As wedding disasters go, mine wouldn’t make the all-time top ten. But it would have to be close. My wife is a hairdresser and one of her clients was a magician, who will be referred to here as Charlie Chuckles. Mr Chuckles said that, as a wedding present, he would perform at our reception. Dozens of children were attending, so we thought that it would add value to the evening’s entertainment. Chuckles arrived on the night with his box of tricks and accosted the DJ, who duly silenced “Hi-Ho Silver Lining” and replaced it with the magician’s own “mood” music.
He opened his box and pulled out a crucifix, held it aloft and stuck it in his arm. The guests looked on aghast as he then poured paraffin on his impaled limb and set fire to it. He topped this by removing a meat cleaver and lopping off his arm. Blood splattered from the stump over the stage and hit the front row of screaming kids.
The stunned silence was hint enough and, before you could say “abracadabra”, Chuckles picked up the severed limb and did a vanishing trick, narrowly avoiding being defenestrated by irate mothers. The DJ prevented the mothers forming a lynch mob by distracting them with “The Timewarp”. The mums danced on and Chuckles lived to immolate himself another day.
Obviously, we hadn’t done our research properly. We assumed that magicians were all about fluffy bunny rabbits and crap card tricks, not blasphemy and self-mutilation. Perhaps the disaster could have been avoided had we heeded the advice of brand consultancy Henrion Ludlow Schmidt. It issued a press release two weeks ago on “all-time marketing disasters”, as decided by “top European branding experts”.
The top ten included some familiar cock-ups. Hoover’s free flights fiasco (iconic, if only for the alliteration), the Post Office’s name change to Consignia and the gaffes by the Barclaycard and Ratner’s bosses. It also included some sound, if gnawingly predictable, advice on how to avoid such disasters in the future.
Not to be outdone, a week later Media Week came up with its own, “Top ten advertising nightmares of all time”. Its top ten also included Persil Power and the entire dotcommunity headed by Boo.com.
It is hard to disagree with many of the choices, but both voted Coca-Cola’s Dasani as the number one disaster. It has become fashionable to knock Coca-Cola, but history will be kinder.
It may have screwed up on the bromide contamination at its plant, but that was due to poor engineering, not bad marketing. Dasani was the first genuine innovation in the bottled water market for 20 years. Coke’s real sin was that it failed to be aggressive enough towards the water companies over contamination and the mineral water companies for over-pricing. Rather than aggressively questioning the quality of tap water, it allowed the media agenda to be set around price.
A fresh public health scare is brewing about the chlorination of water supplies and Coke was in a prime position to exploit fears about the quality of tap water. It should reconsider and launch a Dasani MkII – a bottled water that’s half the price of mineral water, but is treated tap water with the contaminants removed.
The Dasani story is told like a fairytale. These marketing fairytales are often used by marketing services organisations to give a moral lesson – usually the moral is spend more money on a) public relations b) advertising c) market research d) branding consultancy. The stories always fix on a single reason why the disaster occurred.
Sometimes, the moral of the fairytale can be quite bizarre. A few years ago cultural studies academic Andrew Wernick attributed the demise of the Ford Edsel in 1958 to the fact that some consumers had said that its grille looked like a vagina, complete with teeth. Though gender fender-bending is an extreme example of the genre, some of the more serious homilies can be dangerously misleading.
Sainsbury’s took one of the top spots in Media Week’s list because of the John Cleese ads, derided in Hamish Pringle’s book on celebrities in advertising. The Cleese ads were a symptom of the malaise, not the cause of it. The fact is that Sainsbury’s was too slow to innovate. Its stores were dull and dour, its stock lacked innovation and the in-store experience was limp and listless. Its loyalty programme was also unorganised and disparate.
There are often multiple reasons for a brand’s demise, not least the marketing efforts of the competition. British Airways’ failings, for instance, have been helpfully pointed out by Virgin’s marketing department at any available opportunity.
With this in mind, my own top tips to avoid disasters – apart from the obvious one about research, commitment and never under-estimating the competition – are don’t spend your time listening to brand fairytales when you should be focusing on what you know best. And most importantly, always try to hire a DJ who understands the power of The Timewarp.
Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook