Faaez Samadi
Dec 7, 2018

The 5 biggest brand fails of 2018

Have your best facepalm at the ready, as we continue our year-end review.

The 5 biggest brand fails of 2018

2018 IN REVIEW: Throughout December we're looking back at the year in APAC marketing, advertising and communications—listicle-style.

Today, we gleefully present the year's biggest brand fails.

1. Dolce. Gabbana. China.

Type the three words above into your search engine and watch aghast at the complete cluster[beep] that is this (ongoing) brand disaster. To summarise this mess neatly will be tricky, but here goes: Dolce & Gabbana, seeking to promote its first Shanghai fashion show, puts out an ad showing a young Asian woman fumbling to eat Italian food with chopsticks, with a leery male narrator ‘tutoring’ her.

What on earth possessed them? That’s the right question. Cue Chinese netizens justifiably displaying their anger at the stereotypical racism of said ad. But then it gets worse. A racist dialogue then takes place on Instagram between one user and Stefano Gabbana himself. It's horrible. Cue further internet bedlam, with D&G hurriedly issuing a surprising claim that its and Gabbana’s Instagram accounts were hacked. Nothing further has been offered on these claims.

The two D&G founders have since put an apology video on their Weibo account, but it’s far too little too late. The Chinese government cancelled D&G’s Shanghai show, and in a huge blow, retailer Lane Crawford dropped the brand from all its China stores

Plenty of people will go back and forth on the crisis management, the bizarre hacking element, and whether the apology worked. But it all comes back to the initial cock-up: the ad. To think anyone even suggested such an ugly idea, let alone signed off and paid for it to come to life, is utterly staggering.

2. Facebook and, well, everyone

Few could have predicted the year that Facebook has endured. Not long ago Mark Zuckerberg toured America in what many thought might be a precursor to a political run. Now he is hiding from politicians around the world as they ask more questions about the actions of his global super-company, which has seen US$100 billion wiped off its market value this year. 

For sure, many of Facebook’s woes—Cambridge Analytica, election meddling, questionable internal policies—have blown up in the US and Europe, but there have been plenty of Asian scandals for the company to contend with as well, from Facebook being used to spread anti-Rohingya hate speech, to WhatsApp being a tool to send violent, sometimes murderous, mobs to attack people in India.

Talks of ‘fake news’ laws in countries like Singapore and Malaysia stem from Facebook’s numerous crises this year, and the public scolding of the company’s APAC VP of public policy, Simon Milner, in Singapore in March only added to its Asian PR problems. And it would be foolish at this point to believe the company won't face more Asia-based scandals.

3. Marriott’s geography goof

If there’s one surefire way to get on the wrong side of many Chinese consumers, it’s bringing up the question, however innocuously, of the independence of Chinese territories. With the internet and netizens being as they are, you don’t even have to make an overt reference, as Marriott found out to its cost in January.

The hotel group’s mainland Chinese website committed the cardinal sin of listing Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as countries separate from China. An honest mistake easily rectified? Not so much, when you consider authorities shut down Marriott’s China site for months, and its brand equity remains low among locals, almost a full year on from the controversy.

Compounding the initial error was a somewhat bizarre apology statement, and then a US employee choosing that moment to ‘like’ a tweet from a Tibetan separatist group (he was fired). The whole saga is this year’s seriously cautionary tale for those looking to do business in China,

4. BBlunt v Olivia: The plagiarism fight

Since the beginning of time, people have been influenced by others. Advertising is no different. You see something, you like it, maybe it influences the next creative thing you work on. This can obviously be taken too far, and accusations of plagiarism aren’t new in the industry. Where the sticking point often occurs is proving that something has been copied, or whether it’s just had an influence.

With that in mind, in today’s digital universe, surely no one would be stupid enough to enact the most fundamental of ripoffs: the copy-paste? Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Olivia Intense, a hair colour brand from Pakistan’s Maskatiya Industries. The company appears to have done just that with regard to Indian competitor BBlunt Salon Secret’s ad featuring Bollywood actor Kareena Kapoor.

As mentioned, these cases can be ambiguous. This one isn’t. The ads are almost identical, with Kapoor holding an Olivia product in one and a BBlunt item in the other. Godrej, BBlunt’s parent company, is said to have sought legal action against Maskatiya.

5. Cathay Pacific’s data debacle

As mentioned above in discussing Facebook, data privacy is as hot-button an issue with consumers as you can get right now. About the easiest way to kick off a brand crisis these days is a data breach. To keep it alive, give at least the impression there may have been an attempted coverup.

Cue Cathay Pacific. At this time investigations, both by Hong Kong authorities and the company itself, are ongoing, so it’s not possible to say what really occurred. But the laughably blasé manner in which the airline casually announced a huge data breach of 9.4 million people—which included personal data such as passport numbers and addresses—was astonishing. Add to that the somewhat hidden chronology in the release, that the brand had known about the breach since March (!) and only reported it in October.

Suffice to say consumers are livid, as are Hong Kong legislators, who chewed out the company’s CEO and chairman for a “blatant attempt” at a coverup, which they denied. They also apologised, but as this crisis unfolds, expect that to hold less water with consumers.

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