starbucks purposely use imagery from a mass disaster to sell tangy frozen beverages? It seems very unlikely. However, this is precisely what some people accused them of, and the company subsequently pulled the ads. As for how a business can avoid such unintentional gaffes in the future, perhaps utilize some very imaginative focus groups?

4. Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ‘Protest’

Kendal enner’s Pepsi “Protest”

This 2017 Pepsi ad starring model and reality star Kendall Jenner created waves for the soft drink giant right out of the gate. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding.” was the company’s official statement after pulling the ad. The ad titled “Live for Now,” juxtaposes images of a truly generic outdoor protest―with placards declaring “Join the Conversation” and, simply, “LOVE”―with a glamorous Jenner fashion photoshoot. Wondering what all the hubbub is about, Jenner suddenly becomes “woke,” pulls off her blond wig, and decides to get involved. Exactly how does she choose to participate in a said protest? By giving the appropriately stone-faced cops a can of Pepsi, which provokes all the protesters to stop what they are doing and cheer. The commercial was widely criticized for trivializing social protests in general and appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, to selling a soft drink, and the ad was pulled.

3. The Beatles’ ‘Dead Babies’ Cover

The Beatles’ ‘Dead Babies’ Cover

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of classic bad branding is the original cover for the 1966 Beatles album “Yesterday And Today.” What happens when you take the most significant entertainment phenomenon since Elvis Presley and add blood-smeared butcher smocks, chunks of raw meat, and decapitated baby dolls? You get unhappy record dealers who don’t want to carry your product. Portraying the Fab Four as a bunch of child butchers was not received well by the record industry. The concept came from the album cover’s artist Robert Whitaker, who had a love for the dark and surreal, as well as the enviable status of being one of the Beatles’ favorite photographers. The reaction to the “Yesterday And Today” cover was overwhelmingly negative, with many record dealers refusing to carry the album. A recall was made, with a new, tamer cover being pasted over the offending original and redistributed to stores. Perhaps we can let the late George Harrison have the final word on this branding fail: “I thought it was gross, and I also thought it was stupid.” Enough said.

2. Nivea’s ‘White Is Purity’ Campaign

Nivea’s ‘White Is Purity’ Campaign

As noted in the Starbucks “Collapse into Cool” example, the public sometimes has an entirely different interpretation of an ad than the brand’s ad creator. The marketing team at German skin cream giant Nivea missed catching that their 2017 slogan “White Is Purity” might have racist overtones. To make the marketing campaign even more awkward, it was first launched in the Middle East, to populations with generally darker skin complexions. An international social media furor ensued, condemning Nivea for being racist and insensitive. In perhaps the most extreme case of unwanted praise, a white nationalist group left the following message on the company’s Facebook page: “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.” Nivea pulled the ad and apologized for the misleading post in a statement.

1. New Coke: A Branding Tragedy

New Coke: A Branding Tragedy

Although “New Coke,” the Coca-Cola Company’s 1985 reformulation of its original popular brand, actually tasted pretty good―according to many Coca-Cola drinkers―the public couldn’t accept the concept. As any marketing scholar can tell you, it’s not just the product itself that’s being sold but, rather, a whole set of associations, memories, feelings, and other variables. A brand that fails to take this collection of different purchasing reasons into account is taking a huge risk. Although the company ostensibly launched New Coke as a reaction to losing market share in the very competitive beverage industry, the overall public reaction was so horrified at losing what was considered an American institution that, within three months, the original Coca-Cola returned to shelves. Is this a case of one of the biggest branding blunders of all time? Was it a sly bait-and-switch marketing ploy designed to “scare” the public into having renewed loyalty for the original soft drink? While the myth-busting site Snopes has declared the “New Coke Conspiracy” theory to be false, it would have been a genius marketing move. The theory wouldn’t exist, of course, if the failure of New Coke didn’t bring about such a big win for Classic Coke in the end.

Branding Events: The Stock Market Journey

How much of an impact does negative or positive branding have on a company’s stock market price? We’ve traced the stock market fluctuations of three companies through their significant branding “events”:

Peloton stock market holyday reaction
pepsi stock change
Nivea white is purity ad spock change

Branding By the Numbers

Branding is big business, with billions spent each year. A branding fail can tank market share or hardly make a dent. We looked at some branding spends across major brands we discuss in this article.

The cola marketing spends 2018
Pepsi's gains despite controversy
Peloton's aggressive marketing
1985's new coke by the numbers

The Ad That Broke the Internet – Revisited

Did “The Gift That Gives Back” hurt Peloton? In the long term, it is unlikely it did. While its stocks did dip in the immediate aftermath of the online controversy, they started recovering by the end of that week (closing 5% higher). Several members of their customer base came to the company’s defense when the controversy hit, exposing their fierce loyalty to the product. While the ad on YouTube, at the time of this writing, has a ratio of 25,000 dislikes to 23,000 likes, the company itself only has around 17,000 subscribers. Therefore, it is safe to say that not all the people bashing Peloton were Peloton customers—and that the ad may have made more people notice the brand overall.

“With the court of public opinion being so readily and immediately accessible through social media, brands face a delicate balance between listening and responding to the public when they may have made a misstep and not letting a vocal majority—who may not be their actual target audience—dictate the life or death of their campaign.”
—Justin Hooper, chief commercial officer (CCO) & founder of Undynable, a creative agency that specializes in branding strategies and ad campaigns

While branding might seem at first to be just another fancy marketing buzzword, it’s one of the most fundamental elements of a business. Companies spend millions of dollars to establish a unique position and image in the marketplace. Included in that process is the creation of names, logos, designs, symbols, advertisements, and messaging.

Focusing on a brand is an indispensable method of gaining a competitive edge in one’s market. By maximizing product recognition, a company increases the opportunity not only for sales but for repeat customers as well. As a company’s branding evolves and takes hold of the public imagination, these repeat customers have the potential to become loyal customers and brand ambassadors.

Flirting with controversy can be a risky branding strategy for a company (the New Coke Conspiracy be damned). In our viral and social-media-crazed world, releasing ads shouldn’t be taken lightly by any company. The way something can be misinterpreted by the public easily should be under consideration before any release. As we’ve seen in the cases of Coca-Cola, Peloton, and so many other companies, there is much more going on with branding than just what’s on the surface.

Ruben Harutyunyan

Back to top