The 3Ls That Can Kill Your Brand. Forever.

As marketers, most of us pride ourselves for adhering to truth in advertising and being honest in all we say about our products and brands. Copywriter, strategist, social or content marketers, we always tell the truth. Right? Actually you shouldn’t be so quick or sure to answer that question.

"Red Bull Gives You Wings"
This “Red Bull Gives You Wings” image from Michelle Ramey Photography via DeviantArt.com illustrates a brand slogan that cost the company millions.

As marketers, most of us pride ourselves for adhering to truth in advertising and being honest in all we say about our products and brands. Copywriter, strategist, social or content marketers, we always tell the truth. Right? Actually you shouldn’t be so quick or sure to answer that question.

In many cases, we marketers unwittingly lie about our products all of the time.

Remember that adjective in a social post about being the “leading” brand in your category, or claiming that you have a “scientifically proven” solution because one survey with a small sample was in your favor? We can say these things if there is at least one incidence of truth, right?

To many marketers, little claims which can be substantiated in at least one incident, e.g., leading for just one month’s sales reports, or scientifically proven in a study that only covered a small portion of your markets, are perfectly acceptable. Yet to many consumers, these claims are fodder for lawsuits, let alone the lost loyalty from those who don’t sue you.

Here’s a couple of examples from a Business Insider article, March 2016, about how those innocent words or “suggestions” can get brands in big trouble.

  • Tesco, a SuperMarket in the U.K., got caught up in a scandal for using horsemeat in its “beef” products. So the company decided to run an ad explaining how this happened. However, Tesco also chose to imply that this was happening industry-wide. That resulted in the U.K. advertising regulator banning the ad and about a $300 million drop in the brand’s value.
  • Kellogg’s got its hands slapped by the FTC for claiming its Rice Krispies could boost a child’s immunity as the FTC couldn’t find anything but dubious data to back that up.
  • And one of the most interesting lawsuits that actually cost a brand a lot of money and respect was over Red Bull’s tagline claim that their drink could “give you wings” and intellectual energy. Obviously just a fun slogan to most. However, a consumer claimed he had been drinking Red Bull for 10 years and had no wings to show for it, or improved intellect (that last claim rings true). But a judge bought it and Red Bull had to pay out $13 million and $10 to every customer buying its drink in the past 12 years. True story!

If you Google “honest advertising that works,” you’ll get a few articles featuring logic-defying “honest” ads that expose a product’s flaws, almost to the point of dishonesty of how bad something is. These include ads for real estate and hotels saying how awful their places are in ways that are so bad they spark curiosity and make one want to experience the property to see for themselves. So yep, they worked. By being “honest” to the edge of being “dishonest” about your product, some clever copywriters have discovered the power of sparking curiosity to sell products. But there’s a deeper lesson here.