Certain marketing gambles feel like they’re going to change the world. And sometimes they do. Other times, they can bring your company to the edge of oblivion.
Being bold and taking risks is a huge part of any business. From how you operate on a daily basis, to how you present yourself through marketing. And while it’d be easy to lay the blame entirely on the idea itself, it’s worth remembering that concepts aren’t just born into existence. They have to be thoroughly vetted and approved.
So really, when talking about ideas that can either sink or save your company, we’re not just talking about an ad or a video. It’s about the people behind that message and how they deal with change, innovation and sometimes backlash. As well as acknowledging that even the best approach can come at the wrong time.
As a scent, Old Spice has been around since the 1930s. Which, in simple terms, means you could smell exactly as your great grandfather did decades ago. That’s a fairly hard sell for a younger demographic. So in 2006, Old Spice brought in ad agency Wieden+Kennedy to spice things up – if you’ll pardon that frankly unforgivable pun.
Their approach was a simple one. Don’t worry about changing the scent, change the attitude. This gave rise to a brazen, comedy-driven style, which took off with the surrealist The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign. Again, this repositioning was a risk for a household name. But once audiences were sold on a half naked man with a fistful of diamonds riding a horse, there was no limit to what was possible. And sales shot up as the ads garnered millions of views.
On a personal or individual level, we’re all free to champion various social issues. But when a company does it… it just hits differently. Viewers scrutinise agenda and association, i.e. is this relevant or what do they have to gain? So taking a stand has to be for the right reasons and done in the right way.
When Colin Kaepernick – a star American Football player – took the knee during a 2016 NFL game, it sent shockwaves. His reasons were simple: to speak out peacefully against racial injustice and police brutality. The backlash and furore was instantaneous.
Backing Kaepernick was a risk but absolutely the right moral thing to do. Which is exactly what Nike did when they openly invested in a multi-million dollar campaign. It was polarising but simple in its execution and felt like a step toward genuine change, rather than a cynical marketing campaign. And of course, it’s worth noting that Nike saw their social media activity bounce 1000%, their stock prices rose sharply and their sales increased.
In the mid 90s Sega and Nintendo dominated the video game scene, with a very open, bitter rivalry. It was a time when we were stepping away from blowing into plastic cartridges and transitioning to shiny futuristic CDs. But when Sony were snubbed by Nintendo – having been dropped from a partnership at the last minute – they decided to enter the video game console market on their own.
This was a decision that could have easily crashed and burned, as it had for so many other ambitious companies. So Sony needed their PlayStation to stand out. It wasn’t some immature gaming device for children, it had to be seen as a creative escape for everyone. The various marketing strategies employed had to stand out. They had to strike a feeling of being new, different and inspiring.
Cue the Double Life ad campaign. At the heart of this advert was a rousing monologue delivered by a diverse range of people. With theatrical lines such as “You may not think it to look at me, but I have commanded armies and conquered worlds” and “For though I have led a double life, at least I can say I’ve lived.” Whatever this powerful message was selling, you were hooked. And then in the very last frame, it told you: do not underestimate the power of PlayStation. This could have blown up in Sony’s face but they not only went on to see great success, but have produced four of the Top 10 best selling consoles of all time.
Stepping away from the bold, the brave and the successful, let’s talk about marketing gambles that were complete blunders. 2017 was a hotbed of social and political engagement. So Pepsi decided to strike their colours and produce a short film, which would then be repurposed as a commercial, entitled Live for Now.
The video itself detailed a protest marching through the streets, with young artistic minds joining forces. Most notably, a photographer struggling for inspiration, heads out with her camera and manages to snap an image that encapsulates the zeitgeist: Kendall Jenner reaching out to a row of police officers, with a can of Pepsi like a white dove.
You can see how the execs would have felt this was a supportive and inclusive effort – a company doing their bit to be part of the conversation. But unlike the aforementioned Nike campaign, it ended up feeling a lot like virtue signalling and minimising issues faced by real people.
And as the years have gone by, this particular ad has grown even more toxic. Less a clumsy bungle, more a downplaying of how bad things would get and continue to be. And to this day, it continues to be lambasted, lampooned and satirised for its tone deaf approach.
When you work so hard to generate an iconic and recognisable logo, updating it can be a death sentence. But if your logo is just three letters, how bad can a fresh coat of paint be? You may not recognise it now but the original 70s logo for The Gap was given an update in 1986. Dropping the “The” and elongating the serif font for a very art deco inspired look. This approach gave an air of sophistication and class.
Marketing win, right? We’ve filed this in the wrong category, surely? Well, we’re not actually talking about 1986. We’re in fact looking at one week in October 2010. With the confidence of what came before, Gap employed a Helvetica font in sentence case capitalisation and reduced their blue background to a small gradient box in the top right hand corner.
And no, you didn’t read that wrong. One week. That’s all it lasted before being reverted back to exactly as it was beforehand.
Easily one of the most ridiculous and poorly thought out ideas on this list, comes from Pizza Hut. If you weren’t aware, Pizza Hut is a set of franchise restaurants. That means each outlet exists under the brand but has a certain level of autonomy. And in 2014, one such establishment in Melbourne, Australia took that independence to new lows, with the announcement of their latest meal deal: Buy any 10 large pizzas and get one free small animal.
Yeah, you’re not reading that wrong. Buy ten pizzas, get a guinea pig. Naturally the outcry was immediate and the overseeing parent company stepped in with unreserved apologies. And we can’t even start to try and argue a positive here. This wasn’t a shake-up of a struggling brand. It wasn’t a ‘best intentions, poor delivery’ situation. It was just a remarkably stupid idea from the get-go.
Let’s close with one of the most infamous and lasting missteps. One which became a cautionary tale for decades to come. Coca-Cola had been a dominant household name for decades. But by the mid 80s, they were losing market presence to diet drinks and failing blind taste test challenges when compared to the sweeter tasting Pepsi.
Drastic measures were called for. So in 1985 a reformulated “New Coke” was released. To say this new taste was disliked would be putting it lightly. Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters allegedly had to hire a psychologist to listen to around 1,500 complaint calls every single day. Within three months, the message was heard loud and clear. Coca-Cola officials announced they were bringing back the old formula as Coca-Cola Classic. And sales skyrocketed.
But the debate continues to this day. On the one hand, this could be seen as countless dollars and working hours poured into an utter failure. An attempt to read the market and floundering so spectacularly in the face of familiarity and emotional attachment.
Or – and Coca-Cola have actively denied this – was it an intentional ploy? We’ve all collectively dismissed this bold move as a complete disaster but with the reversal causing such an uptick in sales, could it be considered one of the greatest gambles? I guess that all depends on intention and, subsequently, I guess we’ll never really know.