Small business lessons from four big business marketing gaffes

oopsMarketing occupies a precarious position in the world of business. Entrepreneurs are fully aware of its necessity, but it also has to come as one of the final stages in development. Should you have an in-house marketing team or outsource to a proven agency? Should the marketing team be ‘at the table’ or should they be contracted and briefed on your values?  When corporate culture and marketing aims fall out of kilter, the brand message can end up tying itself in knots and even the biggest companies in the world can fall victim to it.  Small businesses can stand to learn a lot from the highly publicised failures of their larger cousins.

Some of the shoddiest marketing that we’ve bore witness to over the years is the attempt of a flagging brand to re-create the success of its largest rival.  Microsoft are by no means a small change business, but since Google’s entrance into the market place; Bill Gates’ software house has been losing territory across the board.  Paying the price for their slow evolution to new technologies, Microsoft are frantically attempting to re-gain ground on mobile devices, tablets and now laptops.

But the war is at its hottest on the web, where Microsoft’s Hotmail service once ruled the free e-mail landscape without a competitor in sight. Microsoft’s MSN network was also one of the most visited websites and was home to one of the leading search engines, which was re-branded as Bing to try and revive its fortunes. But Google’s Gmail client and its eponymous search engine are really turning the thumbscrews.

Microsoft recently attempted to get the word ‘Bing’ categorised as a verb, much like Google has come to be.  If you want to search for something online, you ‘Google’ it. The monumental failure resulted in mass negative press for desperation tactics and the inability to innovate, another notch on Microsoft’s bed post of failures since the turn of the millennium. Being first-to-market with a product or service is one of the biggest advantages a business can afford themselves, but the same applies to intellectual property and ideas.  Google never campaigned for their brand to become a verb but through sheer success, it did.  Microsoft’s foiled plot to mimic this has produced nothing more than an air of scuppered one-upmanship and the detriment of an already failing brand.  For a company with a multi-million-dollar marketing budget, the laziness is beyond comprehension.

Another All-American marketing gaffe came from the Ohio giants Proctor & Gamble, specifically through their Pampers product. The baby nappies company has been the leading light on the market for decades and made a recent slip-up when trying to inject some comedy into their advertising campaign. The lesson here is to make sure that at least one person involved in the marketing process is aware of the target market.

In 2012, Pampers released a short television-aired advertisement which was designed to appeal to the mothering audience by poking fun at fathers. Clips of dads being portrayed as incompetent and labelled ‘fumbling parents’ didn’t go down well with the male audience; along with a fair proportion of the female. Gender stereotyping led Pampers to believe that their primary commercial targets were women and that they generally found the schadenfreudeof demeaning their husbands as comical.  Unfortunately their market research didn’t stretch to discovering that 1 in 3 fathers are now stay-at-home dads and they had effectively alienated between 30% and 50% of their potential demographic. Huggies meanwhile, rubbed their hands together with glee in the background with their perfectly PC campaigns.

It’s almost expected that companies are going to make mistakes every now and again, no matter what their size.  But what doesn’t sit well is when the European Commission dabbles with marketing and gets its fingers burnt by a monumental flame.  Established more than half a century ago, the Brussels-based board of 28 members and 25,000 staff is the executive body of the European Union. Charged with the daily running of almost 30 European countries, this isn’t an entity you expect to fall victim to silly mistakes.

But that’s exactly what they did last year through their ‘Science: It’s A Girl Thing’ campaign. It was an effort intended to bring more females into the science and technology sectors, but they tried to do so through mass stereotypes and misogyny – leading many critics to question whether a single woman was consulted through the entire process.

Unequivocally aimed at a 100% female market, the ad made use of heavily make-upped beautiful women in stilettos and mini dresses. A questionable dance track overlaid images of women dancing, examining lipstick and playing to the camera and a male scientist.  Even the ‘i’ in ‘Science’ was replaced by a lipstick and the whole thing smacked of a parody – but there was nothing funny about it.  The EC were roundly attacked by critics and the video disappeared shortly after it was uploaded.

Even the gentlest inquiry of market research would have yielded instant dismissals of the campaign’s branding and would have saved the commission an incredibly red face at the launch ceremony. It’s an indicator that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a local café on the high street or an executive body responsible for the administration of a continent – marketing is marketing and it has to be done right.

Small businesses have smaller budgets to work with, but they also have more to lose. Getting off the ground with a damaged reputation is harder than repairing one with a billion dollar budget. Do your research, consult as widely as possible and make notes of the successes and failures of your industry. Laser target your demographic and find out what makes them tick, get a black book of what doesn’t fly and make sure that somebody else hasn’t done it before.

Marketing is an art in and of itself, take the time to dodge avoidable mistakes and build your success in layers of experience.

Paul Kilminster, of Print and Digital Associates,