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Learn from your marketing mistakes

Wooden scrabble tiles that spell the words Learn From Failure

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Why read this? : We review 8 marketing mistakes from 3 example innovation projects. Learn from these how to avoid common errors. Read this to learn why some marketing projects go wrong.

Beware anyone claiming to offer 100% guaranteed marketing success.

There’s no such thing. Anyone who claims it is more about confidence over competence. 

Confidence might get things done. But competence makes sure the right things are done and are done right. However, sometimes things don’t work out the way you want even if you are competent. There are always factors you can’t control in marketing. 

Wooden scrabble tiles that spell the words Learn From Failure

For example, what competitors do. How retail customers work. And what consumers think, feel and do. 

It’s why you can aim for, but never achieve, 100% marketing mastery. Dan Pink’s Drive talks about the concept of mastery with sports stars. People like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer get joy from the pursuit of mastery but know perfection isn’t possible. Marketing is similar. 

But there are ways to get closer to 100%. For example, analysing projects that went wrong to learn from your marketing mistakes, to do better next time. Nobody sets out to fail. But when it happens, the best marketers see it as an opportunity to learn. 

Learn from your marketing mistakes

Marketing involves lots of trial and error. If a project works, great. If it doesn’t, you learn how to do it better next time.

You learn from your marketing mistakes as much as your marketing successes.

Learning makes you a better marketer. More so than what all those start-up gurus and self-proclaimed e-Commerce experts on social media bang on about. You never see them sharing their marketing mistakes, do you? 

Hand holding a small wrapper package marked fragile

With that in mind, we wanted to share 3 projects which had marketing mistakes we learned from. Each project aimed for great marketing. But, along the way, marketing mistakes crept in. None of these projects delivered what they were meant to. But by learning from those marketing mistakes, we learned how to avoid them on future projects. By sharing them here, we hope you can too. 

We’ve had to hide a few details for confidentiality reasons. To paraphrase one of our favourite shows, at the request of the survivors, the names (and a few other details) have been changed. But we’ll share enough detail to make the learnings from the marketing mistakes clear. 

Case Study 1 : Brand L, the failed new alcohol product

Our first example was an alcohol brand. 

This brand (we’ll call it Brand L) had a strong position in its part of the market.

To look for more growth though, it launched a new product targeted at another part of the market to broaden its portfolio.

Imagine a gin brand launching a vodka. Except it wasn’t gin. Or vodka.

Hand pouring a brown liquid into a glass filled with ice in a bar

Brand L – business context

There were some key business context reasons which drove this particular marketing decision.

Though available globally, the top 6 markets for Brand L were 90% of its sales. It had dominant market share in its particular category in those countries.

But the company also owned another brand which played in the same category. That brand dominated sales in the rest of the world outside Brand L’s top markets. Brand L couldn’t expand into other markets, as it would cannibalise sales from its sister brand.

Brand L was growing at a steady 2% per year, driven by its strong position in those 6 markets. It had a loyal base of customers, mainly 30-45 year old women.

The company’s board thought 2% growth was too low. They challenged the brand team to accelerate growth. They used the Ansoff Matrix to look at their options.

Market penetration was what the brand was already doing to deliver 2% growth. 

Market development would mean finding new markets. But as we said, international expansion was out because of the sister brand.

And they’d such a strong association with their existing customers, it was too much of a stretch to go after new segments e.g under 30s or men. 

Diversification was seen as too risky as the brand was too strongly associated with its category. There were very few options to diversify.  

Ansoff matrix - Marketing innovation options - 2 x2 matrix of new/existing products and markets

So they were left with product development

Brand L’s category was relatively small compared to other alcohol categories. But there was another category with a similar but slightly different product and a similar target audience and drinking occasion.

The challenge was a competitor brand (let’s call it Brand B) dominated that category.

It was well-known, with huge market share and was a big cash cow for its owners.

But needing more growth, Brand L decided to play David to Brand B’s Goliath. It decided to launch a new product to directly compete in Brand B’s category.

But unlike David’s story, it didn’t end well for the little guy. As we’ll see, size really mattered here. 

Close up of a Superman lego hero figure against a dramatic red sky background

Product research

The company did a lot of market research on the taste before launch.

Customers liked the taste of Brand L’s new product. 

Sounds good, right? But here’s where the first of its marketing mistakes happened.

Because though they liked it, they didn’t like it as much as the taste of Brand B.

In direct taste comparisons between the brands, they repeatedly said they preferred Brand B’s taste as it was more indulgent. 

Two women clinking white wine glasses together at an sunny outside cafe

How do you deal with that customer feedback? The company’s response was to repeat the test, but this time to ask customers to drink 3 or 4 separate measures to simulate a drinking “session”. This time, customers preferred Brand L as it was perceived as lighter and easier to drink. 

Problem sorted, right? 

Unfortunately, no. Because here’s the thing. The “need” customers had for this type of product was about indulgence, not sessionability. 1 or 2 drinks met this indulgence need. So Brand B was always going to win as it met the customer’s need better.

Mistake 1 - Put product benefits ahead of needs

It’s a big challenge with marketing innovation, to find new, distinctive features and benefits which haven’t already been done (and owned) by competitors.

You want to stand out

But just because something makes you stand out, doesn’t mean customers will care.

As per our first blog article, everything starts with the customer. Benefits must be relevant to customer needs. Just because you can add a benefit, doesn’t mean customers will value it.

Red tulip in a field of yellow tulips showing the impact of standing out and looking different

Indulgence was the relevant need here. How sessional it was didn’t matter. 

Not getting the need right isn’t a great way to start. But it only got worse as the brand got into creating its marketing mix, where it made even more marketing mistakes. 

Mistake 2 - Assume customers know what your product is

As we said, Brand L was known for what it already did. The new product used some brand assets (like the logo and typography, for example) to connect it to the parent brand. But it also radically changed others (the colour palette, for example) to help it stand out more.

But what it didn’t do was use the brand assets to make clear what the new product was. Customers didn’t realise the new product was a competitor to Brand B, and that mistake came across most clearly in the packaging development

Brand L created a highly distinctive bottle using this new colour palette but made the bottle opaque. The label didn’t clearly show what the product inside looked like. Unless customers had seen the advertising (more of which in a second), they didn’t know what the product was.

And if customers don’t know what a product is, why would they buy it? 

So, the key lesson was to make sure customers know what they’re getting with any new product. Make it clear on the packaging. If you can make the product visible inside the packaging, even better.

(Check out our packaging for e-Commerce article for examples of products where the packaging shows what’s inside the box). 

Screenshot of a Woolworths Online half Price basket of grocery items

Mistake 3 - Don't show the product in your advertising

Similarly, the launch advertising campaign didn’t clarify what the product was. In its first TV commercial, you only saw the product on screen for around 3 seconds out of the 30-second airtime. 90% of the advert didn’t feature the product. Unless you saw those 3 seconds, you wouldn’t know what the product was. 

The advert helped establish the brand identity but didn’t tell customers about the product. They didn’t get it, so they didn’t buy it.

Mistake 4 - Underestimate competitors

Brand L launched at a similar regular price to Brand B. They assumed Brand B would keep the same pricing strategy. 

It also prioritised getting listed in premium city-based bars. These types of bars often set trends that other more mainstream bars then follow.

They assumed sales in these bars would drive popularity, and create demand in the off-trade (supermarkets and off-licence / bottle shops). 

These assumptions seemed OK for the first 6 months.

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

But then things started to go wrong. And here’s where the next of our marketing mistakes comes in. Brand B reacted to this competitive threat. They reacted in a much stronger way than Brand L had assumed.

First, they went much harder on price discounting. Brand L had to match these price cuts to get and maintain listings. This dug into the profit levels it’d assumed in the business case. 

Brand B’s sales team also went on the attack with on and off-trade retailers. On-trade teams would target bars which listed Brand L. They’d offer a direct free replacement bottle of Brand B (the market leader, remember) to take Brand L off the shelf. If you’re not on the shelf, you can’t sell. Sales of Brand L started to struggle badly.

Despite a few re-boots and re-positionings, Brand L continued to struggle. Brand B kept up its aggressive tactics until eventually Brand L decided enough was enough. It slowly withdrew from the category and went back to focusing on its original product and getting 2% growth again.

Case Study 2 : Brand D, the children's food service

This brand (let’s call it Brand D) was also globally known. It competed in the children’s food category. 

Its core product was designed to meet the nutritional needs of young children.

The target audience was mums buying the product to help their children grow up healthily. 

Going back to the Ansoff Matrix, brand D focussed on market penetration in a direct market share fight with competitors.

Close up of a delivery driver handing over a cardboard box delivery to a customer

Like most products for children, marketing was heavily regulated. Price discounts were limited, and advertising health claims closely monitored. 

The company saw the increasing popularity of subscription models in other categories (e.g. meal services like Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon, beauty services like BellaBox and GoodnessMe and the comic book box from Zavvi). Brand D believed offering a service to mums would give them more marketing flexibility, and a closer connection to customers.

The brand put together a cross-functional e-Commerce team including brand marketing, regulatory, digital, customer service, IT, finance and supply chain to explore the opportunity. They hired a market research company to research mums and help create prototypes to test with them. 

The test covered 3 different elements of the offer :-

  • A monthly subscription box with relevant products and goodies.
  • Access to a certified personal health coach (employed by the brand) to answer health questions. 
  • Online tools and services.

Mistake 5 - Don’t align teams to a common goal

The project originator believed there was a commercial opportunity in subscriptions. A new way to better meet the needs of mums. 

However, the people on the project team had very different opinions on how it could do this. The goal wasn’t clear. 

The marketing, finance and supply chain team saw the biggest opportunity in the box. Mums paying for this product would generate more sales. That’s what they wanted to prioritise.

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

However, the customer service team saw the opportunity as the payment for the coaching services it provided to mums. They also saw it as a way to build stronger connections with customers and raise their profile in the business. So, they pushed hard for coaching to be the priority. 

And then there was the digital team. They saw the online tools and services as the biggest opportunity. They also saw the project as an opportunity to raise their profile, so they pushed online as the priority.

What was missing in all these conflicting business goals though was a real unifying customer goal. It never became clear what the customer benefit was from a subscription model

The coaching offer was the closest to what customers wanted. But it didn’t offer a clear competitive advantage over what mums could already get from their healthcare professionals.

The conflicting goals and lack of a clear customer goal made the project hard work. When customers saw the concepts, they liked the idea of them in principle. But they felt the idea was muddy. They weren’t clear on what the benefit was supposed to be.

Mistake 6 - Start with the solution, not the problem

The subscription model was a solution to a problem which hadn’t been defined. 

That’s back-to-front marketing. How it’s supposed to work is you find the customer problem first. Then, you come up with the solution. We should have looked for the problem better like :-

  • Were customers looking for the convenience of a monthly box delivered to their doorstep?
  • Did they need a more personal service than they currently got from healthcare professionals?
  • Or did they want better online tools and services than what was already out there?

Had we answered these questions first, before deciding the answer was a subscription model, the goal would have been much clearer. 

As it happened, this project made it quite far down the innovation funnel. 

But ultimately, the lack of customer enthusiasm from the research killed it. The business case didn’t add up, and the project was shelved. 

Mums liked the idea of a subscription product and service. But the benefit just wasn’t clear enough.

Marketing innovation process - formal approach to screening and approval

Case Study 3 : Brand E, the snack that over-promised

Our final brand (we’ll call it Brand E) was a snack brand. It was market leader in its part of the market. But at a total snacks category level, it was fighting against several other strong competitors.

Like our first Brand L example, it decided to go for growth by launching into an adjacent category. But unlike Brand L, they expected a strong competitor reaction. They were prepared to meet this with heavy investment in advertising, and a commitment to price discounting to get the product on shelf in grocery.

They moved marketing budgets from other parts of the portfolio to fund the launch. 

Mistake 7 - Shout when it's not worth shouting about

One of the marketing mistakes they made though was not giving enough attention to the quality of the new product. 

The company outsourced manufacturing as their existing factory couldn’t make this new product. They relied on this other manufacturer to source ingredients, manufacturing and quality. 

While this producer did meet the minimum quality standards, they weren’t any better than what was already on the market.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

Instead, Brand E focussed purely on new flavours. However, new flavours only had a short-term impact on customers. Customers liked the novelty of new flavours but soon went back to their regular favourites. 

Once the initial excitement of the new flavours wore off, it was soon clear there wasn’t a long-term competitive strategy to support the product after the launch. 

So, despite the heavy investment in launch advertising, the product didn’t have a clear competitive advantage with customers. Once the novelty wore off, customers didn’t see a long-term need for it. 

This led to a lack of loyal customers. No loyalty meant sales fell.  

Mistake 8 - Too many cooks spoil the marketing broth 

This project was high profile in the business. Everybody wanted to be involved. But when there are too many people involved, the quality of the marketing decision-making goes down, rather than up

We’ve covered in other articles how culture and teams shape the success of brands and businesses. (Check out our articles on how to be a more creative company and the 5Ws of idea generation, for example). 

With too many people involved, roles and responsibilities become unclear. Everybody wants to help, but ideas conflict with each other. You end up with compromises and committee-based decisions. 

This happened with Brand’s E new product. Everything slowed down, and decisions were painful. The marketing became risk averse. The new product played by the category “rules”. It was safe, rather than disruptive. But safe didn’t drive sales with customers.

After a good first 6 months while the novelty lasted, Brand E had to rely more and more on price discounting to keep the product on shelf. Advertising money got pulled to fund this. When not on price promotion, sales were poor. And eventually, the product was de-listed.

It wasn’t a lack of effort or good intent which killed this product. There were just too many compromises and slow decision-making. Those drove this set of marketing mistakes. 

Conclusion - Learn from your marketing mistakes

To badly paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, if you can live with marketing success meaning you often need to fail first, then you’ll be a marketer master, my friend.

There’s no way to eliminate all marketing mistakes. It’s just not possible.  

Instead, consider them a necessary step on the path towards being a better marketer.

If something goes wrong, learn from it. Do it better the next time.

Young Girl reading book

Like a Tiger Woods shanked drive or a Roger Federer missed lob, making mistakes helps you learn. It’s how you reach mastery. You learn from past marketing mistakes to improve your future marketing chances. 

As all 3 projects were on new products, we recommend you check out our marketing innovation guide for more on that. And of course, get in touch if you need help learning from your own marketing mistakes.

Photo credits

Learn from failure : Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Small fragile delivery box in hand : Photo by jesse ramirez on Unsplash

Drink pouring in bar : Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Superman hero figure : Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

Two women clinking glasses together : Photo by Zan on Unsplash

Flowers : Photo by Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Dog ears : Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

Shout : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Girl reading magazine : Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

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