The biggest brand fails of 2020

Our annual look at the brand disasters and slip-ups that dominated headlines this year.

While the pandemic spurred many brands and organisations to rally together, some also used it as a chance to launch questionable marketing strategies and offerings. Simultaneously, some brands also jumped on the #BlackLivesMatter movement which launched a global conversation around institutional and social injustices—but they didn’t always land as expected.  

Mondelez: An impersonal human approach

In November, confectionary giant Mondelez launched its new global marketing strategy dubbed ‘humaning’. The brand described it as a “unique, consumer-centric approach to marketing that creates real, human connections with purpose”. The brand added that it is “no longer marketing to consumers, but creating connections with humans”.

The term was widely mocked in the industry via social media comments such as ‘Humaning is the live, love, laugh of marketing’ and ‘Did a robot come up with this?’.

Mondelez CMO Martin Renaud defended the strategy and told PRWeek: “There is a lot behind one word and I understand this word can be seen sometimes as a buzzword and people are asking, ‘Why did they do that?’

“I would like an invitation to talk about this deeper. I hope the criticism is more about ‘Let’s understand what they meant by that and grow together.’ I am so happy to learn from others. It is a two-way conversation I would love to have.”

Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman called the brand’s humaning strategy “horseshit”. In a blog post, Hoffman said: “I guess previously they were creating connections with squirrels or ducks or something. There is not another industry in the world that would tolerate this horseshit. In any sober industry the perpetrators of this nonsense would be taken out back by grown-ups and beaten to a pulp.”

Singapore Airlines: Grounded but out-of-touch

In many ways, Singapore’s national airline revolutionised marketing in the country with its consistently tasteful and market-relevant work. But the brand missed a mark when it floated its idea of launching ‘flights to nowhere’ during Covid in September.  The brand invited nationwide criticism for failing to consider the environmental impacts of consuming jet fuel to appease a group of restless travellers without a destination in mind.

To replace its original idea, it then launched a revised marketing plan that included dine-in options in its A380 jumbo jet which cost a maximum of SG$600 per meal. It also allowed people to order plane food to their homes, which one PR pro argued faces the challenge of differentiating its offerings to stand out from other fine dining establishments with similar price points. 

Fashion and beauty brands: Not so fair and lovely

The #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US sparked a global conversation around race and systematic injustices; and Asia wasn’t excluded. Colourism and anti-blackness is an existing issue in the region, and many consumer fashion and beauty brands scrambled to react amid increased scrutiny.

One such instance was whitening skincare product Fair & Lovely which renamed to Glow & Lovely by India’s Hindustan Unilever. However, the FMCG giant failed to address how products such as whitening creams contribute to colourism in the country and continues to push the same product under the revised brand name.

Separately, Unilever also stands accused by Kinita Shenoy, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in Sri Lanka, who claimed that she was bullied into reviewing a whitening product during her editorial stint despite repeatedly refusing to do so.  “Colourism is a deeply ingrained problem, rooted in a toxic mix of history, colonialism, and decades of harmful marketing practices," Shenoy told Campaign Asia. "It's not going to be fixed by a surface-level name change."

Meanwhile, L'Oréal landed in hot water when it said in June via an Instagram post –"Speaking out is worth it". The brand wrote: "L’Oréal Paris stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind. We are making a commitment to the NAACP to support progress in the fight for justice. #BlackLivesMatter."

Trans model Munroe Bergdorf accused the brand of "gaslighting" following the post. The world’s biggest cosmetics company had ended its partnership with Bergdorf in 2017 after she spoke out about the racism surrounding Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally. Bergdorf labelled L'Oréal "racist snakes" and accused similar brands of “jumping on the bandwagon" with regards to #BlackLivesMatter.

Disney: Two boycotts and a whole lotta silence

Disney’s live adaptation of Mulan was perhaps the year’s most talked-about film release. From last year, the film had been surrounded with controversy beginning with star Liu Yifei’s support of the Hong Kong police during pro-democracy protests last year, which led to a boycott in Hong Kong that trickled throughout the region.

The film eventually debuted on Disney+ in August this year at a premium price of US$29.99, a point of contention for fans and movie enthusiasts. Following its release, fans took note of the end credits, which included thanks to authorities in Xinjiang, a region that has been complicit in the clampdown on ethnic Uyghurs and Muslims. This prompted a boycott of the film in overseas markets.

This also caused Chinese authorities to 'ban' major media outlets in the mainland from covering Mulan, according to a report from Reuters.

So how did Disney react to this whirlwind of events? Rather underwhelmingly, it seems. After a lengthened period of silence, the network’s CFO Christine McCarthy said the backlash had “generated a lot of issues” for Disney. McCarthy said: “It’s common to acknowledge in a film’s credits the national and local governments that allowed you to film there. It has generated a lot of publicity. Let’s leave it at that.”

Fans called out the entertainment conglomerate for failing to condemn internment camps in Xinjiang.

Amazon: The devastating price of convenience

Sure, one would argue that Amazon is an incredibly useful service during a pandemic. But the ecommerce giant is a glaring example of what happens when a brand pushes out strong purpose without first getting its house in order.

In October, it was reported that nearly 20,000 Amazon workers in the US had contracted Covid. Despite financially gaining from the circumstance of the pandemic, founder Jeff Bezos and co failed to keep workers safe by keeping warehouses open.

Athena, a coalition of US activist groups campaigning for greater regulatory oversight over Amazon, called for immediate investigations into the company by public health officials. Director of Athena, Dania Rajendra, said in a statement: “Amazon allowed Covid-19 to spread like wildfire in its facilities, risking the health of tens of thousands of people who work at Amazon – as well as their family members, neighbours and friends. Amazon is, in no uncertain terms, a threat to public health.”

On top of that, it was reported in May this year that Bezos is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026. The news—which arrived during a deadly pandemic that had robbed hundreds of thousands of lives and exacerbated long-standing economic inequities—left a bitter taste.

Amazon—whether we like it or not—is a damning picture of a capitalistic model that exploits the already vulnerable and advances the already powerful, and the events of 2020 have shone a light on that.

Darlie: A sinister, minty fresh smile  

Amid the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Colgate-Palmolive said in June that it planned to "review and evolve" its popular toothpaste brand Darlie, which was originally known as Darkie until it changed one letter and the shading of the man featured in its logo in 1989. In China, the brand name translates to 'Black person toothpaste'.

Campaign’s managing editor Matthew Miller wrote in an op-ed that “brands have the power to inflict damage through their use of symbolism”. Yet time and time again, brands faced with these situations dig in their heels, or at least drag their feet.

Darlie is an example of a brand only attempting to make amends when called out or when consumer pressure cannot be ignored. The toothpaste brand has been criticised for its mascot for decades, but Miller argues that it has changed only in maddening baby steps, like substituting a single letter in its name (from Darkie to Darlie) and toggling the colour of the man's face on its packaging from black to white. If a brand can execute an entire marketing campaign in less than six months, it can also afford to rebrand far more quickly in the name of respect.

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