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

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

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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.


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.

This year, the brand had a bit more work to do to drum up excitement for the event. Ed Razek, CMO of Victoria’s Secret parent company, made comments about transgender and plus-size models in an interview with Vogue ahead of the show airing. When asked whether or not the brand would consider including transgender models in its show, Razek told Vogue: “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”

The backlash was swift. Those remarks led to a number of pieces from media outlets, including Adweek, questioning the longevity and relevance of such a show as it stands now—a bunch of models with the same body type and look. The brand did however recently hire a new CEO (former Tory Burch president John Mehas), and announced it would relaunch its currently defunct swimsuit line. Regardless, L Brands (the parent company of VS) has seen shares continue to fall quarter after quarter.

What can we learn from this? 

Inclusivity in today’s marketplace is key. Whether in a brand’s marketing or in its internal hiring practices, being open to a diverse range of people is good for business. Perhaps Victoria’s Secret can take a hint from ecommerce challenger brand ThirdLove. The brand’s CEO, Heidi Zak, penned an open letter to Victoria’s Secret in the form of a full-page ad in The New York Times. “ThirdLove is the antithesis of Victoria’s Secret,” she wrote. “We believe the future is building a brand for every woman, regardless of her shape, size, age, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

KFC (U.K.) 

The start of 2018 was a very rocky one for KFC in the U.K. The problem? KFC, a chain restaurant built on chicken, had no chicken to serve at most of its 900 locations following the company’s decision to switch delivery partners in favor of DHL. That’s kind of a major problem for a company that prides itself on selling crispy chicken.

At the time, most experts agreed that KFC had taken all the right steps, including being transparent with customers about what went wrong, although many customers will still angry with KFC for the error.

Shortly after the incident, KFC U.K. responded with its now award-winning, “FCK, We’re Sorry,” print ad that ran in The Sun and Metro as an apology to customers for the “fck” up. The brand received a lot of praise (and maybe even some new customers) for the honest and hilarious ad, which Adweek also named the No. 3 ad of 2018.

What can we learn from this?

Obviously, it depends on the situation your brand is in, but sometimes humor can be a great way to tackle a PR crisis. (Again, major emphasis on “sometimes.”) If humor isn’t going to work for your predicament, just be honest with customers about what happened and apologize. It might take some time to get back in their good graces, but “deny, deny, deny” (when you’ve definitely done something wrong) is never an optimal strategy.


Facebook is another brand that’s no stranger to being in the spotlight, and, of course, 2018 was no exception. Most of the headlines regarding the platform were bleak, as a series of reports about Facebook’s disregard for user’s data and privacy came to the surface. The biggest news seemed to come when Facebook announced that data firm Cambridge Analytica had misused up to 87 million Facebook user’s data.

The platform tried to respond to data and privacy concerns with a string of marketing efforts, including a one-day pop-up held in New York City’s Bryant Park where people could stop in and ask Facebook employees about all their pressing data and privacy questions. Six days later, The New York Times reported Facebook allowed companies like Netflix and Spotify to read user’s private messages, and shared other private data with Microsoft and Amazon.

What can we learn from this? 

This one is pretty simple. Don’t share your customers’ personal, private data without their prior approval. And definitely don’t try and cover it up.

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