A Most Epic Branding Fail
Why it is so very important to look at your marketing, and advertising from every angle–even upside down!
There I was. Just killing time on a weekend roadtrip while riding in the passenger seat, as my wife drove on the interstate. I was doing what many people “of a certain age” do while a passenger, not traveling "the road less traveled," so long as their phone has a charge, and they have signal. I was pretty mindlessly scrolling Facebook. And on this particular morning, fortunately there wasn’t anything “really” important going on in the world. Of course that didn’t keep my “friends” from having a virtual fight over Trump “stuff!”
And so, while avoiding the political fights, and liking friends’ pictures of both their sons and daughters graduating, and their cats relaxing in unnatural, almost pornographic positions, quite suddenly, and unexpectedly, the marketing and branding sections of my brain were called into action.
What kickstarted my critical analysis was a photo posted by a friend as one of those Facebook “memories” that SkyNet is always urging you to share. I have to say that what I saw REALLY surprised me! As a strategic management consultant and professor, I was really shocked that something like “that” could happen in the world of 2019. But, of course a #brandingfail such as this can, and does, happen everyday. That’s because well-meaning, experienced people in companies, both big and small alike, whether they are gathered physically in fancy corner offices, or in coffee houses, or meeting virtually, can make really dumb marketing decisions, simply by not looking at things–EVERYTHING–from every angle–and with multiple sets of eyes.
So what is all the fuss about? Well, just take a gander at this picture, and see what first jumps out at you?
Well, if you saw a term describing an entire ethnic group, you are by no means alone. The pic was shared by Liya Hoshi, a graphic designer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. She spotted what, for myself, and many of you, can be your word of the day–an ambigram. So what is an ambigram? According the the student's best friend–Wikipedia–the definition of an ambigram is that it,
"is a word, art form, or other symbolic representation whose elements retain meaning when viewed, or interpreted from a different direction, perspective, or orientation."
Since Ms. Hoshi posted it three years ago, her picture of the ambigram she found occurring with the iSmart logo has been shared over seven thousand times! And if you Google "iSmart" (the real brand name), and "Jews," you will see a whole collection of photos, social media posts, and articles from others who saw exactly the same thing–"+Jews!" Yes, you do want your company's marketing to go viral. But by no means do you want your brand, and logo to go viral for a reason such as this!
As was reported in Vice in an article at the time titled "This Charger that Says 'Jews' Is Today's Tech Fail: 'So one day, a customer calls in basically calling us a bunch of Nazis...,'" the company readily admitted–quickly–that the mistake was inadvertent, and corrected the logo (making the small "r" into a capital "R," so as to not make the upside down logo read that way on subsequent charger models). However, as author Jenn Hoffman wrote, "because the internet is the internet, many different conspiracy theories blossomed." And so, to this day, RAVPower, the company behind the iSmart brand of portable chargers, has many, many of their products out there around the world that yes, if you look at them upside down, does appear to be named for an ethnic group in an unfortunate, but readily apparent to most, ambigram!
"So one day, a customer calls in, basically calling us a bunch of Nazis, and we had no idea what she was referring to until she told us to look at our logo upside down at which point we realized that we royally screwed up. By then the news had already hit Reddit, and while we were fortunate that most people agreed it was unintentional, we learned a powerful lesson of what not to do when creating a logo."
So how does an epic branding and logo fail of this magnitude happen? The answer is quite simple–and it is a mistake that, unfortunately, happens over and over and over again. You have a team of people gathered together–either physically in a conference room, or, as is the case more often today, scattered across the country, or around the globe, and meeting together virtually, thanks to the miracle of modern technology. You are taking on a creative marketing task–working on designing a logo, creating an advertising campaign, or changing the packaging of your product. You may have spit-balled and brainstormed a whole host of ideas, and finally, the decision comes down to what the group thinks are two or three really good, even dare say, cool, alternatives. And now it's decision time–which one do you go with? And not to worry, it may just be the future of the product, the company, and your job at stake!
No matter how many people are gathered around that conference table and whiteboard–or alternatively, seeing images displayed in a video chat–there is one critical question that should be asked. And all too often, even the best managers, and project leads fail to ask this simple thing: Has everyone looked at what we're proposing to do from every angle they can think of? One thing is for sure in 2019; if you haven't, the Internet surely will! And even if it is an "innocent" mistake–as was the case with iSmart (apparently, except, of course, for those conspiracy theorists out there...), the prospect of having the label "Nazis" associated with your brand name is not something that anyone would want to happen.
So how do you avoid facing an unfortunate conundrum such as the "incident" that happened to RAVPower, and its iSmart brand? Well, the standard answer would be to make sure that you have a team that is big enough, and a group that is diverse enough that you will be able to get a variety of perspectives on any such marketing effort. The worst marketing mistakes are often made in isolation–either by an individual, or a group of well-meaning folks who simply haven't taken the time to really consider the logo, the ad, the copy, from all the possible perspectives that they can–and should–think of doing.
Bringing in "fresh eyes" from outside the team will also often yield a different–sometimes game-changing, and even game-saving perspective on a marketing decision. And yes, it is far, far better that you find any possible issue beforehand, rather than after the company's effort has been launched into the ether. In today's world, once your ad, your logo, your packaging is out there, as was the case with iSmart, it is out there! You simply can't un-fire the shot! And in an instant, it could be your company, your brand, and yes, your reputation, and future that is being debated by thousands of Internet users as your marketing mistake goes viral!
So the next time you find yourself leading such a marketing effort, or even if you are simply a pee-on participant, take the proposed logo, and turn it every which way, even upside down! If you have a prototype for new packaging, really look at it–really look at it! If you have a new TV ad, or new web copy, really try to view it, read it, understand it from every possible angle. In doing so, you could turn-out to be a company hero, saving your organization from making a marketing mistake that could take years from which to recover.
And yes, in today's world, you need to ask yourself–and really ask yourself–what is perhaps the key modern question: Could anyone be offended by this? Yes, it may not be possible to completely envision every possible ramification, and permutation from every marketing decision you are a part of. However, the more willing you are to look at things from a variety of possible perspectives, the more likely it is that you will be the one to spot a marketing fail such as this one! And while you don't want to stifle creativity, as edgy advertising, and innovative "stuff" does help you stand out from the crowd, and compete for our increasingly divided attention as consumers, you simply cannot afford to make an unassisted error in the competitive environment we find ourselves in today.
About David Wyld
David Wyld ([email protected]) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. He is the founder and publisher of both The IDEA Publishing (The Best in News, Information and Content Marketing), and Modern Business Press (The Best in Academic Journals).
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