Brand Blunders: Cautionary Tales and Lessons Learned

At some point, every brand will find themselves in a less than desirable place publicly. It happens. Whether it’s an accidental offensive public statement or a vocal customer who spreads stories of dissatisfaction, it’s bound to happen to you. The question is, how will you respond to or prevent incidents of public embarrassment in the first place?

The first mistake, as a business owner, is to think that your brand is just a marketing problem. Your brand is composed of all the elements of your business. YOU, your product, your business practices, your customer service, your website, even your lowest level employees. Your brand is your business' big picture reputation and it ALL matters.

There are plenty of lessons to learn from the incidents in these brand blunder stories.

The Bar with No Name and a Volcano Proof Review

Apparently pompeii has lots of preserved graffiti that commemorates life in the ancient city before the big volcanic melt down. Of all the words immortalized on the walls of the preserved city, this quote is among them:

"Two friends were here. While they were, they had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus. They threw him out and spent 105 and half sestertii most agreeably on whores." 

What exactly went down at this ancient bar remains unknown. However, the longevity of this negative review is impressive. It survived a volcano and outlived everyone who ever patronized the business.

Lesson learned: you might not get a second chance to change your reputation. You never know what incident will outlive you and your business. You have the chance to make it a good story, if your brand’s reputation takes a negative turn, find a way to redeem the situation before it’s too late. At any time a volcano could destroy your brand’s voice.

The Racially Hostile Hotel

Sammy Davis Jr. was already a celebrity when he booked a stay at the New Frontier Hotel in 1952. He went for a casual swim in the hotel pool. After he was finished, they drained it, just because he was black. As far as public embarrassments go, this one is pretty bad. The situation was the result of an ignorant mindset of society at the time but it doesn’t excuse what happened. The hotel is no longer in existence, but that incident sure lives on.

Lesson learned: leave a legacy of responsibility to individuals and history. This story reminds us to treat every employee and customer with decency, no matter their status, race or lifestyle. It’s still a lesson many brands are learning the hard way today. It also reminds us of the importance of having a forward outlook. Ask yourself, is what I’m doing today going to leave a negative legacy? Is my business socially, politically and environmentally responsible? Regularly answering these questions can ensure a positive legacy.

A Life-Changing Burger

At the height of Robert Downey Jr.’s drug problem, he went through a Burger King drive through with a carload full of drugs. His cheeseburger looked so disgusting he feared it was a bad omen. He decided to turn his life around that very moment and hurled his entire stash of drugs into the ocean. It must have been one disgusting burger. There’s definitely a tale of redemption in there somewhere, but Burger King didn’t really jump on this story and rework it to their advantage.

Lesson learned: it’s all in the presentation. Presentation does matter! Although it may seem trivial, presentation accounts for a large percent of a sale and a brand's reputation. When customers call you out on poor presentation, it’s a good idea to work on your product and ask for a second chance.

Orphans Denied iPods from Kelly Clarkson

Kelly Clarkson posted a complaint about Best Buy to Facebook after being unable to purchase a large sum of iPods for orphans in a charitable gesture. Best Buy employees told her they were saving them for other customers, as per policy. They eventually apologized for the experience and donated a brunch event to her charity.

Lesson learned: recognize great opportunities for giving back. While you may never be handed a more obvious opportunity for a glowing PR moment than Best Buy was, don’t over look opportunities to give back. It not only builds your reputation, it genuinely does good for both your business and the world at large.

Amy's Baking Company Baked a Disaster

It happened slowly. Just like baking a pie.They started off with terrible customer service and then began treating their employees badly. Then they landed themselves on an episode of Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” Amy and her husband were so difficult to work with, Gordon Ramsey quit their episode. Then they began attacking people who posted negative reviews on Facebook with bizarre threats and outlandish claims.

Lesson learned: everyone loves a comeback. This case might be pushing it...but in general, everyone loves a comeback. If these two had simply apologized and committed to changing their ways, the public would likely have been forgiving. The more tangible lesson here is, have a disaster plan in place and prepare for PR meltdowns with policy and planning.

It’s always easy to be a monday morning quarterback, but hopefully these stories can remind you to proactively build and protect your brand in an intentional, ethical way.

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