Failure to Launch: Lessons From Some of History’s Biggest Branding Disasters

Editorial Team

Lessons From Some of History's Biggest Branding Disasters

Branding. In the fast-paced world of advertising, branding is what defines the identity of a company and crafts the myth around the product. These days it’s one of the most important ways that companies can create points of difference and define how a consumer should feel when they see a can of Coke or Pepsi. 

This article will have a look at some of the greatest mess-ups in branding history in no particular order, and what we can learn from the decision-making of these companies. Of course, you could avoid having these issues altogether with the help of a branding agency in Melbourne that has seen all of these and more. Some of them are unfortunate mistakes, whereas others – well, let’s just say that they should’ve known better.

1.     U2: Songs of Innocence

In an Apple boardroom in 2014, it sounded like a great plan. A masterclass in marketing. Tim Cook’s brainchild with Bono. Release U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence, to every user on the iTunes platform totally free of charge and watch the praise roll in. In a time before widespread streaming, it seemed like a no-brainer – but it left a lot of consumers scratching their heads. I’m a fan of Vertigo and Achtung Baby, but I still remember being very puzzled to find an album I didn’t consent to own automatically downloaded to my space-limited iPod Touch – and that sentiment wasn’t just my own.

Apple lost a great deal of consumer goodwill from the action because of its invasiveness and lack of opt-out from the download. At a time when privacy issues surrounding new technology were becoming a topic of public concern, people were rightfully upset about having no choice in owning Songs of Innocence. They’ve learned their lesson, though: current Apple branding all revolves around how secure their products and services are, and rest assured that a Bono-induced auto-download is something that the company has left far behind them.

2.   Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Peace Ad

Pepsi posed a new question in its ever-present rivalry with Coca-Cola in 2017: which beverage is better at diffusing political tension? An ill-fated advertisement depicted a protest mirroring the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, with Kendall Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to a uniformed police officer. Instantly, the atmosphere changes into a carefree party.

The ad was universally panned and became the subject of myriad memes and even a high-profile parody in the Amazon series The Boys, with most criticism highlighting the ridiculousness of suggesting that a serious issue was simple enough to be solved by a sugary soft drink. The lesson here is pretty straightforward: don’t trivialise serious issues to try and create a ‘creative’ ad.

3.     Adidas’s Boston Marathon Email

“This could’ve just been an email” wasn’t a popular turn of phrase in the American Adidas office in 2017 with this classic blunder. Similar to Pepsi, consumers were rightfully upset about the lack of sensitivity surrounding the subject line of the email considering the tragic events of the Boston Marathon Bombings in 2013.

While this is clearly a mistake, it highlights a key lesson to be learned in branding: always double-check. Sensitivity editors are useful in this case and are used by many high-profile brands to cover any cultural blind spots that a marketing team may have missed, and ensure that a message is coherent and cohesive across cultural borders.

4.   Burger King and International Women’s Day

Brands are constantly looking to be on the cutting edge of consumer interaction, and Twitter (X?) has provided an excellent platform for humanising companies, pioneered by American fast-food chain Wendy’s.

What gains traction more than anything? Controversy. That’s why on International Women’s Day in 2021, Burger King UK released a series of tweets beginning with the sexist statement “Women belong in the kitchen.” Despite follow-up promising a new scholarship program for female-identifying chefs, the first tweet was widely circulated and panned for using a phrase that reduces women to a subservient household role on a day that they are meant to be celebrated. They say all press is good press, but from this example, it’s pretty obviously not the case.

 There’s a lesson to be learned here: ‘jokingly’ being sexist is still being sexist, and issues like women’s rights should not be taken lightly to increase the number of views that your marketing tweet will get.


These branding disasters, etched in the annals of marketing history, serve as invaluable lessons for marketers and businesses. The theme throughout is clear: understanding your audience, respecting brand loyalty, maintaining authentic messaging, and prioritising user experience are all crucial elements of how a company can maintain a sustainable branding strategy.

As these examples show, one tweet, email, or ad can be the difference between your brand being celebrated or hated, and learning from mistakes of the past can provide a roadmap to fortify successful branding strategies and allow companies to authentically engage with their audiences in the ever-changing landscape of advertising.