2022 brought its fair share of ill-judged, and downright baffling digital campaigns that got the world of social media talking, for all the wrong reasons. In this article, we take a look back at some of the most memorable brand nightmares, before talking about how we would’ve recommended the respective brands respond to their bad press (except Balenciaga; there’s no excusing that, frankly.)
Pride Month is an opportunity for brands to showcase their commitment to diversity and inclusion. June has become a flagship month in any brand’s calendar to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.
For most organisations, the simple but sweet gesture of changing their brand logo to incorporate the Pride Flag colours has become a staple of their digital presence. However, for Burger King Austria, in partnership with their agency, Jung Von Matt Donau, June 2022 represented an opportunity to think outside of the box and deliver what they’d hoped would be a novel and clever campaign.
Unfortunately for BK, their choice of campaign received widely negative public backlash. If you have not already seen it, the advert shows two Whopper burgers, one with two top buns and the other with two bottom buns with the title ‘Time to be proud.’ The BK representatives claimed it was to convey ‘equal love and equal rights.’ However, for many people from the LGBTQ+ community, the campaign came across as rather offensive, making sexual jokes and simplifying Pride Month down to innuendo, failing to respect or understand the community.
Soon after the backlash came in, the agency posted an apology and said they would improve on their communication style for the community.
Burger King did the correct thing by apologising to their customers - especially those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s important for brands to learn from mistakes, and make sure they avoid miscommunication in future.
Likewise, BK should look for external input for a different perspective. Onlookers, who haven’t directly been working on the campaign, will be able to fine tune messaging and point out anything that may lack sensitivity.
You’ve definitely already seen this - it was hard to miss Balenciaga’s PR crisis in December 2022. It was in the spotlight for the entire month, with a lot of negative press and sentiment rightly carrying over into 2023.
Balenciaga previewed their new campaign all over social media and their wider online presence. However, people soon noticed some inappropriate and downright disgusting themes from the photoshoots.
The campaign features young children holding bears that appear to be wearing leather straps and bondage gear alongside multiple documents that are talking about US Supreme Court cases involving child pornography. For obvious reasons, many people were furious with this.
Balenciaga eventually took down their posts and posted a huge apology claiming they didn’t realise this and that the photoshoots are done by a third-party agency. It’s a weak response as many of Balenciaga’s internal team must have reviewed the adverts before they were published.
There are still many unanswered questions around this whole brand disaster and people like the Kardashians were, and still are, receiving backlash as a result of their affiliation with the brand.
The headline takeaway is seemingly simple; review everything attached to your brand before making it public, and remember that some things are just downright inappropriate, no matter how big or bold your brand is.
The blame-game that Balenciaga played raised many questions. How close is the brand to their agency? How did the campaign go live without being seen by the right people? Where was the approval process?
In terms of response, the brand needs to work together with their PR, crisis management and marketing teams to understand the effect of their steps and monitor it closely. In this time and era, where the ethical impact a brand is making on society sits in the forefront, a mere apology doesn't cut it. The results of this can be seen clearly, as the sentiment of the audience about the brand has drastically changed after this campaign, and it will take a lot of work for the brand to change it back.
Probably the biggest development on social media in 2022 was Elon Musk (eventually) buying Twitter. However, we think it’s safe to say this didn’t quite work out how he imagined.
The issue with buying a social media platform, before almost immediately laying off thousands of staff, is that just about everyone you let go is highly likely to be an active user of said social media platform. When you’ve got thousands of disgruntled former employees, combined with ongoing internal chaos, you’re in for a rough ride.
One of the biggest crisis comms during Musk's Twitter reign was the introduction of the ‘Blue Tick Subscription’. Previously, the Blue Tick was synonymous with being a public figure or organisation; it was an earned and highly-coveted element of many renowned public presences. (You can read more about this on our blog post here.)
With Musk’s takeover, you could now secure your own blue tick for just $8 a month. Giving everyone the opportunity to ‘verify’ their account for just $8pcm seems like a fair idea given the immeasurable amount of bots & inactive accounts on Twitter, but to rework a cornerstone of the platform’s identity was received as poorly as you might expect.
Multiple people were buying a blue tick subscription and making imposter accounts of big companies and individuals, posting Tweets including false information that resulted in multiple publicly traded companies seeing millions wiped off their net worth in the space of just one rogue Tweet. We’ll admit, some of the parody accounts and posts were funny, but when an unqualified stranger, unattached to the organisation, is able to shift entire financial markets with one well-disguised Tweet, something had to be done.
In reality, the rework was chalked up to ‘trial and error’, but Musk didn’t exactly apologise for the damage done, instead posting a statement explaining the rationale behind the change.
Eventually, the blue tick was brought back in December 2022, however, this time IOS users have to pay $11 (we’re still not clear on why this is). It’s all a little strange if you ask us, and even with further reworks around different coloured ticks/checkmarks now live, the system still feels like a net-negative for Twitter’s usability.
It is apparent that Elon Musk did what works for him as a brand without considering what works, and has been working, for Twitter as a brand. There is no conclusion to the situation, Twitter continues to work as a platform. However, everything depends on the team at Twitter and Elon Musk creating a clear vision for the brand and having a clear approach to how they want to achieve it, rather than a ‘trial and error’ and ‘whatever works, works’ strategy.
Finally for now is Tampax, who also faced a crisis comm last year. In amongst the chaos of some of the other events on this list, Tampax wasn’t spoken about as much, so many people may have missed it.
Tampax made a rather risky Tweet quoting ‘You’re in their DMs. We’re in them. We are not the same.’ Reactions were mixed, with many finding the Tweet a funny take on a well-established meme/online joke format. However, a fair majority of people felt this crude level of humour was inappropriate for a tampon company as it came across as sexualising women and hygiene products. To us, the criticism was fair - Tampax should be concerned with helping women feel comfortable, and should steer well clear of sexualising their products and customers. They probably didn’t mean any harm, but it’s fair to expect better from such a large and industry-leading brand.
Tampax removed the Tweet and admitted they ‘messed up.’ Since they posted the apology, the company hasn't posted any more Tweets as of writing some three months later.
Tampax were right to remove the tweet and apologise after receiving criticism.
When (and if) they eventually return to Twitter, they should quickly establish that they are dedicated to conveying the correct message and tone of voice on their social channels. Likewise, every tweet should be quality-controlled internally to ensure the copy is in line with the brand’s core values, beliefs, and overall messaging.
It’s fair to say that, with the likely exception of Balenciaga, the PR disasters on this list were at the very least not maliciously intentioned. That’s not to defend their actions, but more to emphasise that organisations must be conscious of how their message can be received by the wider public. Brands should follow guidelines in order to avoid offence, and there are a few main rules a brand can follow to avoid facing a crisis.
You don’t always need to say something or have input on every issue; sometimes for a brand, it’s smarter and safer to not be involved. Your positioning should establish your brand's tone of voice, and brand persona, so your audience will be familiar with your style. If you try to deviate from your established image too wildly, your audience is less likely to receive your message as authentic and genuine.
Keep an open mind about the feelings and thoughts that your audience may experience when engaging with your campaigns. If you know it seems rude or is potentially offensive, don’t publish it. Always remember to think of your audience and how they will perceive you, and don't piggyback off social issues just to make your brand look better. Adding value, progressing the public discourse and raising awareness are all valid endeavours. Just trying to commercialise current topics is a surefire way to risk harm to both your brand and your audience.
Your brand plays a certain role in different consumers' lives; when making a campaign, put yourself in your audience’s place and understand how they view your offering. Make sure you know how your brand can impact a consumer's life, but do it in a welcome way to avoid alienating individuals.
Emphasise what your company does for your customers, don’t focus heavily on the product itself. This is a really good practice for building customer relationships; by focusing more on your customers than the product, you’ll help build a relationship that can return loyalty and respect.
Understand your customers and what they might want to gain from your campaign before you put it together. Again, you will need to put yourself in your customer's place and approach your messaging from a perspective of adding value to their lives, and hopefully overcoming a challenge or pain point they face.
Ambitious brands will always want to disrupt conversations in their pursuit of being innovative and memorable. It’s what separates the household names from their forgotten predecessors. At Together, we celebrate brands that aren’t afraid to push the envelope and create truly engaging experiences for their audience. However, ensuring you’ve considered how your campaigns will be received, the value they can add to your audience and the timing of your message, is absolutely essential to avoid causing damage.
Our team has a wealth of experience that covers everything from behavioural insights to strategic planning to maximise your chances of success, whilst minimising the risks that a poorly conceived campaign can bring.
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