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  • Writer's pictureHilary Young

What We Can Learn From These Brand Marketing Missteps

Over the past few months, big name brands have been in the news, but not necessarily for good reasons. Marketing your brand can be tricky, especially when there’s so much polarization in the realm of values and politics these days. There isn’t a definitive success formula for brand marketing, which unfortunately means that brands have to learn by trial and error–and the errors can be so much more glaring when your business is in the public eye.

If you’ve ever panicked about taking some missteps when it comes to marketing your brand, I put this roundup together for you; I hope that reading this makes you feel a little better about your marketing fails and serves as a great reminder that it could always be worse.

Here are my top three picks for Biggest Brand Marketing Mistakes of 2023:

Bud Light Has an Audience Problem

I, like many others who participate on the internet, was following along in real time when Dylan Mulvaney shared a video about a brand partnership she had secured with Bud Light. Let me start by saying that I love Dylan, and have thoroughly enjoyed watching her metamorphosis over the past year. She is joyful, optimistic, vulnerable, honest, and real about her ups and downs as a trans person in this country. And even before the backlash erupted, I was shocked that Bud Light would have partnered with her for Pride Month, which says more about how I view Bud Light as a brand than about how I feel about Dylan.

Bud Light has always been the frat boy/patriotic middle America beer to me. Since I was a kid, they’ve spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns that are both alternately “dumb frat boy” (see: this “wassaaaap” spot that I never thought was cool) and “strangely patriotic” (see: the Clydesdale campaign that I never understood). I never connected with their ad campaigns because I was never their target audience. They’ve seemed to have a solid idea of who their target audience consisted of, and they pandered to them constantly. But their sales have also been unsteady for years, which is what led Group Vice President of Marketing Daniel Blake and Bud Light Marketing Vice President to hire Alissa Heinerscheid in the first place. According to reports, he brought her in “to overhaul Bud Light's marketing in June 2022 with the vision of freshening up its image.”

With those marching orders in mind, it makes perfect sense that Alissa wanted to expand the brand beyond the audience that Bud Light had cultivated for decades and embrace the LGBTQ community for Pride Month. But it also shouldn’t be surprising that there was backlash about that decision. Despite the bigoted nature of the boycott after the partnership with Dylan, Bud Light had to have known that their target audience would have reacted that way. When you market to a group of bigots who embrace toxic masculinity, it’s really hard to pivot away from that, as their newest ad campaign demonstrates.

No matter your take on what happened with Bud Light, there’s no denying the fact that when you abandon your core audience in your approach to marketing your brand, there’s going to be consequences.

Twitter Has a User Experience Issue

Oh, boy. Where to start with the Twitter fiasco? It started long before Elon Musk took over the long beleaguered platform in a will he/won’t he saga that was reminiscent of old soap opera storylines. Eventually, though, Musk did purchase the platform for a cool $44 billion and almost overnight made drastic changes to the app that caused a decline in the user experience.

He was quick to fire a lot of people at the company, including engineers who were continuously making updates to the functionality, people who were doing quality control to try to keep untoward material and spam (read: hate and porn) off the app, and a good chunk of the ad sales team. As a result, Twitter users began to complain about the user experience. Our feeds became clogged with spammy ads for online gambling sites and verified accounts became a pay-to-play scheme that rubbed most of us the wrong way. And Musk just keeps digging his hole deeper; the site kept crashing leading Musk to hastily announce a limit on viewership, he decided to block unregistered users from seeing Tweets at all, and ultimately causing a massive drop in ad revenue that is deeply detrimental to the company.

So it’s no surprise that when Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta launched a Twitter competitor called Threads, over 100 million people signed up in the first five days. Surviving on brand equity alone will not sustain your business. It’s integral to your brand marketing success to also invest in a great product and, if applicable, excellent customer service. Without focusing on these parts of your business as part of your larger brand strategy, you’ll start to see customers run for the hills–or in Twitter’s case, run for the Threads.

(HBO) Max Has An Identity Crisis

HBO has rebranded too many times in too short a timespan. For reasons unknown, HBO, which was typically a cable add-on service, relaunched as HBO Max as its stand alone streaming service (after an unsuccessful attempt at making HBO GO happen). I have been a lifelong HBO fan, starting with their movie options when I was young (that’s actually what HBO stands for: Home Box Office). I was an early adopter of Sex and the City and watched it religiously when I was in college. Add in The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Game of Thrones, and there was little HBO could do to sway me as a steadfast fan.

But when it came to their launch of HBO Max I was so confused. How was it different than the HBO I had been subscribing to through my Amazon Prime account? Did it have additional, exclusive content? Will I be able to watch shows in real-time? Why was it so hard for them to communicate why we should all have HBO Max accounts?

In the end, it wasn’t the brand that convinced me to switch over to HBO Max, it was a good friend who explained the benefits to me. And just a few years after this first very confusing rebrand, they’ve decided to rebrand yet again, this time just as Max. Why do this again? Because of a merger with Warner Bros./Discovery.

Not only were people confused about this re-rebrand, they also were roasting the brand for everything from the color scheme change to the new name choice to the fact that they even made you log out and remember your password again to get into the updated app. This article sums it up perfectly when they examine why the brand would choose to move in such a direction given that “HBO is the most recognizable, event-TV-focused piece of the equation. The rebranding [is] virtually erasing (from a brand perspective) the highest-quality content from the label.”

The moral of this story? Brand recognition matters, so think twice before rebranding (again).

What We Can Learn From These Brand Marketing Mistakes

Hopefully it brings you some comfort knowing that these very large and recognizable brands also make mistakes when it comes to their marketing and branding. The lesson here though goes beyond just accepting that everyone missteps with their marketing sometimes; it’s really about how brand marketing is changing and evolving right now.

Marketing your brand is an all-encompassing kind of marketing, and it requires your entire business organization to be firing on all cylinders so that employees and customers can remain on the same page when it comes to understanding your brand.

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