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12 Good Ways to Piss Off Your Customers

A Primer to Bad Marketing

It’s easier and less expensive to keep a customer than to find a new one.

I heard that adage many times when I worked as a corporate sales exec. And it’s true! The hard numbers and sob stories told around the water cooler bear it out. But don't take my word for it; check out this article for a high-level summary. Let's instead focus on what bad marketing actually looks like.

I experienced a fine example of bad marketing last weekend. Arts festivals are starting to re-emerge from under the heavy restrictions of Covid. They’re especially wonderful when the weather is beautifully poised between Atlanta’s notoriously hot, humid summers and, well, not so severe winters. Last weekend’s weather was perfect for it, too: warm, sunny, breezy, low humidity. Add booths of brightly colored artists’ wares to stroll by, food and drink to enjoy, and music to lighten your feet … ahhh.

I was heading to one of the nicer festivals of the season. Originally scheduled in early June, it was moved to late September to give Covid more time to fade. Before I left home, I checked the internet and online arts calendars to make sure that it was still taking place. Everything seemed in order, so off I went.

You guessed it. I drove to the right location … and nothing. I double-checked their website, thinking I’d gotten the date wrong. Nope. I thought about turning right around and going home, but since it was a beautiful day and there were a few shops open, I decided to stroll around.

I asked the first shop keeper I saw about the festival. Well, well, well. It seems I wasn’t the only one who had thought it was supposed to be taking place. The shop owner said that they’d been notified a few weeks earlier that it had been cancelled, but that none of the online information had been updated. Not their website, not on the city’s social or arts calendars, nothing. The shop owner told me that she’d had quite a few regular festival-goers come in asking about it over the weekend. Some had driven from over two hours away to attend.

What were the festival organizers thinking? This was not only bad marketing, but horrible public relations. Pissed off people, especially those who drove from two hours away, are not likely to forget something like this. Sure, overall, it’s a small thing, but it’s also a good example of how a little effort could have staved off bad, long-lasting impressions.

Bad marketing flies in the face of what marketing is supposed to be. I like Wikipedia’s definition of marketing and what it’s supposed to achieve:

The process an organization undertakes to engage its target audience, build strong relationships to create value in order to capture value in return.

Let’s take this one apart.

First, the organizers had gone through a lot of work and spent quite a bit of time to plan the festival, detail the venue specifics, invite and vet participating artists, obtain city permits, create advertising, etc.

Second, as an annual event, they had a solid base and a good relationship with returning customers, and often relied on word of mouth to draw new visitors. Festival goers knew what to expect before and while they were there and found plenty of organizers to help and direct them. It was a popular event with a long, positive history that people looked forward to attending every year.

And third, much value was created in the community by providing a fun, eventful festival that both residents and those in the surrounding areas enjoyed. The artists profited, as did the food and beverage vendors, local businesses saw more foot traffic, and attendees left with unique purchases and happy memories of their visit.

It only takes one major misstep to shake trust in a brand, the competency of the people behind it, and its future potential. While cancelling a festival without warning is more of an annoyance than a serious problem (except maybe to the participating artists), it’s a good example of carelessness and overall bad marketing. Why unnecessarily damage the festival’s – and its host community’s - public relations? Clearly, someone had dropped the ball.

To misappropriate a favorite movie quote:

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. - “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

Actually, there are plenty of examples in recent marketing history of much bigger failures to properly communicate. Some marketing campaigns have really blown up in their companies’ faces. If you’d like to read about some of these huge public failures, you may be interested in this rundown.

So what types of poor communications can bring on these marketing failures? At the top of the list:

1. Incorrect or misleading information – remember those special sale prices on holiday items that are widely advertised, only for customers to discover that that very few of those items are actually in stock?

2. Bait and switch – a more deliberate maneuver than a mistake or poorly worded communication. The plan had always been to entice customers to come in for a deal and then sell them something more expensive

when the original item was not available (if it ever had been).

3. Misspellings or poor grammar – come on, employ an editor or use a spellcheck program! If they can’t spell correctly, how careful are they going to be with anything else?

4. Obtuse messages – make sure your customers know what you’re talking about. Trying to be edgy, cool, or witty can misfire.

There’s also very bad messaging. Or timing. Or just plain insensitivity, like:

5. Racist or stereotypical marketing campaigns. These have become few and far between, but once in a while, they still pop up.

6. Ads that appear to promote violence or domination over a group of people. Women are often the subject of these bad marketing attempts.

7. Making fun of awkward situations that people find in bad taste. Don’t assume your customers share your sense of humor.

8. Appearing to exploit personal grief or loss to sell products.

9. Appearing to be insensitive to or unaware of damaging events.

Hacked messages wreak havoc, too. Make sure that your online sites can’t be hacked and changed by malicious parties:

10. Altering important information that misleads your customers or causes harm – keep your systems secure and hacker-proof!

11. Leaking sensitive customer or lead information – cyber security is all-important. If you require people to provide personal or contact information, you’d better make sure that it’s secure.

And finally, don’t disrespect your customers by creating marketing campaigns that are received as:

12. Underestimating their intelligence, understanding, or tolerance of what’s considered acceptable behavior.

That’s why marketing campaigns have to run the gauntlet before they’re released. There’s too much risk of damaging a brand, otherwise; a simple mistake or error of judgment can undo years of hard work building up a good reputation. Things can and do go wrong, but do try to avoid potential problems by getting fresh eyes on a campaign before releasing it. Even if the whole of the campaign is a simple notice online. Oftentimes, we’re too close to our work to realize what’s being omitted, poorly worded, or potentially misinterpreted.

People have long memories when they think they’ve been insulted, mistreated, or misled. And some may not be forgiving, even when corrections are made and apologies made. That’s when some companies decide it’s easier to just rebrand, merge, change their names, or drop once profitable products in an effort to make a fresh start. Remember ValuJet? A widely publicized crash led to its merger with another small airline called AirTran, transforming themselves into a much larger and more successful AirTran.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. – Benjamin Franklin
Do it right the first time. – a managerial accounting technique and process
Don’t screw it up. – a lot of mothers

‘Nuff said. I think you get the point. As for me, that art festival will still have me as a future customer. You better believe, however that I’ll be a bit more hesitant about attending for a while until they’ve proved that their marketing messages can be trusted. Hey, I love art festivals and it’s a good one. Besides, I believe enough people will have pounced on their mistake that they are highly unlikely to repeat it.