Major Corporate Branding Disasters; Lessons To Learn

| 5 min read
Corporate PR Disasters

The public relations arena is murky with twists and turns that can make even the most innocent or well-meaning message a company puts out there a branding disaster. This calls for companies to be cautious and learn important lessons from other companies that have made branding mistakes. Below are some of the companies whose branding disasters shook the world and resulted in serious backlashes for the companies involved.

The Infamous Pepsi Advertisement

Pepsi protest ad disaster

Pepsi ran an ad featuring model and socialite Kendall Jenner where she leaves a photoshoot and joins a protest. She then manages to quell the situation and promote peace by handing one of the anti-protest police unit officer a can of Pepsi. The ad triggered widespread criticism from viewers who feel that the Pepsi ad makes a mockery of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

The criticism was driven further by celebs and famous personalities who gave their sentiments on the ad, including Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. She tweeted, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi”. Pepsi did not make the matter any better by trying to defend its obvious tone-deaf ad. “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey,” they said. The backlash continued, making the brand trend on various platforms for the wrong reasons. Eventually, Pepsi did the right thing and pulled it down and admitted that it had missed the mark.

Lesson: When your brand makes a mistake, own up immediately and apologize.  Do not try to justify it.

United Airlines Passenger Removal

united airlines pr nightmare

Everyone who saw the video of a passenger on a plane being violently dragged out was not only shocked but was also enraged.  First, it was not the man’s fault that the airline had overbooked its passengers. Usually, the first step is to offer an inducement to the extra passengers in the form of cash or free hotel rooms. In this case, this did not work and the passenger, randomly chosen among others to leave the plane, refused to leave. Security personnel then forcibly dragged him down the plane’s aisle with blood visibly oozing from a wound on his head.

At first, the airline made a half-hearted apology by the CEO, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers”. The ensuing intense backlash made the company own up and take full responsibility for its own shortcomings and issue another statement which stated, “We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.” However, the damage had already been done. United Airlines’ consumer perception reportedly dropped significantly.  

Lesson: Violence should never be an option when engaging customers. It doesn’t matter who is in the wrong, the brand will always suffer. Also, take ownership of mistakes and make genuine apologies to the public.

Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Reckless  Article Headline

cosmopolitan terrible weight loss headline

Sometimes, brands understand the potential of certain topics to generate clicks and drive engagement. One such topic is weight issues. You are guaranteed to have many women clicking on an article that promises instant or magical weight-loss tips, or so Cosmopolitan thought. The magazine tweeted an article whose tabloid-like headline read, “ How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds without *ANY* Exercise.” In real sense, the woman lost weight over a short period of time due to a rare cancer she was suffering from. The backlash on Cosmopolitan came quick and hard, making the magazine rephrase the title to, “A Serious Health Scare Helped Me Love My Body More than Ever”. Readers were, however, waiting for an apology for the tactless headline, but none came. Cosmopolitan moved on like they had just made a typing error. The public sure will never forget this insensitivity that has forever smeared the magazine in their eyes.

Lesson: Be sensitive to your target audience’s needs and perceptions.

Ratner’s Crappy Comment

Ratner full of crap pr disaster

Gerald Ratner’s unpopular comment gave rise to the phrase “doing a Ratner”. Ratner’s family-run jewellery business was scaling the heights of success and the stock market in the 1980s. The company had a network of close to 900 high-street shops and a clientele that included A-list personalities. During a business dinner in 1991, he did the very first Ratner by attributing the fact that he could sell commodities at very low prices to the idea that ‘they were total crap’. Tabloids had a field day creating a bad publicity storm that saw the company lose millions and Ratner, well, he consequently lost his job. The company also did away with the once-mighty Ratner family name, which now only resides in history.

Lesson: Keep those unpleasant views about your brand to yourself.

It is clear that someone in the companies above missed a mark and caused the brands resources and public perception. great lessons for stakeholders in companies to remember when ideating brand campaigns; it only takes one wrong move to bring a brand down. Should this happen, however, it is possible to fix it by being authentic and sensitive. The public honours authenticity and genuine concern to make things right.



Doreen Mueke
Doreen is the Senior Content Marketer at Ringier One Africa Media.


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