5 Major Brand Fails of 2018—and What Every Marketer Can Learn From Them

Revisiting the blunders of Victoria's Secret, Starbucks and more

Headshot of Katie Richards

Ah, 2018—what a year!

While we’d rather not relive any of the events (this year felt like an eternity, huh?), let’s take a moment to examine a few of the biggest brand blunders of the year to figure out what went wrong—and what other companies can learn from their mistakes.

Starbucks

A sign announces Starbucks' chain-wide, one-day closure for anti-bias training.
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It’s odd for a brand to end up on both our good-deed list and brand blunders list, but that’s the case for Starbucks (which, on the positive side, announced a plan to ditch plastic straws). Perhaps the biggest headline for the brand—and the lowest point for the company this year, came in April when two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks after asking to use the bathroom without purchasing anything. The two men were waiting for a business associate to arrive.

Shortly after the events unfolded, social media lit up with tweets, and customers criticized the brand for what happened. Following the events, the brand’s perception among customers dropped to its lowest in 10 year, according to a survey from YouGov’s BrandIndex.

In response to the arrests, Starbucks announced it would shut 8,000 stores in the U.S. to conduct racial-bias training for employees. Plus, CEO Kevin Johnson was swift to get in front of the scandal, making an appearance on Good Morning America to address the incident, publishing a written apology on the company’s website and extending personal apologies to the two men who were arrested.

What we can learn from this? 

You can’t control everything that your brand does or says, especially when so many people work for you across the globe. However, owning the mistake and taking action quickly is typically a good first step. Plus, following the arrest of the two men (and Starbucks closing down stores to train employees) the brand continued to publicize its good deeds, which can’t hurt. In Starbucks’ case, the brand saw a 4 percent increase in U.S. sales for Q4 from the previous quarter.

Papa John’s

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2018 was definitely a rough one for Papa John’s. Over the summer, the brand’s founder and former CEO, John Schnatter, was ousted from the company after being accused of using the N-word and other racially-charged comments on a conference call with executives and the brand’s ad agency. As you might expect, people turned to social media to voice concerns, and the brand saw sales drop by 10.5 percent in the weeks following the news of Schnatter’s comments.

What exactly is a brand supposed to do when the company’s name becomes associated with racist rhetoric and customers aren’t as keen to order your pizza anymore? Papa John’s had to learn that the hard way, but it has spent the remainder of the year investing in a new marketing campaign and spending more time thinking about diversity internally. The brand shared that it is focusing on more inclusion training, unconscious bias training and an increased focus on recruiting and retaining diverse candidates.

What can we learn from this? 

Don’t let one person’s decision and views impact your entire business. It can be hard to do so when the company is named after said person, but as the executive team at Papa John’s learned, they had a team of passionate people working for them who at first felt a little betrayed but wanted to move past the scandal. The brand quickly turned around and released a campaign that would not feature the founder (as most past campaigns did) but instead real Papa John’s employees sharing what they love most about the brand. 

Victoria’s Secret

Each year Victoria’s Secret promotes the hell out of its annual fashion show, where hoards of models walk down the runway in the brand’s latest bras and a number of musical guests perform live as the models head down the catwalk.


@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.