Matthew Keegan
Dec 20, 2023

Year in Review: Six biggest brand fails of 2023

We kick-off our end of year content with an annual look at the brand disasters and slip-ups that dominated headlines this year.

Year in Review: Six biggest brand fails of 2023
2023: The year the world went crazy for artificial intelligence, the metaverse and the lures of social commerce. New brands cropped up in an already competitive market, TikTok trends threw marketers into a tailspin for creativity, and data-led insights ruled the roost when it came to the smartest campaigns this year.
But what about the ones that didn't quite work out? The not-so-intelligent (much less artificial) brand moments that defined this year? 
Scroll on below for Campaign's round-up of the brands that didn't quite leave the mark they expected in 2023.
1. X marks the spot...for disaster?
The trouble started at the end of July when Elon Musk announced Twitter would be renamed 'X'. A glowing X sign on the roof of their San Francisco office was erected, and then just as quickly taken down after numerous neighbour complaints. In his ultimate quest to transform Twitter into a super app akin to China's WeChat, Musk got to work killing off the famous blue bird and then resurrected previously-banned accounts, including that of former President Donald Trump. He also removed safety features, informing users in August 2023 that the platform would no longer allow users to block accounts. A sharp increase in hate speech followed, and advertisers soon fled leaving ad sales in decline. Musk then told major advertisers to go "F themselves" in a recent interview, in what might have been the final nail in the coffin. The Musk show, although eventful, has been the very definition of disaster in 2023. 
2. Bud Light's partnership turned heavy
The controversy began after Trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a video online drinking Bud Light and thanking the company for “possibly the best gift ever.” Whilst some questioned Mulvaney's natural alignment to the largely male-driven consumer base as a spokesperson, some conservatives reacted by boycotting the brand. But this was not the issue alone. After the fallout, the fact that Bud Light didn't support or stand by Mulvaney as she faced a tidal wave of abuse, is a textbook example of what not to do. 
"For a company to hire a Trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a Trans person at all," Mulvaney said in a video.
In the wake of the fallout, Bud Light's sales plunged by 20%-30% this year. And in November,  Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev announced that its US chief marketing officer Benoit Garbe would be stepping down. 
Any campaign focused on social issues is bound to offend some customers, and if you try to please everyone, you will please no one. It is important for brands to prioritise values over the fear of short-term backlash. Bud Light didn't do this, and ended up pleasing no one. 
3. Qantas: It didn't quite land
2023 was quite the bumpy ride for the flying kangaroo. It started on a high with Qantas being named the world's safest airline back in January, but then quickly began to nose-dive. Following a class action lawsuit pertaining to cancelled flights during the Covid epidemic and legal action taken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for allegedly selling tickets for cancelled flights, CEO Alan Joyce abruptly left the airline. More recently, a High Court decision found that the airline had unlawfully fired 1,700 employees. Qantas ended the year as the worst-performing airline in Australia. Data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics reveals that only one third of Qantas flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled landing time this year, placing the airline behind budget partner Jetstar in reliability rankings. 
4. AirAsia and the great reveal
A shirtless massage in a business meeting turned not-so-relaxing fast. Back in October, AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes posted a shirtless LinkedIn photo, in what was an attempt to celebrate the flexibility and hospitable nature of Air Asia's Indonesia office. 
“Got to love Indonesia and AirAsia culture that I can have a massage and do a management meeting,” Fernandes wrote.
However, days later the message was taken down in response to a barrage of criticism, with many LinkedIn respondents deeming the CEO's actions unprofessional. Critics pointed out the potential discomfort employees might've felt seeing their boss without a top on in the middle of the office, as well as gender standards for workplace conduct.
5. Zara and the not-quite-apology apology
High street clothing retailer Zara launched an ad campaign last week, featuring photos that netizens quickly pointed out resemble images akin to those seen on the ground during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The photos, that Zara said were meant to resemble a sculptor’s studio, featured damaged statues and broken plasterboard. Some thought that the images, which included mannequins covered in white fabric and what appeared to be debris, were a mocking of the deaths caused by the conflict occurring in Gaza.
A large portion of the imagery in Gaza, which is in ruins due to bombs, shows people holding and lamenting loved ones who are covered in white cloth—a customary Muslim burial method.
Commenters compared the images and questioned Zara's decision to publish such a campaign at a time of conflict, even if shot prior. 
Zara said the campaign presented “a series of images of unfinished sculptures in a sculptor’s studio and was created with the sole purpose of showcasing craftmade garments in an artistic context." Nonetheless, the shop was slammed by a large number of social media users for launching the campaign, and the hashtag #BoycottZara has begun trending on social media platform X.
In a post, one user said, "They are making fun of us and they are making fun of our destroyed houses and the children who have died."
Zara ultimately pulled the ad campaign and apologised, saying it regrets the ‘misunderstanding’ over photos taken before the start of conflict. 
But the apology didn't sit well with netizens, with the line: "Unfortunately, some customers felt offended by these images, which have now been removed, and saw in them something far from what was intended when they were created", sparking outrage and continuing to be discussed online.
Comments on that post on Instagram totalled more than 260,000, and included messages like, “apology not accepted,” and “this apology is giving ‘I’m sorry you felt this way’ vibes...., and “not ya’ll gaslighting thousands and thousands of people. Sick.”
6. M&S and a tri-colour turmoil
Back in early November, Marks & Spencer removed and apologised for a social media post that showed red, green and silver paper party hats burning in a grate after critics likened it to the Palestinian flag.
The image was an outtake from its Clothing and Home Christmas ad "Love Thismas", but critics on social media suggested that the retailer used the image to signal support for Israel. 
Much like Zara, M&S expressed regret on social media for any "unintentional hurt caused" and clarified that the advertisement was shot in August, and its intentions behind it were "playfully showing that some people just don't enjoy wearing paper Christmas hats over the festive season."
Campaign Asia

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