Marketing mishaps: stories and confessions

Anyone with any experience in marketing has made mistakes: international marketers will privately admit to more than a few.

Famous whoops! moments of 2014 include’s e-mail, sent the day after the Scottish referendum, celebrating their overnight launch in a ‘new country’ and promoting Saltire-themed products. We’ll never know for certain whether it was a genuine mistake or a fairly risky ploy, given the sensitivities roused by two years of campaigning.

Risky or not, my guess is that it was the latter and the brand was working on the questionable assumption that there’s no such thing as negative publicity. Their follow up e-mail was just a little too quick and polished.

You can see the e-mails and judge for yourself on Brand Republic.

Asking for praise – when Twitter campaigns go wrong

You’ll have perhaps noticed the recent PR Twitter disasters where American celebrities invited comments about themselves, anticipating cascades of praise, but receiving the opposite.

In 2012, Waitrose, (an upmarket British supermarket, for overseas readers) ran a similarly inept twitter campaign asking shoppers to tweet their praises using the hash tag #IshopatWaitrosebecause. The resulting, wide-spread mockery did not create the kind of internet sensation the communications team were hoping for.

Comments included, ‘…because if you buy a full tank of helicopter fuel, you get 10% off champagne’, ‘…because the toilet paper is made from 24ct gold thread (unless it’s the Essentials range)’ and ‘…because Tabitha and Tarquia only eat phoenix eggs that have been collected by wizards that share their values’. Though many comments are funny, a few were too near the knuckle such as ‘…because it makes me feel important and I absolutely detest being surrounded by poor people’.

A parody Facebook account Overheard In Waitrose was quickly established that now has over 365k likes – that’s 140k more than the official Waitrose Facebook account. Any marketing initiatives Waitrose announces, such as their recent free coffee offer, are gleefully accepted as new fodder for mockery.

The strange mix of bawdy British humour, satire and affection in the parody account suggests that Waitrose may not be losing out long term through their faux pas. It’s another great test of the ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ concept.

I liked their marketing team’s response to the tweets when they realised what was happening: ‘…We always like to hear what you think and enjoyed reading most of them.’

What more could they say? I wonder what it’s like for the Waitrose marketing team to work under such close public scrutiny? Alarming, entertaining and invigorating, I’d guess, pretty much in equal measure.

International Marketing – Why Experience Helps

Genuine marketing mistakes happen because, while theoretical information is all very well, most learning only happens when we put plans into practice. You’ve heard the old wisdom that only a busy person makes mistakes. I believe that’s true.

We actually learn person to person or by trial and error by being active – especially when it comes to international marketing. That’s what makes experience of (mis)understanding different cultures so valuable in business: it short cuts at least some of the issues.

But though international marketeers gradually might learn to anticipate more of the pitfalls, that doesn’t mean we won’t come a cropper now and then. It happens to us all, so I’m sharing stories – marketing confessions, you might say – showing how relatively small misunderstandings or blind spots can so easily derail international marketing efforts.

The Difficulty of Saying No or Pointing Out Mistakes

You only have to quickly glance at the comments made in response to the Prime Minister’s tweets to realize that many British people don’t appear overly constrained by any worries that they might upset people by criticizing them (unless you have a robust disposition, I wouldn’t take more than a glance!).

Saying ‘no’ must be possible all around the world. But some cultures have perfected ways of communicating this by subtle indications that we, from blunter cultures, completely miss.

As an example, an English friend and former colleague was once told by leaders of the local council in Japan about a plan she wanted to implement: ‘that would be difficult’. Taking this at face value, she replied, ‘I understand, but we need to somehow find a way to make sure it happens’.

It was only back at the office that one of her team broke the news that ‘difficult’ had just been a polite way of saying ‘we have no intention of allowing that, under any circumstances’.

It’s a tribute to her that she eventually found a way to reach an agreement – I’m sure knowing the firm opposition of the council members must have helped.

Lost in Translation?

Around the same time, I set out to find out why our first Japanese adverts were not performing as well as we’d hoped. The data seemed unlikely: we were obviously missing something. Was it the translation? I was assured it was not.

Eventually, after a good deal of questioning, my Japanese colleague (who had approved the adverts at final artwork stage for print) reluctantly confessed: ‘well, most Japanese people probably think it’s a bit strange’.

My heart sank. In our ignorance, using software unsuited to handling Japanese characters, we were breaking the lines completely at random in fairly narrow columns of text, creating a stream-of-consciousness advert. Glad we found out that then!

Our Japanese colleagues hadn’t liked to tell us as they didn’t want us to lose face. They didn’t realise that most British businesspeople would far rather lose face than continue to get things wrong.

Luckily, I’d recently been told about a talented, UK-based Japanese garden writer and translator, and started to work with her, specifically tasking her to always be brutally honest with us. She was far from brutal, but, by keeping one foot in both cultures, she made our lives – and marketing materials – so much better.

Divided by a shared language

This isn’t just an East/West issue: international business misunderstandings happen just as easily when we use the same alphabet – and even the ‘same’ language. Writing this post reminded me of a British translation chart, designed for EU colleagues, but equally relevant to American ones. I once sent it in sympathy to an American colleague, believing it might actually be useful. An example is:

What the British say:  that’s a very brave proposal.
What others understand:  he thinks I have courage.
What the British mean:  you are insane!

You’ll find the whole chart towards the bottom of this recent article on It explains some of the adjustments a native British speaker needs to make for a US business environment.

Waiving samples

I heard of another classic marketing mistake many years ago, from my talented and efficient Product Manager counterpart, who was based in the US. I used to meet up with her in wonderfully unfamiliar places around the world when we were both sourcing new products for our respective countries. I’ll call her R to spare her blushes.

She confessed that her methods of working had been shaped by a tricky experience early in her career. She’d once received, after a lengthy sea freight of several thousands of miles, ‘a very important container of cheap sports socks’ she’d been impatiently expecting for a major US customer. It perhaps takes a little experience of selling to the Nationals to understand just how important a container of cheap socks (or anything else, for that matter) can be. In simple terms, it’s a lot of socks.

Opening her box of samples from the shipment, she discovered to her horror that every one had the word ‘logo’ on the ankle. She had ‘helpfully’ sent the supplier an outline drawing of the sock with an arrow pointing to the ankle and the words ‘put logo here’. Oops!


I firmly believe that humility is a very healthy, much under-rated characteristic for marketeers. It’s perhaps not what we’re best known for, but if you agree, or if you have a down-to-earth, true marketing confession to share, please get in touch and help me redress the balance!

And for any time that you innocently make a marketing mistake yourself and need help to quickly save the day, I’m working on a post about what to do when things go wrong and you have a marketing crisis on your hands. I’ll add a link below when it’s ready so you can read it, save it – and hope you’ll never need it!

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