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11 Times Companies Bowed to Customer Outcry

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The customer is always right—as these 11 companies learned the hard way.

1. Watered-Down Whiskey

On February 9, whiskey maker Maker’s Mark let it slip that it intended to lower the alcohol content of its flagship bourbon from 90 proof (45 percent alcohol by volume) to 84 proof (42 percent). Eighty-four proof whiskey is plenty stiff enough to knock a careless drinker off his barstool, and still boozier than many whiskeys behind the bar. But don’t tell that to Maker’s devotees, who heard only “watered down whiskey” and erupted in a Kentucky rage, flooding the company with complaints. Within a week, Maker’s Mark pledged to reverse the decision and restore the waxy red bottle of bourbon to its full-blooded 90-proof stature.

Why tinker with a beloved recipe in the first place? According to USA Today, Maker’s COO Rob Samuels said the brand was responding to an increase in demand for its spirits by stretching the supply with water. However, at least one Forbes blogger openly wondered if the whole affair wasn’t simply a cynical marketing ploy that allowed Maker’s to look like the kind of company that listens to its customers.

The lesson for companies: If you want to change your recipe, you should’ve done it in the pre-Twitter age. Jack Daniel’s, America’s best-selling whiskey, began lowering its proof in the 1980s, dropping it from 90 to 86 and finally to 80 by the early 2000s. The move raised howls from Jack lovers, but not enough to halt it. Then again, not every company got away with recipe tinkering in the 80s.

2. New Coke!

Nearly three decades later, there’s not much to be said about one of the worst marketing fiascos of all time. Coca-Cola’s 1985 reformulation was a disaster. Coke’s recipe might have its origins in peculiar tonics of the 1800s, but its customers like it that way, and they made it clear to Coke they didn’t like deviations.

While New Coke continued on in small quantities under the name Coke II for years, the reintroduction of original Coke (Coca-Cola Classic) led to a surge in sales. As with Maker’s Mark, this led to accusations that the apparent public relations mess was really just a well-orchestrated ploy.

3. The Netflix/Qwikster incident

It wasn’t until this February that the U.S. Postal Service said it would kill Saturday delivery. But back in October 2011,  Netflix already sensed the impending end of the DVD-by-mail era and was looking to boost its streaming video service, and Qwikster was born.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced plans to cleave the company in two, leaving streaming media under the Netflix banner and moving DVD service into a new company called Qwikster. Hastings' argument was that shipping discs and streaming movies are two different businesses with different cost structures. But the move seemed like a poorly thought-out plan done on a whim; Netflix hadn’t even bothered to acquire the Twitter handle @Qwikster. And customers freaked. Within weeks, a publicly bruised Netflix abandoned the Qwikster plan (though it kept a price hike). These days the smash hit House of Cards has helped the company with the red envelope salvage its reputation.

4. The Gap

Logos get stale. Even the classic insignia of The Gap—those three spaced white letters on a blue background that have graced billboards and outfield fences. Gap tried in 2010 to refresh its look, but its designers returned with a banal logo featuring helvetica black letters and a blue box over the “p.” Fans hated it. Commentators piled on, saying the new design looked like it belonged to an airline or a drug company. Within a week the dud was dead.

5. Bank of America’s Debit Fees

Remember the time before debit cards, when you had write out a paper check for the privilege of using the money in your account—and you had to pay for the checks themselves? (Okay, some of you don’t. Trust us, it was terrible.) Debit cards were a godsend—free, instant access to your funds, and without undertaking a treasure hunt through your purse or pockets to find a checkbook.

Back in 2011, Bank of America wanted to take its customers back to the days of paying for access to their own money, proposing to hit people with a $5 monthly fee. All the big banks wanted this; they were looking for new ways to make a profit after the federal government restricted how much they could charge businesses for processing debit transactions. But one by one the banks dropped out as customers rose up in revolt. Bank of America found itself the last bank standing, and the object of President Obama’s disapproval—he called BoA’s fee “not good business practice.” It dropped the fee in November

6. Verizon Tries to Make You Pay to Pay Your Bill

It took Bank of America about a month to acquiesce to public pressure and drop its debit fee. Verizon saw the light in just about a day. The company had proposed to charge customers $2 for one-time online or phone payments. That is, you’d pay nothing extra if you set up an automatic payment for your Verizon phone every month, but if you made your payments manually, one by one, the company would sock you with a fee. Customers, understandably miffed at the prospect of paying to pay their bill each month, tweeted with rage and spread vitriol on Facebook. Business analysts cited the rapid spread of rage in the social media age as a major cause of Verizon’s turnabout.

7. The New York Islanders' Fisherman Jerseys

Long Island’s hockey club was a true NHL dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup four consecutive times from 1980 to 1983. But the Isles had fallen on hard times by the mid-1990s. In an era when numerous teams experimented with loud unis, the Islanders revealed a design that hockey fans laughingly derided as a rip-off of a fish sticks logo. The look did not last.

8. Instagram’s Controversial Terms of Service

Not long after its acquisition by Facebook, everybody’s favorite photo-sharing app committed one of the more recent high-profile corporate public relations gaffes. Users read a change in Instagram’s terms of service to mean that Instagram could sell their photos to advertisers willy-nilly. Not so, Instagram protested. But the company couldn’t calm the strengthening tide of ill will that prompted hordes of users to swear off the service (how many people actually quit because of this is a disputed matter). Properly shamed, Instagram caved in and reverted to its previous terms of service.

9. There’s Always Something With Facebook

Speaking of annoying your customers by changing the terms of service—followed by users rising up in arms but not actually quitting the service—here’s Facebook. Zuckerberg’s big blue beast sparks an uproar a couple of times of year, to the point that Facebook appears nearly immune to bad PR. It’s just too hard to quit. 

Nevertheless, The Social Network has given in to public indignation at times. Back in 2009, the company reversed course after it had proposed a change to its terms of service that scared users, who thought the language meant Facebook would own any photos and data they uploaded on into eternity even if they cancelled their accounts. 

10. Civic Pride

People love Honda Civics. White-collar workers commute in them. Tuners tinker with them to get ridiculous performance from a compact car. The Civic was the kind of car that provided reliable, basic transportation but impressed car guys too. Honda sold a ton of them.

Then came the ninth generation Civic, redesigned for 2012. Produced while Japan was recovering from the double whammy of the recession and the tsunami, the 2012 Civic got low marks from reviewers and bad reviews from customers. It got such a bad rap, in fact, that Honda refreshed it for the very next year (most automotive generations last about five years).

11. Oil & Gatorade Don’t Mix

When you saw those iconic Gatorade ads with fluorescent sweat pouring from athletes' pores in colors reminiscent of sports drink flavors, you probably weren’t thinking “vegetable oil.” But this January, drinkers got up in arms over Gatorade’s inclusion of brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, which they say was patented as a flame retardant (no word if it was lemon-lime flame retardant or fruit punch). BVO isn’t banned in foods, but the outcry was enough. PepsiCo, Gatorade’s parent company, said it would remove BVO from the sports drink.

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10 Strange Publicity Stunts by Major Food Brands
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Celebrities have always loved doing crazy things for press—but these days, even corporations will go to extreme lengths to get the word out about their products. Case in point: IHOP's recent attempt to create a little mystery, and sell some burgers, as IHOb. Below you’ll find 10 of the weirdest stunts done to promote mass-produced food items.

1. COLONEL SANDERS RAPPELS DOWN A HIGH-RISE

It’s hard to imagine KFC’s elderly Colonel Sanders doing much outside of eating and talking about his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. But in 2011, a man dressed as the Colonel strapped on a harness and rappelled down Chicago’s River Bend building. The Colonel didn't stop at rappelling down the 40-story building; he also handed out $5 everyday meals to window washers. What was KFC’s concept behind this dangerous promotion? They wanted to show the world they were taking lunch to “new heights.”

2. THE WORLD'S LARGEST POPSICLE

Sometimes being the biggest doesn’t mean you’re the best. In 2005, Snapple wanted to make the world’s largest Popsicle to promote their new line of frozen treats. Their plan was to display a 25-foot-tall, 17.5-ton treat of frozen Snapple juice in New York City’s Union Square. However, their plan ended in a sticky disaster. The day Snapple tried to present the Popsicle, New York was experiencing warmer than expected temperatures. The pop melted so quickly that a river of sticky sludge took over several streets. In a city already congested by traffic and tourists, this made Snapple enemy No. 1 that day to the people of New York City.

3. COFFEE CUPS ON CAR ROOFS = FREE COUPONS

A cup of Starbucks coffee
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Starbucks believes in rewarding those who embrace the holiday spirit. In 2005, the Seattle-based coffee giant developed a campaign by which brand ambassadors drove around with replicas of Vente Starbucks cups affixed to their car roofs. If anyone stopped the ambassador to warn them about the coffee cup on their roof, that person received a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Starbucks wanted the world to know being a good samaritan really can pay!

4. MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Imagine walking the beach and finding a sealed bottle of Guinness. But instead of finding beer inside, you find a note from King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. In 1959, that happened to people along North America’s Atlantic coast. Guinness wanted to build brand awareness in the area, so they dropped 150,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean. The bottle contained Neptune’s scroll announcing the House of Guinness’s Bi-Centenary as well as a document instructing the reader on how to make a Guinness bottle into a table lamp. While no one got a free beer (boo!), they did walk away with an arts and crafts project.

5. EAU DE FLAME-BROILED

Who can resist the smell of flame-broiled burgers? The answer is most people—at least when it comes in the form of a body spray. Burger King’s 2008 campaign promoting the “scent of seduction” may be one of the weirdest ideas on this list. The fast-food company thought they could capture the world’s attention by creating and advertising a meat-scented cologne called FLAME by BK. Though select New York City stores actually sold the scent, all of this was a tongue-in-cheek campaign to make the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic laugh.

6. HERE COMES THE SUN

London commuters experienced an unexpectedly bright morning during January 2012. Tropicana worked with the art collective Greyworld to create a fake sun promoting their “Brighter Morning” campaign. The "sun," made up of more than 60,000 light bulbs, rose over Trafalgar Square at 6:51 a.m. on a particularly chilly morning. The sun set at 7:33 p.m. Tropicana continued to promote their sun day, fun day by having Londoners sit under the sun with branded sunglasses, deck chairs, and blankets. 

7. AIRPORT STEAK DELIVERY

Some of the craziest publicity stunts can’t be planned. We live in a world of 24/7 social media, and when the Twitterverse gave Morton’s Steakhouse an opportunity, they seized upon it. Before flying from Tampa to Newark, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and author, jokingly tweeted at Morton's Steakhouse that he wanted a porterhouse steak to be waiting for him when he landed. As Shankman was a frequent diner and social media influencer, Morton's Steakhouse saw the opportunity to start a conversation—and they went for it: When Shankman touched down in Newark, he was greeted by his car service driver and a Morton’s deliveryman. If only all travelers could experience that happiness in an airport.

8. BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL

April Fools Day gags can be great for brands … or an embarrassment. In 1996, Taco Bell took out an ad in The New York Times saying they bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. The ad also informed people of the bell’s new name: "Taco Liberty Bell." Back in the mid-1990s, people couldn’t go on Twitter or Facebook to find out the truth. Instead, they wrote the publication voicing their outrage. The hoax may have worked in getting press coverage (650 print publications and 400 broadcast media outlets publicized the joke), but what does that say about your brand when people actually believe you would rename a historic monument for your own gain?

9. CREATING THE LARGEST MAN-MADE FIRE


Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, the Costa-Mesa based chain El Pollo Loco sent out press releases saying they planned to create the world’s largest man-made fire. Why would they create a fire? El Pollo Loco needed to get the word out about their new flame-grilled chicken. Spectators attending the event were shocked to see that this stunt was actually a commercial shoot for the brand. The chain says they really did attempt to break the record. But many publications have stated the whole promotion was a fraud. Note to brands: When trying to pull off a publicity stunt and a commercial simultaneously, tell everyone your plan in advance.

10. KFC IN SPACE

KFC may just be the king of wild publicity stunts. In 2006, the company created an 87,500-square-foot logo at Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The company wanted to be the first brand visible from space. And it was no coincidence they picked a spot near “The World’s Only Extraterrestrial Highway.”

“If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp. The world is not enough for KFC. They need the entire universe hooked on their Original Recipe.

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Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
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In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

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