Top Marketing #FAILs of 2012

17 Marketers Look Back at 2012

While marketing made significant gains in 2012 in terms of social media, content marketing and mobile, not every campaign was a winner. There were notable marketing #FAILs in 2012.

Based on how effectively a marketing campaign’s executed, there’s a range of potential results from excellent to poor. But to fail in today’s always-on, connected social media ecosystem means the marketer is tone deaf to what’s happening in the world or hasn’t focused on the appropriate elements of their marketing plan.

Here’s what seventeen top marketers viewed as the top marketing #FAILs of 2012.

  1. The U.S. Olympic Committee supplying Team USA’s athletes with Ralph Lauren uniforms made in China was particularly shortsighted. This happened during an election year where there was constant conversation about bringing back more manufacturing to America to lower unemployment. This should have been avoided, it was an unfortunate distraction from the inspiring American performances at the Games, and it’s a reminder that brands must think about every detail. David Berkowitz – 360i, @DBerkowitz
  2. The biggest marketing fail is that we continue to talk about marketing tactics “dying” and that we continue to treat social media ROI as something that simply cannot be figured. Marjorie Clayman – Clayman Marketing Communications, @margieclayman
  3. The top three marketing fails of 2012 were:
    • Facebook’s IPO. It revealed that, despite full access to the social media platform’s data, the management and its underwriting bank priced the stock without understanding the implications of the business. It was a mature business with limited potential for growth in revenue generating markets.
    • Political campaigns. While Mitt Romney’s campaign was particularly tone deaf and didn’t understanding public sentiment, many political campaigns spent lots of money without building any coherent vision for the future or on-going party strength. As brands, both the Democrats and Republicans need to rethink their core beliefs and how they engage the public.
    • Tone-deaf companies. Companies used devastating storms and other high profile events to drive sales showing they didn’t understand social media, were oblivious to their core audience and their feelings, and had no sense of what’s required from a public organization.

    Heidi Cohen – Riverside Marketing Strategies, @HeidiCohen

  4. The biggest marketing fail of 2012 is the use of tragic events as a marketing hook. Companies like American Apparel tried to use the devastation of New York and New Jersey by Sandy to promote their sales. They backlash was huge within the social media echo chamber, but will probably have very little long term effect with the general public. Jeffrey L. CohenSalesforce Marketing Cloud (Radian 6), @JeffreyLCohen. Co-author of The B2B Social Media Book
  5. In 2012, it’s no longer okay to not pay attention to what people are saying about you, your company, or your brands on the social networks. Yet, too many organizations still had their heads in the sand when it came to social this year. That is a huge fail for any organization, no matter how they make their money. Gini Dietrich – Arment Dietrich, Inc., @GiniDietrich. Co-author of Marketing in the Round
  6. Not sure it was the most epic fail – but American Apparel’s Sandy Sale was pretty tasteless. Also, KitchenAid’s tweeting fiasco. Ann Handley – MarketingProfs, @MarketingProfs. Co-Author with C.C. Chapman of Content Rules
  7. An average 1 percent spend on mobile meant marketers did not capitalize on subscribers’ interest in interacting with brands. More than one third of mobile subscribers are interested in joining a mobile loyalty club, according to a Hipcricket consumer survey, but more than 7 in 10 have yet to be approached by a brand that they trust. Jeff HasenHipcricket, @JeffHasen. Author of Mobilized Marketing
  8. American Apparel’s Sandy sale was the biggest marketing fail of the year. The “Made in U.S.A.” clothing brand had a sale with the slogan, “In case you’re bored during the storm just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout.” Many consumers were outraged and offended by this marketing stunt, especially because of the many deaths and losses caused by the storm. Dave Kerpen – Likeable Media, @davekerpen. Author of  Likeable Business and Likeable Social Media
  9. It came late in the year: the NRA going quiet on Twitter and taking down its Facebook page after the Sandy Hook tragedy [Newtown, CT]. Whether you support this organization or not (and I emphatically do not), it is an extreme example of lack of preparedness, having a crisis policy or a triage process in place. If any organization was in a position to prepare for a worst-case scenario, it was this one. Clearly, they did not. Rebecca Lieb – Altimeter Group, @lieblink. Author of Content Marketing and The Truth About Search Engine Optimization
  10. Mitt Romney for President.
    Jon Mandell –
     1-800-Flowers.com, @jonmandell
  11. The biggest marketing fail or fails were those companies who paid the price for choosing to “game” search algorithms.  I understand the attraction given 2012 was a particularly difficult year for marketers who navigated a complicated media space with reduced resources.  So, it is tempting to seek solutions to quickly and cheaply scale marketing activities, including acquiring volumes of inexpensive site links to bolster organic search results. The brand that experienced the most painful public outing in the press over this activity was JCPenney but there were others.  Great SEO will never chase algorithms.  Google constantly adjusts algorithms to improve participant experience.  It is 2012 and search is one of the digital channels that has been around for some time now.  Marketers should know better. Daina Middleton – Performics.  Author of Marketing in the Participation Age 
  12. One of the most recent ones that come to mind is GAP promoting a sale during Hurricane Sandy. Other retailers also participated in some of this disgusting activity, but this tweet tends to stand out: ‘All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?’  **sigh**, shaking head. Pamela Muldoon – Next Stage Media Group, @PamelaMuldoon
  13. Newsweek magazine deciding to stop their print magazine.  Print is still a critical component and I believe the move was short sighted. Joe Pulizzi – Content Marketing Institute, @JuntaJoe. Author of Managing Content Marketing and Get Content Get Customers
  14. QR codes gone wild were a huge U.S. marketing fail in 2012. (See wtfqrcodes.com for entertaining examples.) Marketers totally forgot about serving business goals, adding value for users, and providing contextual assistance. Over 80% of codes I scanned (which was a lot) forgot to ensure scannability – discounting different barcode readers, mobile device camera capability [equates to sizing requirements], lighting/reflection impact on code contrast, WiFi availability, and more. Don’t get me wrong, mobile barcodes can be incredible tools for boosting conversion rates and user experience if used correctly. However, until companies have more mobile-friendly content that adds value to physical experiences, they should probably place their QR code marketing on hold. Lesson for marketers: Regardless of new channels or technology that may surface, remain steadfast to serving business objectives and providing value for your customers. Fail Runner-ups: Cheerios’ Facebook Page hijacked by Anti-GMO protestors, Chick-fil-A gay marriage controversy, Obama Spamalot emailsAngie Schottmuller – Search Engine Watch, @aschottmuller
  15. Belevedere comparing their vodka to rape. Peter Shankman – Shankman.com, @PeterShankman.  Author of Customer Service: New Rules for a Social Media World and Nice Companies Finish First
  16. Hmm. I would have to say the over-hyped IPO of Facebook. I think that was a marketing disaster.  Michael Stelzner – Social Media Examiner, @MikeStelzner. Author of Launch
  17. Too many marketers have suddenly become relegated to being ‘the people who bring in leads.’ Marketing has 4 P’s and there’s too many people stuck on Promotion. Product is where Marketing ultimately can add the most new value.  Todd Wheatland, @ToddWheatland. Author of The Marketer’s Guide to SlideShare

Examining this list of marketing #fails, you’ll see a combination of mainstream issues as well as targeted misses. What’s consistent across all of these issues is the fact that the company or organization lacked the understanding that they weren’t using marketing channels appropriately or communicating effectively with their target audience and the public. As a marketer, these are key to establishing your brand in the mind of your prospects and customers.

What did you consider the top marketing #FAIL of 2012 and why do you think so?

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen


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  • http://www.eBizROI.com Rick Noel, eBiz ROI, Inc.

    Excellent post Heidi. A great list of epic marketing fails that we can all learn from. I especially agree with Marjorie at number two. Saying that we can’t measure Social Media ROI is an excuse and attempt to dodge accountability and invest in analytics/human resources to use them. Like any other Internet marketing tactics, there are analytics tools that, when used with simplifying assumptions, can support the measurement and tracking of KPI’s, approximating ROI. Of course, that assumes that your social media goals are stated and measurable :-) Regarding Jeff’s point at #7, with only ~1% of aggregate US ad spend currently spent on mobile and mobile current enjoying a 7-10% personal media share, I couldn’t agree more that mobile was a missed marketing oppy in 2012. Both great oppys for 2013. Thanks for sharing.

  • AUDIOMIND

    “While Mitt Romney’s campaign was particularly tone deaf and didn’t understanding public sentiment…”
    How so?

  • http://twitter.com/aschottmuller Angie Schottmuller

    I forgot about the Belvedere Vodka spiel. That was appalling. Good call, @PeterShankman!

  • Brittany Yanos

    Isn’t it crazy what some social media marketers say?!? This is why social media can be so risky if you have the wrong person. Working with the Kaleidico Digital marketing team, I found how important social media can be and why it’s important to be careful to what you say, because it will definitely affect the customer.