Brand Blunder Awards of 2018

Dumpster Fire

2018 was full of disastrous brand blunders. From the standard facepalms to downright shocking—brands seemed hellbent on one-upping each other’s dumpster fires.

To commemorate, we have compiled our 5 favorite blunders from this year and why:

1. Worst Brand Disaster- Papa Johns

Papa John's

Where do we begin with Papa John's?  The whole fiasco borders on comedic. For the uninitiated, Papa John's Founder, John Schnatter, used a racial slur during their racial sensitivity training. This is like committing a crime in a police station. This gaffe was not Schnatter's first brush with controversy, he had previously resigned as the CEO of Papa John's over his inflammatory remarks over NFL National Anthem protests. 

Rather than laying low and riding out the 15 minutes of bad press, John Schnatter doubled down on his self-presumed innocence and started the website Which was a platform where he can fight back and continue to shine a giant spotlight on his blunder. Our CEO, Deb Gabor said it best in an interview with, "having the guy with his name on the door fighting won’t help anything."

2. Best Brand Win Disguised as Brand Disaster- Nike's Colin Kaepernick Ad

Colin Kaepernick

There may not be a more polarizing discussion than the NFL anthem protests (don't take our word for it, ask Papa John).  Everyone has an opinion on the movement and its centerpiece, Colin Kaepernick. So, when Nike decided to make him the face of their new campaign, it seemed like a risky choice for the mainstay brand. Quickly after the release, people began boycotting the brand on social media by posting videos of them burning Nikes.

However, Nike knew exactly what they were doing and what person they were targeting. Nike tapped into their ideal customer and took a stance on a hot-button political issue, showing that they understood the values and beliefs that their ideal customer holds. They don’t care if Terry from Kearney, Nebraska is burning his lawn-mowing shoes. Nike is after the young, socially-conscious individual who believes in their own inner athlete and supports a professional athlete’s right to protest. By siding themselves with the protesting football players, Nike aligned itself with their ideal customer.  

Following the ad, Nike stock hit an all-time high proving that their gamble wasn't a gamble at all, but an exercise in how to speak to your ideal customer.

3. Award for Best Smooth Landing - Southwest

Southwest Airlines

Southwest has branded love, meaning it is a hug in airline form. So, when one of its 737 planes experienced engine failure resulting in a death of one of the passengers in April, all eyes were on the brand and how it would respond.

Southwest immediately responded and took full ownership over the situation. CEO, Gary Kelly, issued a response expressing his deep sorrow for this event and that the company would fully cooperate with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation.  

While extremely tragic and frightening, Southwest showed all the brands that experience tragedies a text-book way to accept responsibility and show genuine human concern for their customers.

4. Best Emergency Response for a Brand Blunder - Starbucks


In April, Starbucks made headlines for a controversial arrest of two black men in one of their Philadelphia stores. The internet exploded with fury and questions for the brand.  CEO Kevin Johnson responded with what seemed like a pretty templatized apology statement and commitment to do better. Then in an unprecedented move, Starbucks shut down all 8,000+ stores for racial bias training, demonstrating Starbuck's commitment to righting a wrong.

5. Lifetime Blunder Award - United Airlines

United Airlines

Last year, United Airlines made headlines by violently dragging a doctor off of one of their planes because it was overbooked, leaving him bloodied and injured. It was one of the most surreal brand blunders in history. After that, one would think United would scrap everything and focus entirely on rebuilding customer's trust and distancing themselves from being the airline that physically abuses their customers. Instead, in March, United Airlines ended up killing a French Bulldog by placing it in the overhead bin. Then only a week or so later, they accidentally shipped a customer's dog to Japan, instead of Kansas. 

At this point, one could argue that United is doing these things on purpose to see how much they can get away with before people quit them all together. Congratulations to United Airlines for your lifetime blunder award, cannot wait to see what wacky fiasco you have in store for 2019.

Here at Sol Marketing, we always get the question, "What should I do when my brand is experiencing a crisis?"  We always refer our clients to the steps that our CEO, Deb Gabor, outlined in an interview with and tell them to follow these four steps:

1. Take accountability:

Admit what you did was wrong and own up to the mistake.

2. Show Regard for Humanity:

Customers want you to acknowledge that you hurt them. They want you to show humility and that you understand what you did negatively affected them. So many brands skip this step by using passive language in their apologies and shirking the blame.

3. State Your Plan:

Tell people clearly how you are going to fix this issue. We see so many brands end up being vague. Don't do that. Give a clear and transparent plan on how you will right the wrong.

4. Conduct the Investigation

After you’ve conducted a thorough investigation, decide what you’re going to share with your customers and throughout the entire process, make you are recommitting to deliver on your brand promise.

Whether your brand is in crisis or simply trying to grow in a competitive marketplace, reach out to us for a FREE brand strategy session!

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Neal Hughes