Death of the salesmen

Marketing can make a company's profits soar. But what happens when those bright ideas go bust? Tom Stevenson reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A career in selling may still be the fastest way to climb the corporate ladder, but woe betide the sharp suit who gets it wrong. As Maytag has found after selling its European Hoover operation for an pounds 80m loss, marketing and PR flops are an expensive business. How Carlsberg- Tetley deals with its latest potential disaster - disintegrating widgets in beer cans - could be crucial to the company's survival.

The fire-sale of Hoover to Candy of Italy was the direct result of one bright idea that went horribly wrong. It was bad luck, but it is on the back of marketing ploys such as Hoover's free flights offer and Carlsberg's aeration gadget that businesses are made and broken.

The trouble with marketing is there are no rules to tell you how to be the name behind the Sony Walkman, not Clive Sinclair's C5. Only with hindsight does it seem obvious that the Japanese would love Tokyo's Disneyland while the Paris version remained, well, Mickey Mouse.

Spotting the disasters is always easier after the event, but most of the marketing clangers of recent years fall into at least one of the following categories:

Good idea, shame about the execution

The category of howler for which the marketing department really has no excuse. Normally the result of falling in love with that gem of an idea without really thinking it through. Euro Disney is a prime example: nothing wrong with the product, but building the fairy castle in gloomy northern Europe was never a good idea.

The flip side of the less-than-magic kingdom is the idea that works too well. Giving away free flights with every pounds 100 Hoover would have been a smashing idea if everyone else hadn't thought so as well, thereby notching up a pounds 48m airline bill.

Damage unlimited

Rule number one of public relations: when the shit hits the fan, act contrite. The case of the Poisoned Perrier, in which bottled water was contaminated with benzene, is now a business school staple. More recently, the QEII's cruise from hell last Christmas is likely to become another classic example of how not to handle a crisis. Which leads to rule number two: cut your losses - if Cunard had abandoned the cruise when it was plain the ship was not Bristol fashion, John Olsen, its sacked chief executive, might have avoided walking the plank. If all else fails, follow Townsend Thoresen's lead, after the Zeebrugge disaster, and change your name.

The duff product

Not the marketers fault this, but they inevitably have to carry the can. When soap powders rot your undies there is little point in trumpeting the gleaming whiteness of the shreds. Faced with such damning evidence, Persil Power took the only sensible action - retreat. Other impressively bad ideas include the low slung, electric town car, C5, and a motor oil that made engines blow up.

Also note another cardinal marketing rule: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Shares in Coca-Cola have been a stunning success over the years - each one rising from $40 in 1919 to the equivalent of about $2m today - so changing the magic formula to something no one liked was not a good idea. Full marks for damage limitation, though; the old recipe - under the new moniker Classic Coke - was back on the shelves pretty smartish.

The chairman from hell

Gerald Ratner managed to ruin his eponymous jewellery chain with a famously infelicitous remark about his shops' ear-rings not lasting as long as a prawn sandwich. Robert Maxwell was reported to have doctored his papers' spot the ball competitions. With bosses like that, who needs the competition?

The Act of God (also known as Sod's law)

An area in which lack of preparation meets bad luck to create The Cock Up. Recent star turns include Canary Wharf (not alone in being completed just in time for the biggest post-war property slump), Eurostar (breakdowns with not just politicians but, much worse, journalists aboard) and the Docklands Light Railway, which ground to a halt in the presence of not just politicians, nor journalists but, of all passengers, the Queen.

Five urban myths: marketing flops that the sales promotion industry swears blind are true


Simple one for the children here - buy a packet of Chivers jelly, get a goldfish free. Sales went mad, of course, as did the children. When they opened the package sent by Chivers it contained a plastic bag in which hung one dead goldfish. They should have sent them First Class.


Six planes took off and unloaded their cargo of live turkeys over a US city to promote Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey. Hundreds were released before it was realised that turkeys cannot fly.


Apparently McDonald's ran into all sorts of trouble when it tried to sell the Big Mac to the French - its literal rendering Le Gros Mac colloquially translates as the "big pimp". Similar woes for the nippy Vauxhall Nova on its introduction to Spain, where "no va" means "does not go".


A local petrol station chain in Scotland (names come at a premium in these sorts of stories) offered free fuel for people that looked like each other. A safe promotion, the organisers thought, until they discovered that their town was hosting the annual Twins Society convention.


The winner of a national newspaper's free conservatory competition lived in a second-floor flat.