The Marketing Standouts and Flops of 2018

A look back at the year in marketing wins and fails

Dec 04, 2018
Marketing

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Sometimes a brand’s marketing concept just works. It drives consumer behavior and boosts consumer approval. It makes people think or makes people laugh. It sticks with people in all the best ways. And sometimes… sometimes… it just flops. Hard.

Maryland Smith’s Henry C. Boyd III looks back at the marketing hits and misses of 2018.

The ‘B’ Was a Bust

When IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, hinted that it was changing its name to IHOB, it sparked some confusion. What’s the “B?”

“It was IHOP trying to build some buzz,” says Boyd, clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “And they did build buzz. They got a lot of people on social media saying ‘Oh, the mystery. Is it breakfast? Is it bacon? Could it be Blintz? Bagel? The list went on and on.”

The fast-casual chain gained millions of impressions and sparked lots of conversations, ahead of a temporary name change that would tout the brand’s burgers. (Yes, “B” was for burgers.)

“And then when the people came in to try the burgers – guess what? – the product didn’t live up to the hype,” Boyd says.

What started as success ended in fail. “They got everyone excited. And then when it was time for the ta-da, the ta-da wasn’t there. It just fell short,” he says. “Chalk that one up as a flop.”

Nike Just Did It

When Nike tapped Colin Kaepernick to be the face of its “Just Do It” campaign, it sparked a little backlash on social media. A few people even posted videos of themselves setting their Nike gear on fire.

But Nike didn’t apologize. And when the smoke cleared, says Boyd, the brand and its sales were stronger than before.

“I think Nike was right and was proven right. They did the math. They knew there would be a bit of backlash from some folks, but at the end of the day, their target audience is this younger audience – the millennials and Generation Z. And they had a golden opportunity to be on the right side of history, with the right message, and with a guy who is going to be iconic. And that’s exactly what they did.”

Standing out along the marketing landscape means taking risks and executing well. “And Nike, they made it happen,” he says.

On Your Mark, Adidas

There are times in which marketing is about being a good citizen, Boyd says. “It means asking: What can I do with my brand and how can I do things that uplift the community?”

This year, Adidas had a win with a memorable campaign during the Boston Marathon, creating personalized videos for each of its 30,000-plus runners. “We know the history of the Boston Marathon and what happened there. Adidas was saying to these runners, here is your personalized video, your journey, your experience. It didn’t put the product front-and-center. It was there, on the runners’ bibs, but subtle, secondary to the journey of that runner,” he says. It was well executed.

The good citizen marketing approach is tricky. It can be “ham-handed” and can fail spectacularly, he says, as in the case of Pepsi’s 2017 Kendall Jenner ad. “You’ve got to be so careful,” Boyd says. “People know when they are being marketed to, and they will criticize the bad approach.”

McDonald’s ‘W’ Was an ‘F’

McDonald’s flipped its golden arches upside down to create a “W” for International Women’s Day this year, but the “W” was hardly a win. The fast-food chain was immediately blasted for what was seen as a hollow gesture from a company that doesn’t pay its employees a living wage.

The ploy failed in its execution, Boyd says. “People said it looked like they were just trying to sell hamburgers and fries, instead of really caring about women’s issues and women’s empowerment.”

Dove Dusts Itself Off, Tries Again

Unilever launched the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty nearly 15 years ago, and for much of that time the brand has gotten its messaging right, says Boyd. “And then, bless my soul, in 2017, they had a major mishap,” Boyd says.

It happened when the brand placed a Facebook ad that showed a brown woman in a brown T-shirt lift up her shirt to reveal a white woman in a beige T-shirt.

“People were like ‘Dude, do you have anyone of color in the room when you are making these marketing decisions?’ Because what are you implying? That African American skin is dirty and white skin is pristine and beautiful?’ It was not good.”

To Dove’s credit, Boyd says, the brand apologized, and in 2018, created something good, partnering with Rebecca Sugar, creator of the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe, for a short film series that features the Crystal Gems.

“It’s a major rebound,” Boyd says. “It’s a series of body confidence, self-esteem videos. The product isn’t front-and-center, but the message is. And it’s a message about healthy attitudes, self-esteem and believing in yourself.

“Marketers can make some missteps when they’re taking chances. That’s what I teach in my classes. But they can also make it better.”

Payless, Priceless

You gotta hand it to Payless, Boyd says, for what might be the marketing move of the year.

The discount footwear chain pulled off a buzzworthy publicity stunt in spendy Santa Monica, Calif., opening a pop-up store they called “Palessi.” The store, a former Armani boutique, was stocked with $19.99 pumps and $39.99 boots, tagged with much, much higher prices. Social media influencers were invited to an exclusive shoe party, with Champagne, music, and the chance to buy those pretty shoes and boots at an 1,800 percent markup.

“The way the influencers were so confident on camera was just great. ‘Yes, these shoes are amazing,’” he mocked. “‘They’re worth the $640.’”

For Payless, the tone was non-judgmental, non-preachy and all in good fun. And that attitude is likely to serve the brand well, Boyd says.

“A lot of people saw this, a lot of places wrote about it, and a lot of people shared these videos. And that’s going to have a lot of people thinking that there must be some good quality at Payless, that it must be good value for the money, because the people who should be ‘in the know’ don’t really know.

“That is really a win.”

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About the Expert(s)

Henry C. Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.

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