Top Lessons Brand Managers Can Learn From Big Brand Failures


As every branding veteran will certify, successful branding is a challenging task. Even though big companies may have a lot of muscle power, they are not immune from making branding blunders, as examples from some of the world’s top brands like Sony, Coca-cola, Microsoft, McDonald’s, etc. will illustrate. Some prime examples of branding myopia and lack of understanding of brand dynamics:

Brands Need to Understand Customer Needs, Behavior, and Aspirations

Ford Edsel: While it seems a given truth that brands must look to fulfill customer needs and wants to have a chance of success, even a storied name like ford got it completely wrong with its Ford Edsel, which started its design journey in 1955 and hit the streets a couple of years later. It was designed to be a full-size car to cater to suburban Americans, however, customer preferences had shifted to compact cars by the time it hit the roads. A steep fall in the stock market added to their woes, and there were few takers for an over-hyped and over-priced car that didn’t fit the customer needs of the times. Production of the Edsel stopped within two years, and it remains the costliest automotive debacle ever.

Coca-Cola: As recently as the 1980s, few people considered apparel a fast-moving consumer goods branding activity. At that time, the only branding exercises were in the form of giveaways or cheap T-shirts and baseball caps. However, in its infinite wisdom, Coca-Cola stepped in to create an upmarket fashion line with a merchandising deal with Tommy Hilfiger, then young and unknown. The company attempted to create an exclusive in-store customer experience with soda counters, interactive video screens, and credit card machines that never gripped the target audience’s imagination. It also tried its best to connect soft drinks and fashion clothing, which did not make sense to the customers. The concept, much ahead of its times even for trendy Americans, did not click. The brand also suffered as customers perceived the clothing as poor in quality and design.

The Purpose of the Brand Must Remain True

Brand extensions create much excitement with marketers due to their potential for using the goodwill of an existing brand to grab market share. However, even the best brands can go horribly wrong:

Colgate: Even though the world knows Colgate as a toothpaste brand, in 1982, the company decided that they could sell frozen ready-to-eat meals as a brand extension by the name of Colgate Kitchen Entrées. The concept proved too mind-blowing to customers, and the product was quickly discarded, but not before it hurt toothpaste sales.

Cosmopolitan: For some strange reason, the international fashion magazine, Cosmopolitan decided to introduce a line of yogurt competing on the crowded supermarket shelves in 1999. The customers rejected the offerings like Cosmopolitan FromageFrais and Cosmopolitan Light Soft Cheese despite the company positioning them as “sophisticated and aspirational”. Customers ruthlessly demolished the belief that Cosmopolitan could sell anything on the strength of its brand.

Harley Davidson: Harley Davidson launched a product line of aftershave and cologne in 2000 that bombed. In retrospect, it was evident if the company had conducted adequate customer research, it would have known that smelling nice was not high on the priority of the macho bikers. They would have identified more with brand values like freedom, masculinity, toughness, authenticity, etc. According to Forbes, companies must get feedback from their target audience before finalizing a brand name. 

Brand Names Should Survive Translation 

Many American companies have demonstrated their lack of understanding of different cultures when selling brands internationally and made costly and embarrassing bloopers. Despite the increasing globalization of marketing, differences in cultural norms, traditions, and taboos are still important enough to make a difference.

General Motors: As attractive as the name “Nova” may be to an American, GM found that the car sales in Mexico were not taking off. Investigation revealed that the name translated to “It doesn’t go”, hardly a powerful incentive for car buyers. It would have helped to consult native language speakers when generating brand name ideas.

Pepsi: In an embarrassing branding exercise, Pepsi’s tagline “Come Alive With Pepsi” became talked about in Taiwan because it translated to Pepsi Brings Back Your Ancestors From the Dead”. Understandably, the idea may have spooked customers.

Electrolux: The top Scandinavian appliance manufacturer’s advertising campaign for a vacuum cleaner became a topic of great hilarity due to its headline proclaiming, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

Kellogg’s: Excited with its potential for breakfast cereals, Kellogg’s invested a whopping 65 million USD in India to make its cornflakes the preferred breakfast option over traditional meals. However, Indians preferred having a heavy breakfast. Another stumbling block was the recommended use of cold milk with cornflakes, something the average Indian would never consider due to the practice of consuming hot milk. Further, the hot milk rendered the cornflakes immediately soggy and unpalatable. While some urban households have accepted cornflakes, Kellogg’s has realized that the breakfast habits of most Indians were too deeply ingrained and has now included traditional Indian items in their lineup of breakfast foods.

Brands Must Remain Relevant to Customers 

When brands address customer needs and desires, as they should, they must never take it for granted that the preferences of their target audience will never change. Along with the changing needs and wants of the customers, the brand must evolve to stay in sync. A prime example of a brand that did not keep pace with technology is Eastman Kodak. Despite its status of being a market leader and an iconic brand, Kodak stayed rooted in its traditional offering even though the rest of the world was rapidly transiting from film to digital. Even though Kodak could have leveraged its brand power to cater to emerging customer preferences, it failed to take advantage of its brand equity, lost the opportunity to start a second and equally successful second inning, and filed for bankruptcy in 2012.


Marketers need to remember customers are living beings with real feelings and emotions, not faceless rational machines. The bedrock of a successful brand is its ability to address the needs and concerns of its target audience, remain relevant to its changing needs, be culturally meaningful and sensitive, and stay true to its purpose.

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Tirupati Gumpula

Hi, I'm an Internet geek and founder of Popular technology blogs such as Way to Hunt. & Elite Tricks. Want to promote your brand? Email: [email protected]

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