Why Great CMOs Make Great Mistakes – and How Not To

If you have tuned in to brand campaigns by Apple, Bud Light, Prada and others in recent years, you would have seen consumers in angry revolt and marketers making fervent apologies. How could campaigns designed to sell more stuff instead get their wires crossed to such a degree?

When even a comedian, John Stewart, wades into the controversies to ridicule some of the best-known brands in the world, CMOs should admit they have a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment. Watch the John’s show here: https://youtu.be/TWVbZ0WQ3s8?si=vACkqx6wjuTa9CNd.

Apple’s brand campaign for the iPad Pro sparked a backlash when its television commercial depicted a straight-out-of-batman, gothic era hydraulic press crushing to bits tools commonly used by creative artists. The idea was to showcase the iPad Pro as having the next generation software that would displace all that paraphernalia. Turns out artists love their tools, as in, they have feelings for them. In an age when the community is wary of AI stealing their work and eliminating their jobs, this didn’t go down well at all.

Apple pulled the ad and quickly apologized, saying, “Creativity is in our DNA at Apple, and it’s incredibly important to us to design products that empower creatives all over the world … We missed the mark with this video, and we’re sorry.”

But this is not new. Many otherwise great brands have at one point, or another, made great mistakes. In 2017, in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi aired a commercial with Kendall Jenner that was widely criticized for trivializing social justice movements and protests. It was withdrawn. In the same year, Dove (Unilever) showed a 3-second video on Facebook that was intended to celebrate diversity but appeared to many to show a black woman turning white after using the promoted bodywash. That was killed.

What’s going on? Why do even great CMO’s often fall into this trap?

Marketers are classically trained to deliver a brand message. All Apple was trying to say is that “hey, we have designed some neat software that can help you do the many things that you do with the tools you commonly use.” However, marketers are not trained in behavioral sciences which are key to understanding how the human brain works and consumers perceive the world.

Well, here’s some stuff for brands to think about.

In pursuing new customers, don’t forget the old – Tiffany

In 2021, Tiffany decided to target younger consumers in an effort to grow its brand. However, they worried that the 185-year-old brand was seen as too dated by affluent millennials and Gen Zs who may have been introduced to it by their moms. To solve that problem, they plastered billboards all over with the tagline “Not Your Mother’s Tiffany.”

It is not clear how the millennials felt about the campaign (because Tiffany had to withdraw it soon thereafter), but moms sure as heck didn’t like being dissed and took to Twitter and Facebook promptly (apparently, they are pretty good with the social media thing). They asked, “Is this a great time to diminish us?”, and “As a mum and older woman you're saying you don't need me as a customer anymore.” Tiffany may have done well to remember that moms have a lot more money than millennials and often fund their purchases.

It is important not to forget your core customers in chasing the new. Always ask “What will my loyal customers think of my new campaign?”

Remember that you are not the only thing happening in the world – Anheuser-Busch Inbev

While marketers live in their own world, consumers don't. Marketers focus narrowly on the mandatory messages they need to communicate for their brand, consumers live in the real world where there are all kinds of other messages. Television commercials are surrounded by other commercials as well as general news. Tweets are sandwiched between hundreds of other Tweets.

Hence, brands must be cognizant of how their message will sit alongside happenings in the broader universe. This is why Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad stumbled over itself when it seemed tone deaf to the rising concerns of the black community. Conversely, Bud Light floundered with its decision to use a transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, to endorse its brand even as an anti-woke movement was gathering steam amongst conservatives. The backlash wiped out billions from Anheuser-Busch Inbev revenues.

Before launching any new campaign, CMOs should ask “What else is going on in the world? How will consumers see this message considering current public sentiments?”

Don’t Get Overly Clever with Controversial or Offensive Themes

Marketers struggle with gaining consumer attention. Sometimes they elect to get around that problem with shock therapy strategy – say something crazy, followed by what you really mean. Unfortunately, consumers are inattentive and may never get through the full story before reacting and forming an opinion.

In the UK, Burger King fired off a Tweet saying, “Women belong in the kitchen.” This was followed by a second Tweet that explained that only 20% of chefs are women and more should be. But many saw only the first Tweet leading to a storm of anti-Burger King posts and shares.

In China, Audi aired an awful commercial that showed a mother evaluating her son’s prospective bride by pinching her nose and inspecting her teeth. The commercial went on to add that Audi similarly was particular about checking its used cars before reselling them. Yes, really. Watch the ad here: https://youtu.be/WiBva8pEgTc?si=CMpRi9bQ6xn0peUx.

Brands must ask “Is my commercial funny or just in bad taste? Will some see it as offensive? What if consumers only attend to only a part of my message?”

Plan for a Crisis When There is No Crisis

Despite their best efforts, many brands will run smack into a humiliating public crisis at some point in their life cycle. How well a brand can recover from a misstep depends on how much equity the brand had with consumers to begin with, whose mistake it was, who was hurt and paid a price, how genuine the ensuing apology was, and how well it connected with consumers.

There are lessons to be learnt from brands that have been there.

·      Develop a brand crisis playbook that covers who does what and when – and keep it handy.

·      Keep an eye on how consumer sentiments are evolving along with events in the world and monitor how that may impact even existing brand campaigns and not just the new.

·      Articulate what values (if any) your brand clearly stands for and stick to them consistently – versus being swayed by a few loud voices. Remember, though, that not all brands need to have strong values associated with them.

·      Write apologies that are sincere and take immediate actions to show you are serious. To make matters worse, many brands mess up their apologies. Remember apologies also are a campaign.

·      Act swiftly to contain the damage – don’t let adverse publicity build steam and explode in your face. Know who your brand defenders are and be ready to put them in play at a moment’s notice.

Behavioral science teaches us that people take risks and make mistakes because they believe that bad things won’t happen to them. But they can happen to anybody, and they can happen to your brands.

Conducting a full behavioral science-based audit of your campaigns pre-launch and periodically post-launch can help avoid a public disaster and real damage to the brand equity and revenues.


Write to us at md@cerenti.com.