When Marketing Successes Go Sideways

When Marketing Successes Go Sideways

When Marketing Successes Go Sideways

By Greg Zakowicz, senior commerce marketing analyst at Bronto
4-minute read

 In short:

  • Sometimes, marketing campaigns perform “too well,” turning sour when brands don’t anticipate the reaction they receive. 

  • Case studies include a Build-A-Bear workshop campaign that drew far more customers than anticipated and IHOP’s temporary name change, which conjured negative social media chatter.

  • Brands seeking to carry out similar campaigns would be wise to clearly define the motivation behind the campaign, anticipate all possible reactions and ensure they stay true to their brands. 

Have you ever had a marketing campaign work too well? I’m talking about one that worked so well that it did a 180 and actually turned negative. Or maybe your campaign worked as you anticipated, but the response you received was a complete surprise. 

This happens occasionally in all areas of marketing, from email to social to in-store promotions. It’s par for the course. The important thing is that when it does, businesses ask, “Why did we fail to anticipate this reaction?”

Two promotions that “worked too well” include the now-infamous Build-A-Bear Workshop “Pay Your Age Day" promotion and IHOP’s “IHOb” name change. In both instances, the brands heightened their exposure and created sharable marketing campaigns. But they were also put in positions where they had to play defensive PR. 

Case study #1: Bear with us

Build-A-Bear’s promotion was simple: On a single day, the brand’s Bonus Club members could go in with their child and build stuffed animals for the dollar equivalent of their child’s age. (The price for parents was capped at $29.) Social media was abuzz. The promotion was trending.

But some might say it worked too well. There were widespread reports of customers waiting in line for hours, kids in tow, for a discounted stuffed animal. Some never got their toys and had to receive vouchers for a future visit. Many left stores completely empty-handed, as locations closed their lines just hours into the promotion. There were reports of angry customers who didn’t appreciate waiting or how store managers handled the overwhelming situation. For these customers, the experience was bad. It’s highly possible some of them were permanently soured on the brand. 

This past summer, Build-A-Bear Workshop ran a "Pay Your Age Day" campaign. (credit: Instagram/buildabear)

Case study #2: from P to B

This past June, IHOP famously swapped its name from IHOP to IHOb in order to promote its burger options. According to president Darren Rebelez, the social media campaign received more than 30 billion media impressions and was the topic of 20,000 news stories. And according to YouGov, IHOP’s Word of Mouth Score rose from 19 percent to 30 percent in the week following its announcement. 

It would seem all things went great, but that depends on who you ask. Social media reactions were mixed. Other burger chains like Wendy’s, Whataburger, and White Castle all responded to the news on social, arguably building their own brand awareness off of someone else’s marketing campaign. Some framed themselves as “staying true and authentic to their brands” (a factor both millennials and Gen Z consider when making decisions) while IHOP was not. Meanwhile, cohorts of consumers engaged in mob-like mockery of the change and criticized the brand across social media, boasting their ability to see through the promotional stunt.

In June, IHOP announced it'd change its name to IHOb to promote its burger offerings. (credit: Instagram/ihop)

3 takeaways 

Whether these promotions definitively went “sideways” is a matter of personal interpretation. But in any case, they offer valuable tips for businesses looking to run over-the-top promotional campaigns in search of brand awareness.

1. Pinpoint the motivation behind your campaign.

Before devising a marketing campaign, ask yourself: What do your customers actually want long-term, beyond this promotion? 

Let’s imagine the Build-A-Bear promotion worked too well because cost had kept certain consumers from visiting Build-A-Bear stores in the past. If so, maybe the price point was too high. This revelation would’ve required a much larger conversation about pricing, rather than (or in addition to) a conversation about promotions.

Or maybe consumers weren’t making repeated trips to Build-A-Bear because the experience was lacking in some way. If so, it would’ve been helpful to ask what else might have impacted to these customers (besides a deep discount) to encourage a visit.

2. Anticipate all possible reactions. 

There’s a chance that both Build-A-Bear and IHOP accurately forecasted the reactions they received and accepted them, considering exposure to be worth the cost of some bad press. (I doubt it. But there’s a chance.) 

Whether they did or not, the point is your brand should anticipate that your audience, especially if they’re socially-savvy, will interject in your campaign with their own commentary. Other brands might hijack your campaign to further their own brand image. Too many customers might show up at your door. Anticipate responses like these--prepare a list of all the reasons your campaign might go sideways. Afterward, analyze why the promotion went well or how you could have prepared better. 

3. Stay true to your brand. 

Some might argue that neither Build-A-Bear nor IHOP stayed true to their brands with the aforementioned promotions. Build-A-Bear is not a deep discounting store, and even with its new meat offering, IHOP is not a burger chain. Neither of their promotions seemed to capture what the brands are about. If your promotion will take away from the brand you have worked to build, then you should solidify a compelling reason to execute the promotion.

🌱 The bottom line

When planning and executing a promotion, don’t underestimate your customers. Learn who they are and what matters to them. And maybe most importantly, stay true to your brand. Otherwise, you run the risk of sacrificing long-term success for potential short-term gain.

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