Barbie Is Biggest Branding Blunder of 2004

ATLANTA For the second consecutive year, the branding consultancy Emergence has compiled its top 10 list of the year’s biggest branding blunders.

“You sometimes have to wonder if companies and organizations even take the time to think of how certain moves might affect their business,” said Kelly O’Keefe, chairman and CEO of the independent Atlanta shop. “Building a brand can’t be done overnight but, as evidenced again this year, brands can be diminished or destroyed in an instant.”

Barbie topped the list this year after her breakup with Ken, her boyfriend of 43 years, just two days before St. Valentine’s Day. Apparently, she dumped Ken for some Aussie surfer. Then, Barbie ran for president and actress Hilary Duff was the doll’s spokesperson. The result? Sales dropped 13 percent.

Second on the list was Wendy’s for its defunct “Unofficial spokesman” campaign. “It was a misguided attempt at being cute when Wendy’s needed to remind consumers that its food is still better than the competition’s,” O’Keefe said.

Pharmaceutical giant Merck ranked third on the list for its handling of the Vioxx recall. Evidence indicates that the company knew of problems with the drug but concealed the information from federal regulators. The company now faces myriad lawsuits and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. “It apparently ignored some of the warning signs and underestimated the challenges it faces,” O’Keefe said.

At No. 4 was American athletes. O’Keefe cited the National Hockey League strike, the National Basketball Association brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich., and allegations of steroid use in Major League Baseball and among the nation’s Olympic athletes. “Athletes are brands, individual brands and brand representatives of their teams and leagues,” O’Keefe said. “Cynical fans again are wondering why they should pay to watch these bozos.”

The remaining blunders are:

5. CBS for its “wardrobe malfunction” during the halftime show at the Super Bowl and news anchorman Dan Rather’s erroneous report on President Bush’s National Guard service record.

6. Anheuser-Busch for its inept response to attack ads by Miller Lite. Sales of Miller Lite have risen since the feuding campaigns began while sales of Bud Lite have dropped. “Instead of taking care of business as usual, [Anheuser-Busch] has been on its heels and actually may have brought more attention to its competitor by engaging in this feud,” O’Keefe said.

7. Fannie Mae, the nation’s largest home mortgage company, for accounting irregularities that have led to charges of securities fraud.

8. Pier 1 Imports for its switch to Thom Felicia, one of the Fab Five from the hit show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, from actress Kirstie Alley as celebrity spokesperson for the company. Sales dropped 43 percent after the change.

9. Dell for the botched launch of DJ, the company’s answer to Apple’s iPod. The Dell DJ has received almost no marketing support this year. “What’s the point in trying to go head-to-head with the market leader if you’re not certain you really want to?” O’Keefe said.

10. Krispy Kreme doughnuts for its spectacular fall from one of Fortune magazine’s hottest brands in the nation last year to an accounting scandal this year that has prompted an SEC investigation and a 75 percent plunge in the company’s stock price.