Biggest marketing fails of 2014: Apple, Coors and more

Bad luck, bad judgment and horrendous timing turned some creative marketing campaigns into PR disasters this year. Dianne Buckner rounds up of some of the more remarkable ones.

Bold campaigns capture attention, sometimes for the wrong reasons

Bold campaigns from Apple, Coors, Target and others capture attention, sometimes for the wrong reasons 2:26

Bad luck, bad judgment and horrendous timing turned some creative marketing campaigns into PR disasters this year. Here’s a roundup of some of the more remarkable ones.

Apple pays $100M to gift customers with U2's first recording in 5 years

Result: Customer fury and the need for a 'removal button.'

Apple CEO Tim Cook took to the stage with Irish rockers U2 in September, announcing that all half-a-billion iTunes subscribers would be getting the band’s new Songs of Innocence recording for free, as a gift.    

But Bono cheekily pointed out someone would have to pay, and it would be Apple. “We’re not going in for the free music around here,” he declared, while the crowd laughed.

No one was laughing a few days later when the folly of the gesture became evident. Many customers didn’t appreciate that the company loaded their personal devices with unwanted music, without permission. Some young users didn’t even know the band. American rapper Tyler the Creator likened the discovery of the record to waking up to a pimple or a venereal disease.

The fiasco wound down after Apple created a special button to remove the songs, and Bono apologized via a Facebook Q&A session for fans. "Oops, sorry about that," he said, sounding quite sincere and rather embarrassed.

Some analysts commented that the $100-million US pricetag was just a drop in the bucket to Apple (which had $155 billion in cash reserves at last count), but the incident surely put a dent in the company's renowned cool factor.

Coors Light search and rescue campaign

Result: Snarled traffic in downtown Toronto and nasty tweets on social media

A Coors Light publicity stunt involved leaving suitcases around Canadian urban centres, but the campaign was a bust in Toronto, when one of the packages was flagged as suspicious. The resulting police investigation caused traffic mayhem. (CBC)

It seemed like a good idea at the time:  a Coors Light campaign would "rescue" Canadians from a dull summer by planting prize-filled briefcases all over the country. Finders would tweet a picture of themselves and add a code to collect the loot.  

But when a police officer noticed a case attached to a metal railing in downtown Toronto, a fun marketing idea turned into transit hell. Traffic was frozen as police investigated.  

"Awesome. You're the reason it took me an extra 20 minutes to get home from work. I'll continue avoiding your beer," tweeted one peeved commuter. "How did it not occur to anyone that this might be an unwise idea?" demanded another.

Forest Kenney of Molson Coors says the company did alert local police across the country about the promotion well ahead of time, but the police officer who noticed the briefcase was off-duty, and apparently not in the loop. The company quickly moved the contest to one that could be better controlled at bars.

Kenney deemed the promotion a success in some ways. “People were excited about it,” he told CBC News. “For quite a few people outside the City of Toronto, the program will be remembered in a good way."

Marketing prof tracks marketing fails 

David Soberman teaches marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, and takes note when these sorts of marketing disasters happen. He tells his students that high-achieving companies take risks.

“If you go for the low risk, conservative approach, you do what everyone else is doing, and then your product isn’t differentiated. It doesn’t stand out. Marketing is all about standing out,” Soberman says.

But what about when companies stand out for the wrong reasons? Can their brand be damaged?

“Most of these situations create a temporary lack of confidence and trust in the company, and usually the company has to make an effort to regain confidence of the consumers,” says Soberman. “In the long term you really have to have what I would call a repeated pattern of making mistakes to do lasting damage.”

Lenovo Canada mistakenly advertises a $1,400 laptop for $279  

Result: Thousands of disappointed customers complain to Competition Bureau, and term the disaster 'Lenovo-gate'

Lenovo disappointed customers after mistakenly advertising a laptop for sale for $279. The company refused to sell the devices at that price, which resulted in a complaint to the Competition Bureau. (Ron Harris/Associated Press)

It was bad enough that thousands of Canadians paid for the laptop, only to have their orders cancelled. But then the May 2014 offer remained on the website for 48 hours after it was flagged.

One disappointed buyer told CBC News at the time “considering they’re a computer company, I’m pretty sure their IT department should have been able to fix this, not taken two days.”  

Outrage built to the point where a formal complaint was made to the Competition Bureau. An online petition at demanding that the company honour the low price drew 6,000 signatures, but Lenovo was unmoved. The most it would do was to offer an apology and a $100 discount towards the next purchase made by affected customers.  

Perhaps most galling, it was the second such pricing error of 2014 at the Chinese computer maker. In March, Lenovo’s S5000 tablet had been advertised in China at 50 per cent off. In that case, the company gave 110,000 buyers the deal.  No such luck in Canada.

Malaysian Airlines' My Ultimate Bucket List Contest

Result: The most colossal what-were-they-thinking moment of 2014

An advertisement for Malaysian Airlines' bucket list contest. Many deemed the contest in poor taste as the airline company had had recently lost two plane loads of passengers. (CBC)

You’d think the marketing team at Malaysian Airlines would have avoided any association with death when designing a new promotion, given that hundreds of passengers lost their lives on two hugely publicized and tragic flights.

But no. Somehow a contest called My Ultimate Bucket List got off the drawing board and into public view. Pundits were appalled that the airline would use the phrase “bucket list,” since it’s widely used to refer to the list of activities people want to enjoy before they die, or “kick the bucket.” The campaign was launched after the disasters. And quickly nixed.

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.


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