Social Media Fails: Lessons Learned from Big Brands

B2B Brands: To Meme or not to Meme?

We’ve long past the point where Social media was optional for brands and, well, pretty much everyone. Different demographics live on different networks, but for almost everyone Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn are woven into our world. But as many big brands have discovered, it can also be a minefield of potential blunders and public relations nightmares. Recent history is studded with social media fails, some unfortunate, some funny, and some that caused serious reputational harm. Here we’ll look at some of the most infamous examples, and discuss the lessons we can learn from them.

One of the key patterns you can see in almost all social media crisis is a failure to truely understand the audience. Good data driven understanding of how the key personality traits and behavours is a massive advantage when it comes to creating content that delights rather than offends! Its something we do every day and it’s helped our clients stay off lists like this!

Lesson 1: Understand Your Audience

Mastercard's #PricelessSurprises campaign for the 2014 Brit Awards serves as a cautionary tale. The company's PR agency, House PR, faced backlash from journalists after it asked those covering the event to agree to heavily promote Mastercard in return for press accreditation. This included tweeting about the event using Mastercard's promotional hashtag, sharing branded images, and incorporating Mastercard mentions in their coverage. Telegraph journalist Tim Walker exposed House PR's strict guidelines, sparking a Twitter storm as the hashtag #PricelessSurprises began trending with users mocking the publicity failure.

Mastercard eventually distanced itself from the PR agency's approach, describing it as 'highly inappropriate.' The incident highlights the importance of respecting the autonomy and integrity of journalists and not crossing the line by making promotional plugs a condition for event access.

Lesson: Understand the people you’re targeting these messages at. Engaging with your target market requires a deep understanding of their values, interests, and preferences. Make sure your campaigns align with these factors to avoid a negative response.

Lesson 2: Be Sensitive to Current Events

Back in 2013, Tesco faced criticism for an ill-timed tweet that seemed to make light of a huge scandal, in which traces of horsemeat had been found in some beef products, seriously impacting the supermarket's reputation. The tweet – which Tesco claimed was drafted before the scandal broke – read, 'It's sleepy time, so we're off to hit the hay! See you at 8am for more #TescoTweets.' Tesco later apologised for the tweet, which was seen as insensitive and dismissive of the issue at hand.

Lesson: Be mindful of when and where your social media content is being shared, and remember that you don’t exist in a vacuum. Avoid making light of serious issues or events, and be prepared to take responsibility for any missteps.

Lesson 3: Choose Your Hashtags Wisely

Waitrose's #WaitroseReasons Twitter campaign in 2012 is a prime example of a social media fail. The supermarket asked customers to share reasons they shopped at Waitrose, but the hashtag was quickly hijacked by users mocking the brand's perceived elitism and high prices. The (often very funny) negative response reinforced the image the brand was trying to move away from – expensive, middle class and inaccessible, and highlighted the potential pitfalls of poorly planned hashtag campaigns.

Lesson: Choose your hashtags carefully and monitor their usage. Be prepared to respond quickly and adapt your strategy if the conversation takes an unexpected turn.

Lesson 4: Picking Your Battles

Lush's provocative 'SpyCops' campaign in 2018 demonstrated the power of social media in magnifying both negative and positive reactions to a cause. The campaign, which questioned the ethics of undercover policing practices, incited backlash from customers who felt it was an unfair attack on the entire police force. On the other hand, it is crucial to recognize that numerous people, encompassing activists and those affected by undercover policing, actively endorsed and praised the campaign.

The circumstances were intricate and had many layers, and Lush was aware that they were venturing into uncertain grounds with a controversial message. The campaign's influence demonstrated that even a well-meaning effort could divide public sentiment, resulting in a combination of backing and disapproval. It also highlighted the importance of understanding potential consequences and being prepared to address various perspectives. Eventually they discontinued the campaign for the safety of their own staff.

Lesson: When choosing the battles you engage in, be aware of the controversial nature of the topic and the likelihood of diverse opinions. Assess the potential risks and rewards that come with such an endeavour, and ensure you are ready to navigate the different viewpoints that may arise. By anticipating potential backlash and understanding the nuances of public opinion, you can make more informed decisions about the causes you choose to champion and the battles you decide to fight.

Lesson 5: The Importance of Proofreading

The PR team behind singer Susan Boyle made a memorable social media blunder with the infamous #susanalbumparty hashtag (“Susan Album Party”, just so we’re clear). Intended to promote her new album, the hashtag was widely misinterpreted and quickly became a source of ridicule. The responses were memorable, for sure, and sometimes daft publicity is still publicity … in this case, however, it’s unlikely that SuBo’s target market were in on the joke.

Lesson: Proofread your social media content and consider how it might be interpreted. Sometimes, the smallest oversight can lead to unintended consequences and a good laugh (or cringe) at your expense.


Navigating the social media landscape can be tricky, and worse it can’t be avoided. All businesses need a social media strategy. How creative that strategy is, however … that’su p to you. Big swings can yield big results, but they can also cause huge problems if mishandled.

It’s worth stating again that understanding your audience and then making sure the creative elements of your strategy match that market is key. That’s something we can definitely help you with – if it’s something you’d like to discuss, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to get the ball rolling.

Published on 2023-03-29 11:44:15