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Marketing Gone Wrong: How To Salvage Your Brand

This past weekend, our country celebrated its independence with cookouts, memorials, fireworks and, in the case of those of us in DC, some pretty awesome weather. Over the weekend, American Apparel joined in the online celebration with what they believed to be a photo of fireworks to their Tumblr site. Unfortunately, they missed the mark, as photo was actually the iconic image of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. American Apparel quickly got the predictable social media backlash, and their PR team jumped into action. Their response: the person managing their social media isn’t from this country and was born after the Challenger disaster. Was it an appropriate reaction? I’ll let the public judge that.


To prepare for such tragic marketing missteps, organizations should have conversations ahead of time, beginning with questions like:

  • “What is our plan for handling a social media/marketing gaffe?”
  • “Do the people who need to know this plan know it adequately?”
  • “Have we learned something that should cause us to modify our plan?”

Some of you might be thinking to yourselves: “That could never happen to us; we’re not that careless.” US Airways might beg to differ. Here’s a quick rundown of what you should and shouldn’t do in the wake of a marketing/social media gaffe.


  1. Act immediately. Remove the offensive item as soon as possible.
  2. Apologize publicly. Again, sooner is better than later, and individual unique apologies might be called for, depending upon the circumstances.
  3. Own the mistake. Even if you outsource your website or social media to a third-party, people still see and associate those things with your visual brand.
  4. Be sincere. If you’re “just” apologizing to save face, people will know.
  5. Lawyer up. Depending on specific circumstances, getting legal advice could be a wise idea. Having a lawyer on hand is even better.


  1. Deflect responsibility for the offense. There’s a huge difference between “I’m sorry that I offended you” and “I’m sorry that you felt offended.”
  2. Try to cover up the mistake with a lie. Anthony Weiner originally told people his Twitter account had been hacked. I think we all know how that worked out for him.
  3. Pretend it didn’t happen. If your gaffe was controversial, I can promise you someone took a screen snapshot of it and will be happy to
  4. Wait a few days and “see if it will blow over.”  Trust us, it won’t.
  5. Try to be funny, clever, or witty. There’s a time and a place for those things, but this isn’t it.  This is a time for sincerity.
Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.


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