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Marketing Fails and Lessons Learned: What Not to Do in Your Campaigns

In the ever-evolving landscape of marketing, success often comes hand-in-hand with experimentation. However, not every campaign hits the mark, and some even end up becoming case studies about what not to do. In this exploration of marketing failures, we will delve into some notable blunders from both South African and international brands. By dissecting the missteps of these campaigns, we aim to extract valuable lessons that marketers can apply to enhance their own strategies. From tone-deaf advertisements to social media blunders and branding mishaps, let’s shine a light on the common pitfalls that can sabotage marketing efforts and uncover marketing lessons to help marketers avoid similar mistakes.

Marketing Fails and Lessons Learned What Not to Do in Your Campaigns

Marketing Disasters

Clicks Catastrophe

A blunder in brand communication unfolded at Clicks, South Africa’s prominent health, beauty, and lifestyle retailer. The controversy arose when an advertisement by TRESemmé, featured by Clicks, described black women’s hair as “dry and damaged,” while characterising white women’s hair as “fine and flat” or “normal”. This misstep ignited a rapid and negative response. Clicks promptly issued an apology, but the reputational damage was swift. The incident underscored the importance of incorporating independent input through focus groups or involving a diverse panel in the review and approval process before a campaign goes public. Such measures could be the decisive factor in whether a campaign goes viral for positive or negative reasons.

Clicks Catastrophe

*Image credits to iAfrica

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner

Pepsi aimed to position its product as a unifying cultural force, an admirable goal for any campaign. However, the result was far from favourable. In the advertisement, Kendall Jenner is depicted resolving a Black Lives Matter protest by offering a can of Pepsi to a police officer. This attempt at cultural unity backfired, resulting in widespread outrage, social media ridicule, an SNL parody, and a swift withdrawal of the ad. Ad agencies seized the opportunity to critique Pepsi’s in-house ad group, suggesting that such a fiasco could have been avoided with agency involvement. Six months later, PepsiCo president Brad Jakeman resigned, citing the ad as “the most gut-wrenching experience of my career”.

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner

Image credits: New Your Times

Adidas and the Boston Marathon

Adidas found itself in hot water when it sent a poorly worded email to participants of the 2017 Boston Marathon. The subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” might have seemed innocuous in the context of other fitness events. However, it became highly offensive given its timing—coming on the heels of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which resulted in three deaths and over 250 injuries. Although such language is commonly used to celebrate completing an event, the insensitivity of Adidas’s message sparked immediate backlash. The company issued a swift apology, but the damage to their reputation was already done.

Adidas and the Boston Marathon

Image credits: Better Marketing

Avoid Falling Victim To These Marketing Failures With These Marketing Lessons

Consider the following marketing tips:

a. Know Your Audience: Invest time and resources in understanding your target demographics’ preferences, behaviours, and values.

b. Stay Current: In the fast-paced world of marketing, trends and cultural references can become outdated quickly. Keep your campaigns fresh and relevant.

c. Engage in Continuous Learning: Stay informed about the latest marketing trends, technologies, and best practices to keep your strategies ahead of the curve.

d. Be Mindful on Social Media: Exercise caution when using social media platforms. What may seem harmless to one audience can be offensive to another. Prioritise inclusive and respectful communication.

e. Cultural Intelligence: Whether expanding locally or internationally, prioritise cultural intelligence. Adapt your messaging and branding to resonate positively with diverse audiences.

Avoid Falling Victim To These Marketing Failures With These Marketing Lessons


Marketing failures can be costly, but they also provide invaluable lessons for those willing to learn and use them as marketing tips. By dissecting the missteps of others and using them as marketing lessons, marketers can refine their strategies, avoid common pitfalls, and create campaigns that resonate with their audience. Remember, marketing and branding is an ever-evolving landscape, and success lies in the ability to adapt, learn, stay ahead of the curve, and use marketing tips to their advantage.