The Business Decisions that became Marketing Missteps 

Published 08/01/2024 / THOUGHTS

Smart marketing and communication strategies can build deeper, more valuable relationships between businesses and their stakeholders. They also have the power to present a brand or a cause in a fresh, eye-catching way whilst building brand credibility. 

But even the best laid plans can unravel, and 2023 had its fair share of business decisions that left many scratching their heads in confusion – as well as reputations badly bruised. Here are six business decisions that became notable marketing mishaps last year, and how brands can learn from them this year. 

1. X-perimentation Falls Short  

It was a rocky year for Elon Musk’s social platform. Since Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, US advertising on the platform came down nearly 60% due to a series of commercial and marketing missteps. These included the decision to rebrand to X, which damaged brand sentiment and usage intent. Experts judged the move as throwing away ‘decades of equity’. And Musk’s controversial behaviour hasn’t helped; his highly offensive remarks on politicians, big brands, and apparent endorsement of an antisemitic tweet have seen the platform lose millions in ad spend.  

2. Google’s Chatbot Mistake  

Artificial intelligence dominated headlines in 2023. Google, forced to play catch-up following the prolific success of Chat GPT, made a marketing error which cost them $100 billion in value. Its rollout of AI chatbot Bard stalled when a series of ads run on Google’s X feed showed it responding incorrectly to questions. For instance, Bard responded to a question about the James Webb Space Telescope with the reply that the telescope took the very first pictures of “exoplanets” – which it didn’t. That’s something that Google could’ve … well … Googled.  

3. Coutts Falls Foul of Farage  

Private bank, Coutts, suffered a blow to its reputation, enduring a messy public row with its former customer Nigel Farage after he obtained documents detailing why his account had been closed. The bank told the BBC that Farage’s failure to meet the financial threshold was behind its decision, but internal documents showed that Farage’s alleged “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views” were considered to pose a risk to the bank’s reputation. It was an embarrassing and serious comms error for Coutts, which it was forced to publicly admit and apologise for. The fallout was swift: the head of Coutts was ousted, and £1bn was wiped off NatWest’s share price.  

4. Altman Fired by Open AI  

The sacking of OpenAI boss Sam Altman turned into a PR nightmare.  When Altman, the co-founder of the company behind the ChatGPT bot, was suddenly sacked, Open AI faced an open revolt from its staff.  Following a week of mixed messaging and upheaval, Altman was reinstated. But internal wrangling at the company has remained public currency, with further headlines reporting on Altman’s abusive behaviour at work.  Open AI’s public skirmish has not only damaged the brand’s credibility but also led to a new Board of Directors being established at the company. 

5. Bumpy Ride for Airline Advertising  

Three airlines were accused of greenwashing last year, with their adverts around ‘green fare’ schemes being banned by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France were all reprimanded by the ASA after making sustainability claims when promoting new fare pricing and carbon offsetting schemes that weren’t supported by robust evidence. It’s a marketing misstep that contributes to consumer scepticism around ESG. 

6. When ‘Washing’ Gets Called Out 

Last year, several companies were caught out when their enthusiasm to support awareness campaigns backfired. International Women’s Day was a prime example, with many companies getting behind the initiative only to be called out by the Gender Pay Gap Bot. Emirates publicised its campaign celebrating female-led films available on their in-flight entertainment system, but the Bot’s retweet revealed a pay gap of 34.2%, which was 27.5% points wider than the previous year.  And Heathrow Airport also shared stories from women at Heathrow to mark IWD only to have the bot reveal women’s median hourly pay is 14% lower than men’s.  

From rebranding failures to controversial decisions, these examples not only damaged reputations but in some cases led to huge financial losses with high-profile fallout. They emphasise the importance of effective communication, a well-thought-out marketing strategy, and a need for agile, intelligent crisis handling. By learning from past mistakes and proactively addressing potential issues, businesses will be better placed to move forward successfully in 2024. 

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