‘Tis the season for spooky stories. Tales of ghouls and witchcraft are all in good fun but don’t compare to the real scares of everyday life—especially when it comes to your business.
A business’s success depends on its reputation. Nobody wants to buy from or work for a company with a bad reputation. The scary part is that it only takes one branding blunder to put your business in crisis mode.
For several companies, 2017 was a nightmarish year. Now, as it creeps to a close, we can recap all those horrifying events that made for rotten reputations. Here are the seven scariest branding mistakes companies made in 2017.
1. (Literal) White washing. Since its “Real Beauty” campaign launch over a decade ago, Dove has devoted its branding efforts to promoting body positivity for all women. It rebelled against the beauty industry’s standardized norms by featuring women of color and various body types, as well as exposing the industry’s extreme practices of photoshopping models. For the most part, the campaign was a success, especially its powerful “Evolution” videos.
Past progress, however, couldn’t save Dove from the fiasco it suffered less than a month ago. On October 7, it released an ad that showed a black woman pulling a t-shirt over her head to reveal a white woman underneath, with the Dove body wash displayed in the corner.
Whatever the intended message, audiences interpreted it as the black woman washing away her color to become white. The ad was short-lived but drew a devastating blow to the company’s reputation. Even the swift apology wasn’t enough to save it.
2. Cultural appropriation station. A single word is enough to ruin a company. Unfortunately for this one, that word happened to be its name. Bodega is an AI-powered vending machine service that tracks consumer behavior.
It has been described as “Silicon Valley’s new most hated startup” because of the perception that it aims to put real bodegas (Spanish for neighborhood grocery stores) out of business. The brainchild of two ex-Google employees, Bodega made its debut riding a wave of backlash so severe that the co-founder and CEO Paul McDonald published a blog post the same day entitled, “So, about our name…” in an attempt to resolve the issue. Unfortunately for him and his company, a culturally insensitive name is more than enough to kill a startup’s reputation for good.
3. Pop for peace. Nothing incites outrage like trivializing sociopolitical issues. Don’t believe us? Ask Pepsi. Back in April, the soda giant released a controversial ad featuring reality star and model Kendall Jenner. The ad portrayed Jenner as a model on the set of a photoshoot whose serious case of social justice FOMO compels her to trade her platinum wig for a Pepsi and join a protest. Jenner makes her way through the crowd of protesters to hand the Pepsi to a police officer.
The scene was a poor attempt to pay homage to the iconic image of Ieshia Evans at the Baton Rouge Black Lives Matter protest. The ad concludes with the crowd of protesters and police officers alike celebrating the joy of Pepsi, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and even had Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi scratching her head.
4. Dragging down approval. What Dr. David Dao experienced on a United Airlines flight in April was every traveller’s worst nightmare. After the airline overbooked a flight, three aviation security officers forcibly removed Dao to make room for a United crew member. Several passengers shot graphic videos of the incident, documenting Dao screaming and bleeding as officials dragged him down the aisle.
The fiasco cost the company much more than a multimillion dollar lawsuit settlement. It spooked its investors and led to $1.4 billion drop in its stock. Monetary costs aside, the event certainly didn’t help United’s already low customer approval ratings. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), United Airlines is in the bottom three of America’s legacy airlines.
5. A totaled reputation. After a series of collisions, Uber’s reputation may be beyond repair. Their 2017 woes began in January, when the company faced severe backlash for profiting off of travel ban protests. From there, it only got worse. Sexual harassment allegations, federal investigations on illegal software use, a slew of C-suite resignations—the list goes on and on.
In fact, the company’s terrible reputation is the very reason it lost its license to operate in London. What’s more, Uber’s year of frightful brand management is exactly what its main competitor Lyft needed to set itself up for future success. Regardless of who wins in the ride-sharing race, it’s clear that 2017 has been a massive speed bump for Uber.
6. Never not too soon. It was the subject line that launched a thousand tweets. Adidas sent out an email to its customers who participated in this year’s Boston Marathon with an incredibly insensitive subject line that read: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
Four years after the national tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing, it’s hard to believe that such words could ever sound like a good idea to use anywhere but especially in an email to customers. Public outrage ensued as many of the recipients took screen shots of the email and posted them on social media for all the world to see. Companies now more than ever need to understand the repercussions of a problematic message.
7. A breach of trust...and more. We saved the scariest for last, as this one may be haunting you right this very moment. You could be one of the 145.5 million (up from the original estimate of 143 million) affected by Equifax’s data breach. As if the breach itself weren’t bad enough, the way the company handled was truly alarming. First off, the company knew about the breach for over a month before disclosing it to the public in September.
What’s worse is that a few days after the breach was discovered in July, three Equifax executives sold nearly $2 million in company stock. That’s not all though. Back in early March, the Department of Homeland Security sent Equifax an alert about vulnerabilities in its software. When asked about this alert, an Equifax spokesperson claimed that whoever was responsible for relaying this information had forgotten to do so.
Finally, to add the cherry on top of this disaster sundae, when the company publicly announced the breach, it set up a support website to help people figure out if their information had been compromised. The problem is that the company then began directing customers to a fake phishing site. That’s the kind of incompetence that sends a chill down your spine.
Hopefully, these stories satisfied your scare fix. Now you can spend the rest of this spooky holiday intermittently bingeing on treats and Stranger Things in peace. Just remember, one bad mistake can haunt your business’s reputation forever.
Be thoughtful in your branding, and make sure you don’t end up on next year’s list of chilling case studies. Until then, Happy Halloween!