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Updated Nov 07, 2023

5 Cringey Brand Fails on Social Media

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Julie Thompson, Contributing Writer

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With more than 4.5 billion people on social media, according to Statista, it’s a no-brainer to maintain social media accounts for your business. The free attention that social media can give brands helps companies build more intimate relationships with their customers without breaking the bank.

However, using social media for business is more challenging than maintaining a personal account. You have bills to pay, a brand reputation to protect, and employees to vouch for. A single misaimed post can spark instant controversy, leaving you to field an overwhelming amount of uncomfortable comments, damage control, and possibly even remove products from your inventory.

Brand fails on social media can be nerve-wracking, but they’re also largely preventable. If you put best practices in place, your company will be able to make the most of social media without risking its reputation. 

Brand fails on social media

Social media platforms are great communication channels for customer engagement, but sometimes brands get attention for the wrong reasons. Whether it takes the form of accusations of sexism, economic bias or racism, businesses can face severe backlash for social media campaigns gone awry. Here’s a look at some epic brand fails on social media that tarnished the reputations of well-known companies and sent their cleanup crews (aka PR teams) into high gear.

1. Burger King UK tweeted “Women belong in the kitchen.” 

Sometimes too much creativity can be a detriment instead of an asset. For example, Burger King UK apparently felt confident when they highlighted International Women’s Day on their social media content calendar in 2021. Unfortunately, the team responsible for a clickbait tweet left the brand’s good intentions hidden in the fine print.

The company wanted the key phrase, “Women belong in the kitchen,” in their Twitter post to raise awareness of the lack of gender diversity in the restaurant industry. Burger King UK was actually promoting a new scholarship program for female employees to pursue a culinary career among the dominance of male chefs.

However, none of those good intentions stood out. All people could focus on was “Women belong in the kitchen.” It was a cheeky but highly insensitive message that went viral largely because it was posted on International Women’s Day – a time to champion women, not harken back to outdated stereotypes. Amid swift backlash from Twitter users, Burger King posted an apology and deleted the initial tweet. [See more about this incident in our look at infamous PR mistakes.]

2. Robinhood missed with its Super Bowl ad. 

After spending more than $5 million on a Super Bowl ad in 2021, Robinhood posted its high-dollar commercial to its followers on Twitter. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The video stated that the world of finance was changing and that the company saw everyone, regardless of circumstances, as part of its targeted audience. “We are all investors” would have been a heartfelt relationship-builder – if the business wasn’t already under fire for limiting trading for average investors.

Robinhood limited trading for AMC and GameStop after a group of Reddit investors known as Wall Street Bets sparked interest in the stocks. Fending off a battle between retail traders and certain hedge funds shorting stocks, Robinhood gave the excuse that they didn’t have enough cash to support so much trading.

Customers were unsatisfied with the excuse, and after the Super Bowl ad not only aired but was also posted on the company’s social media, they guessed where the cash flow had been funneled. Twitter exploded after the post as people responded with missives like “Criminals,” “Robinhood hates the average investor,” and “Lies.”

TipBottom line

Timing is everything. Robinhood could have chosen not to air its Super Bowl ad, given public sentiment about the company at the time, but it decided to take the gamble. If you’re going to take a calculated risk with an advertising campaign, use focus groups to gauge consumer sentiment toward the ad before releasing it.

3. Gap divided audiences with its unity call.

The 2020 presidential election stoked intense feelings on both sides of the political aisle, but the day after Election Day, Gap was ready to put all the divisiveness behind them. The retailer tweeted a video of a Gap-branded sweatshirt being zipped up. The catch? Half the sweatshirt was blue and half of it was red to symbolize the colors traditionally associated with Democrats and Republicans, respectively, coming together as one. 

The tweet declared, “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward,” with a blue heart and red heart. But many people that morning, after months of vitriol on both sides, were far from ready to “move forward” – and they didn’t hesitate to reply saying so. The brand was called out for bothsidesism (or false balance) and tone deafness, with pointed user comments saying “Read the room.” 

Gap, which ultimately deleted its tweet, admitted in a statement that the sweatshirt wasn’t actually for sale and was created only for social media. If the company was aiming to get attention with a fake product on a busy news day, mission accomplished. It just wasn’t positive attention.

4. Chase blamed customers for poor finances.

Businesses can smartly capitalize on social media trends by using relevant hashtags in their posts. But those efforts can backfire if the message accompanying the hashtag doesn’t translate the way you hoped. Case in point: In 2019, Chase seemingly sought to inspire on Twitter with a “#MondayMotivation” post. 

The text featured a fictional exchange between a person and their bank account, with the individual wondering why their balance is “so low” when they spent money on eating out and taking cabs. Social media users interpreted the post as the financial institution blaming and shaming its customers for having low income. Meanwhile, banks like Chase have long been accused of predatory behavior that helps the rich while leaving the poor to continue to struggle. 

The tweet also demonstrated a disregard for economic factors beyond customers’ control, as none other than Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out in a reply that sarcastically mimicked the format of Chase’s original post. The bank got the message, posting in a new tweet, “Our #MondayMotivation is to get better at #MondayMotivation tweets. Thanks for the feedback Twitter world.” Nevertheless, Warren drew even more attention to the issue days later by writing a CNN op-ed calling out the company.

FYIDid you know

Pinpoint your brand’s target audience and then work to ensure your social media posts aren’t alienating them. Aim for inclusivity, not exclusivity.

5. Netflix’s “Cuties” trailer wasn’t cute.

When a streaming service acquires a new movie, its standard practice is to create an intriguing trailer for the film and blast it out on social media. Well, Netflix got more than it bargained for in 2020 when it posted its preview for Cuties. The film had already screened at the Sundance Film Festival and had been released in France; however, the new trailer depicted a movie far more scandalous than the coming-of-age tale originally conveyed.

Countless people replied to the Twitter post with their horrified reactions to the trailer’s apparent sexualization of young girls, an impression that only became stronger when Netflix’s poster for the film – showing the 11-year-old characters scantily clad in suggestive poses – went viral. “#CancelNetflix” trended on social media, petitions called for the film to be removed from the platform and the director of the project, who had no say in Netflix’s marketing, revealed she received death threats due to the controversy.

Some politicians even tried to take legal action against the company. The firestorm lasted for weeks, overshadowing critical acclaim for the movie (which currently holds an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and distorting the important message the film was actually trying to convey. Netflix ended up swapping out its “inappropriate artwork,” acknowledging in a statement that it was “not OK, nor was it representative” of Cuties. Still, the tweet with the controversial trailer remains available on Twitter. 

Social media marketing best practices

Following social media marketing best practices can help you prevent fails like the ones above. These tips can keep your content on point so you avoid social media infamy and unnecessary bad press.  

1. Find your audience.

You can’t succeed on social media if you can’t find your following. Research your audience by going beyond general data and answering the following questions:

  • Who are your customers?
  • Where do they hang out?
  • What hobbies do they have?
  • What stage of life are they in?
  • What issues do they face?
  • What content do they crave?

Developing customer personas can help with this task, but remember, there are real people behind the profiles. If you view your social media efforts as opportunities to build online communities with the people who matter most, you can win ambassadors for your brand.

2. Choose the right social media networks.

It’s wise to secure a username for your company on every social media network to prevent any confusion down the line. However, maintaining several social media accounts can take time away from daily business tasks, growth initiatives and exceptional customer service. Social media is worth the effort, but you should focus on one or two social networks that make the most sense for your brand. 

Consider the platforms you like to post on and where your audience spends the most time. If your customers aren’t inclined to scroll through Facebook, it would be a waste of energy to spend time creating Facebook posts. Once you determine the appropriate social media networks for reaching your ideal audience, use them regularly. If you only post every now and again, your content will get lost in the shuffle.

3. Be consistent.

Your business likely already has a brand image with a clear identity that makes your mission obvious to your audience. This aesthetic and tone should carry over onto social media. Inconsistency will only cause confusion and lead social media users to see your business as inauthentic.

You want to emotionally connect with your customers, so use hashtags that resonate and only share reputable sources of information. Your company may already have built up trust in the marketplace, but you have to earn it again on social media by posting relevant, engaging content. [Check out these strategies for engaging your audience on social media.]

4. Create a content calendar.

Business owners and their marketing teams always have something taking up their time, but social media can’t be a last-minute afterthought if you want it to help, not hurt, your brand. Using a content calendar to plan your posts in advance and a social media management program to schedule those posts can make it easier for social media marketing to be a priority.

Social media management tools can also help you figure out the best paid-versus-organic social media strategy and measure the results of your efforts. Additionally, maintaining a content calendar can ensure your team is always aware of what’s being posted and when, so, for example, you don’t inadvertently tweet something inappropriate on a holiday. That would definitely be a brand fail.

5. Use social listening.

Creating strong content is essential, but you can’t do it in a vacuum. For your social media marketing campaigns to be successful – and to avoid blunders like the ones above – you need to track mentions of your brand, competitor feeds, relevant keywords and trending hashtags.

Analyzing posts from other accounts (both rivals and consumers) can help you build your social calendar, determine trends and deepen your relationship with customers by providing more of the kind of content they want to see. You should also reply to mentions, answer questions and provide encouraging comments as much as possible. 

Did You Know?Did you know

By monitoring reaction to your social media posts, you can sense when your message has been received negatively or if a product isn’t meeting expectations. Use this insight to respond to the emerging crisis quickly and avoid costly social media fails.

6. Encourage engagement.

An appealing brand on social media is one that interacts with its followers instead of posting in a silo. Regularly ask your customers to comment on what they do and don’t like, what pain points they’re facing, and how your company can improve. You might develop a new product, collect essential data, or improve your business processes by soliciting this feedback.

You can also foster engagement by asking your followers for content requests or even encouraging them to create their own content using your brand’s likeness and products. User-generated content (UGC) is a great way to get positive, free publicity for your company. Just be sure to vet the identities of those who send in submissions.

7. Edit, and then edit again.

If you’ve learned anything from the above social media scandals, it should be that social media can be a fast-paced daily gamble and can’t be taken lightly. Cancel culture is ready and waiting to exercise fatal keystrokes if you make a seemingly unforgivable mistake with a post.

To prevent a brand fail on social media, consider the following before you hit the “publish” button.

  • Is the message personal or business-related? Try to keep company messaging free of personal opinion.
  • Who is your target audience? Will the message resonate with your followers?
  • Could the wording or image be interpreted differently? The more opinions you can collect before publishing, the better. After all, you can’t turn back time after a post has gone live.

Follow these additional guidelines for extra safety.

  • Keep it PG. Stay family-friendly to avoid turning people off.
  • Don’t openly support causes, partnerships, other businesses or followers unless you’re willing to defend your position – and stake your company’s reputation if things go south.
  • Always, always, always check your grammar.
  • Obtain written permission when using media that wasn’t created by your business.
  • Before adding a custom hashtag to campaigns, research the hashtag to ensure you’re the first to use it. For existing hashtags, ensure the concept is relevant to your brand and makes sense with your post.

You can skyrocket to online success using the right social networks, publishing tools and creative content, as long as you make sure all your efforts are designed to strengthen your company’s reputation and don’t risk damaging your brand. Burger King, Robinhood, Gap, Chase and Netflix all learned this the hard way.

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Julie Thompson, Contributing Writer
Julie Thompson is a professional content writer who has worked with a diverse group of professional clients, including online agencies, tech startups and global entrepreneurs. Julie has also written articles covering current business trends, compliance, and finance.
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