As 2010 winds to a close, it's time for the annual Sales Machine brand blunder list. It's been a veritable annus horribilis (please note the two n's in that first word) for many brands, but this post contains the blunders that I believe will be remembered as the year's worst.
The final page of this post has a poll for you to vote for your favorite blunder. When there are enough votes to get the readers' opinion, I'll rearrange the list to match YOUR ranking, rather than mine. Also, if I missed a big one, be sure to remind me in a comment!
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Blunder #10: GM Dumps the Chevy Nickname
You'd think that GM would have enough to think about without trying to monkey with the popular nickname for its most famous brand. But you'd be wrong.
When GM's branding guru, marketing VP Jim Campbell sent out a memo to G.M. employees demanding they stop using the term "Chevy" and instead use the official brand name "Chevrolet," the reaction was predictable: Chevy customers told him, en masse, that he was being a jackass.
Campbell, like many of his ilk, is under the mistaken impression that a brand is something that a company foists on the world. But that's not true. A brand is an emotional attachment that the customer has to a particular product or set of products.
The Chevy nickname was a symbol of affection, to be embraced not bureaucratized out of existence.
Lesson learned: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Blunder #9: Dell's Internal Meltdowns
Dell, once a bellwether brand for quality manufacturing, took a hit for six when it was discovered it was using cheap Chinese capacitors in its OptiPlex desktop computers, which were sold mostly to government and business enterprise.
It seems the components had a tendency to leak fluid, thereby causing the computer to malfunction. Rather than doing a recall, however, Dell insisted that there wasn't a problem, even though some of the computers were installed at firms that provide healthcare services.
Dell settled at least one lawsuit out of court, but not after the Dell brand had taken a big hit in the quality department.
Lesson: No brand, however lustrous, can long survive a lousy product.
Blunder #8: Oprah's New Logo Oprah Winfrey is sophisticated, intelligent and classy, so you'd think that when she launched a network build around her brand promise, you'd want it to symbolize what Oprah is all about. But you'd think wrong.
Apparently the Great One had something else in mind, because the Oprah Winfrey Network got a logo that (in the words of one marketing pundit) looks like it was designed by "a gaggle of 9-year-old girls at a slumber party."
Lesson: When hiring a graphic designer, hire the one who isn't color-blind.
Blunder #7: Republicans Hiring Strippers
When you're the party of family values, and a big part of your constituency consists of evangelical Christians, there are just some places where you don't want to hold a fund-raiser.
And one of those places is most certainly a bondage club that features lesbian strippers. When the story broke, it didn't do wonders for the reputation of Chairman Michael Steele, who was already on the firing line for living high on his expense account.
In the end, of course, it didn't matter, because the big money went to the anonymous 501 "charities", but there's no question that the Republican brand took a big hit.
Lesson: Take the client to the strip club if you must, but don't let the folks at home find out about it.
Blunder #6 Primark's Padded Bikinis for Kids
As the father of a 4 year old girl, I'm well aware that kids get fashion conscious at an early age. However, there are just some places that you don't want to go, even if it's going to sell a lot of clothes.
The European discount chain Primark went to one of those places when it started selling a line of child-sized bikinis with padded bras. Needless to say, this did not go down well with the parents who look to Primark as a family-oriented store.
Needless to say, Primark yanked the line from its shelves and apologized like crazy, but the damage had already been done.
Lesson: If you're in retail, hire buyers who aren't complete idiots.
Blunder #5 The GAP Logo Yank-Back
One of the biggest wastes of time and money in the world of marketing is a logo redesign. It can literally cost millions of dollars to change all the stationary, signs, sales literature, etc. And to what end? In most cases, nobody cares, except the branding folk who get the fat paycheck.
In the case of the GAP, however, people did care. The company's customers hated the idiotic new logo with the little square over the "p". A grassroots movement developed to dump the new logo in favor of the old one.
As a result, the GAP rolled back to its original logo, which meant (of course) more expense changing everything again.
Lesson: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Then don't fix it again.
Blunder #4: Johnson & Johnson's tainted medicine
When it comes to their health, consumers tend to be picky. And when it comes to their children's health, they can get downright fanatical. So the last thing you want to do, if you're selling medicine for children, is to sell stuff that's adulterated with God-knows what.
That's what the venerable pharmaceutical firm J&J apparently did. After trying to cover up rampant manufacturing problems, J&J ended up having to recall 135 million bottles of children's Tylenol, Motrin and Benadryl.
The recall, of course, was bad enough, but trying to cover up the problem was (as always) a huge mistake.
Lesson: Don't poison children, no matter how good it looks on the bottom line.
Blunder #3 Toyota Goes into Denial For decades, the Toyota brand was associated with high quality and safety. That's why it at first seemed so mysterious when the company tried to stonewall persistent reports of problems with its accelerators.
Rather than just doing a damn recall and getting it over with, the company let the problem drag on and on and on, until it became one of the biggest business stories of the year.
The problem of course, was that the problem ran contrary to Toyota's own vision of itself. Management was so convinced that the company made a quality product that they were unable to realize that they'd screwed up... until it was too late.
Lesson: Don't inhale your own smoke.
Blunder #2 BP Does Damage Control
There's a theory in marketing called the "law of inverse relevance" which, roughly stated, is "the less you plan to do about something, the more you must talk about it."
Well, BP has certainly followed that law for decades, positioning itself as environmentally friendly when, of course, it's just another sociopathic oil company that puts profit ahead of everything else.
Needless to say, when BP's oil rig blew and started pumping millions of barrels of oil into the ocean, it was a little difficult to keep up the eco-friendly image, especially when the damage control consisted of a CEO who kept putting his foot so far down his mouth it ended up sticking out his pant leg.
Lesson: If your CEO is a jackass, keep him away from the press.
Blunder #1 Obama Loses His Luster
When the year started, the Obama brand was already starting to show some strain. By accepting the peace prize (after doing virtually nothing) and touring Europe like a rock star, Obama had already made his brand seem, well, decidedly odd.
And it didn't help, of course, having a fair-sized chunk of the country so stupid that they were willing to believe virtually anything about Obama, so long as it was negative. But that's par for the presidential course.
But then came a 2010 political agenda that focused on issues that most people thought either irrelevant ("don't ask, don't tell") or scary ("let's change healthcare") rather than the problem gobsmacking the country, which was JOBS.
While Obama's brand remains stronger than some presidents at their midterm, i. The midterm elections only served to emphasize that the Obama brand has lost a huge chunk of its clout.
Lesson: Don't solve problems that the customer doesn't think are important... especially when the customer is freaking about something entirely different.
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