Staff Reporters
Dec 16, 2016

Year in review: Brand stumbles and PR crises

We continue our year-end features with the year's biggest PR controversies. Culling this list to a succinct five was very difficult, as always.

Year in review: Brand stumbles and PR crises

See all our 2016 year-in-review features: Brand crises; major appointments and departures; big launches; the best, worst and strangest ads; and more.

Today's list: We have a two-for-one special on brand missteps for you today. This page covers our top 5 controversies from across the region, and we also have a special list of brand fails from China

Samsung Galaxy Note7

It wasn't hard to decide where to start for this list. In terms of brand crises, nothing came close to Samsung killing off its flagship Galaxy Note7 smartphone because it was, well, exploding. The incident started out as a recall (called a "bold and brilliant" stroke of crisis-management at the time) but quickly evolved into the full euthanasia of the device in October. The technology failure was just one part of the story: the brand’s fudged attempts to minimise and then rectify the disaster only made it worse. People traded in faulty phones for supposedly safe ones, only to have them blow up too. Airlines continue to have warnings banning the Note7. Communication was confused, with different consumers entitled to different compensation around the globe. All in all, a horror show that damaged the company's reputation and will cost it an estimated US$10 billion.

Dentsu's dual controversies: Overbilling and overtime

We don't normally include agencies in this list, preferring to stick to consumer-facing brands, but this year we're making two exceptions. The first is Dentsu, which in the last few months of 2016 has been through arguably the most severe test of its brand reputation to date. An overbilling controversy sent shockwaves across the industry, and continues to be a thorn in Dentsu’s side. However, it was completely overshadowed by the ongoing investigation into working conditions that led to the suicide of an employee last year. Authorities raided Dentsu twice, and the network’s initially underwhelming attempts to address its culture drew further scrutiny. Last week the company announced it would abandon its 1951 'devil' rules, but the issue is not likely to disappear for a long time. Here's our full cache of coverage on the crisis.

Grey’s “I Sea” campaign

The second agency brand to make our list is Grey. Phoney ‘do-good’ campaigns to win awards have been a hot-button issue for a while, but it all came to a fiery head this year when Grey made itself the poster child for the practice. Grey Singapore’s “I Sea” app, supposedly developed for an NGO to help rescue sea-stranded migrants, took a Bronze Lion at Cannes before people discovered it didn't work (and probably could not possibly work). After that, the NGO in question disavowed it, it was ejected from the App Store and Grey surrendered the Lion. However, the utter refusal of Grey's global comms director to admit any blame whatsoever only added fuel to the agency's own pyre, and led us to take the relatively rare step of weighing in ourselves.

DeNA plagiarism accusations

Japanese online media and ecommerce firm DeNA is still reeling from accusations last week of plagiarism and inaccuracy on its Welq website, which misappropriated content regarding medical information. DeNA shut down Welq and nine other sites pending a third-party investigation, and its CEO publicly apologised “for causing trouble” and has taken a 30 percent pay cut. Yet this seems only the beginning of the crisis; around 6 million people a month used Welq in Japan, and public outrage is currently huge. That DeNA is seen as being very slow in addressing the problem has only added to its woes.

Lancôme ‘kowtow’ saga

Hong Kongers were whipped into a frenzy by Lancôme’s actions surrounding pro-democracy singer Denise Ho. The brand invited the singer to perform at a concert in Hong Kong, but abruptly cancelled the appearance due to pressure from Chinese media and netizens. That went down like a lead balloon in Hong Kong, as did Lancôme’s two rushed statements, the first saying Ho was not a brand ambassador, the second—only minutes later—saying safety was the reason for the cancellation. Hong Kong was not amused: Street protests, boycotts and shutting of Lancôme stores followed. A local politician even posted a video of herself flushing Lancôme products down the toilet.


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