What can we learn from the world's worst branding decisions?

Sometimes you see a car crash campaign and think, how on earth was this ever okayed? Branding mistakes are ten-a-penny in the world of business, and they tend to be more prevalent when companies are trying to market their product or business internationally. 

Creating a successful brand that’s known the world over is the goal of most businesses. Recognising the Uber logo in Beirut, or the McDonald’s golden arch in Nepal means your brand has globalised and, by virtue of being well-known, appears to be a dependable option.

Some of the world’s biggest branding mistakes have had costly and damaging consequences. The business becomes known as the joke brand, and one thing that’s hardest to then re-influence is consumer memory.

Take Clairol’s launch of their curling hair product in Germany, the mist-stick. German speakers among you will know that mist is German for manure. So, thanks to some poor branding decisions, Clairol was trying to sell a poo-stick to consumers, which doesn’t get anyone’s heart a-thumpin’. There have been many examples of failed marketing as products have tried to branch out to China - when Mercedes Benz launched in China they did so under the name, Bensi. In China, that means ‘rush to die’ which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to market a fast car.

My favourite? The American Dairy Association translated its famous ‘Got Milk’ campaign into Spanish, which was translated and marketed as “Are you lactating?” If enormous brands make these mistakes, then small businesses and entrepreneurs must be doomed. Right?

The reality is big business can be stubborn and unswayed by their confidence and cockiness. They have all the marketing guys, and all the budget - it seems crazy that they’d make such big mistakes. But when larger companies can be more careless, SMEs really can’t afford to be.

Before working out the branding for your product, try looking at it with your blinkers off, with fresh eyes. Does your logo look like genitalia for example, as Airbnb’s was purported to? Does it look similar to anyone else’s logo, font, or brand name? If so, beware copyright law. Tagline, marketing design, the logo, and other visual branding can work to make or break the brand.

Read more: Mistakes brands make when growing globally

As David Ogilvy,  the proclaimed father of modern advertising, once said, "It’s useless to be a creative, original, thinker, unless you can also sell what you create."

Jade Sarkhel, PR and brand manager at Charlotte’s Group, advises SMEs to start with how you would like people to feel when they interact with your brand. "What kind of ‘person’ would your brand be. As an example when developing the Charlotte’s Group Brand we wanted people to feel inspired, motivated, influenced, trusting, like there are opportunities, positive. Then, based on these “feelings” you think about colours, shapes, textures, fonts that trigger those feelings and emotions and what well-known brands out there are already associated with those words."

Making sure your product is better than others on the market doesn’t matter a jot if you can’t get your branding right. The Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix were exactly the same car, except the Pontiac Vibe was cheaper - yet, which car do you think was most successful? The Pontiac stopped retailing in 2010, as Toyota continued to steamroller through the low to midrange automobile market. This is because of brand trust and recognition, something that cannot be underestimated by SMEs.

It’s equally as important to focus to the type of language used when marketing your brand. Previous examples showed that poor translation is often to blame for marketing fails, but what about when the brand completely fails to take recent events into consideration? In 2014, Malaysia Airlines was hit by two of the worst aviation disasters in recent history. Yet, they still thought it was completely appropriate to bring out an advertising campaign called “my ultimate bucket list competition”. It invited an enormous amount of anger from people who thought it was completely insensitive, seeing as bucket list is normally associated with things you do before you die.

Paying attention to current events, current feeling, and current political emotions can help not only avoid painfully awkward campaigns, but also can help brands succeed and get noticed. For example, let’s take Walmart’s horrendous faux-pas when they advertised “Fat girl Halloween costumes”, which were basically outfits for the larger lady. If they’d been paying any attention at all to the current climate whoever did the content for the website would have realised such blatant descriptions are not on in our “body proud, feminist arena”. Times have changed. You’d no more call a girl fat, than use a derogatory word to describe somebody’s skin colour or sexual orientation.

When branding your company, whether you’re doing that digitally through a social media campaign, or physically, using a logo, understanding why brands in the past have failed is crucial. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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