Marketing Gurus Dish on the Biggest Branding Mistakes They’ve Ever Made

October 26, 2016, 3:45 PM UTC
Fortune Most Powerful Woman Summit 2016
Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit 2016 Wednesday, October 19th, 2016 Laguna Niguel, CA 7:30 AM BREAKFAST ROUNDTABLES BRANDING OUTSIDE THE BOX Hosted by Herman Miller Shelley Broader, President, Director and CEO, Chico’s FAS, Inc. Christa Carone, Chief Operating Officer, Group SJR Gail Tifford, VP, Media and Digital Engagement, North America, Unilever Moderator: Leigh Gallagher, Fortune Introduction: Mary Stevens, Senior Vice President, Global Marketing, Herman Miller Photograph by Stuart Isett for Fortune Most Powerful Women
Photo by Stuart Isett

Don’t market to consumers—matter to people. Personalization is where it’s at. If you want to do bold things, make sure they’re believable. Build brand love.

This was some of the marketing language used to sell the power of, well, marketing by three star brand builders at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit last week.

While the execs—who hail from Unilever, Chico’s, and Group SJR—had plenty of tips, the biggest takeaways emerged when they recounted the times they really goofed.

For Gail Tifford, Unilever’s vice president of media and digital engagement for North America, that moment came when she was running the Q-tips brand. Antibacterial-everything was all the rage at the time, so Tifford decided to take the same approach with Q-tips.

The antibacterial properties worked to keep germs off the cotton swab of the Q-tip, which turned out to be something shoppers don’t care about. “It was probably the dumbest thing,” Tifford said. The episode, she explained, was a prime example of what can happen when you become obsessed with what’s happening in the broader marketplace and with your competitors rather than with your customers. The product was later redesigned so that the Q-tips killed germs on contact with the cotton swab.

Shelley Broader, president and CEO of retailer Chico’s, almost learned the hard way how important it is to understand the nuance of a name when working for retailer Delhaize Group on the rebranding of Florida’s Kash ‘n’ Karry supermarket chain.

The company was considering two names for the relaunch: Sweetbay Supermarkets and Founders Market. Both tested well, but when Broader’s team really dug into the research they realized that “Founder” was the name of terrible ailment in horses—extremely problematic considering a third of the stores were going to be located in Florida’s rural horse country. “We nearly named it after a horse disease,” Broader said.

Christa Carone, chief operating officer of content marketer Group SJR, also had a near miss when she was at Xerox—albeit a costly one. Carone was trying to change the legacy perception of the company by positioning it as “high tech and relevant with the c-suite.”

But after spending a lot of money trying to sell the brand to company’s top executives, she realized the strategy wasn’t working. Her team switched to targeting managers and director-level employees by stressing that Xerox could make work a lot simpler—just as its copiers had always done.

The group also told the Summit audience that branding can be just as important when attempting to sell an idea to your own employees. Tifford was working on Unilever’s Mentadent (it sold to Church and Dwight in 2003) when her team had the idea to switch the toothpaste’s dual-chamber dispenser to a tube.

“I said, ‘This is going to be project Fallopian,’” she recounted. “I lost them right there.” She renamed it Project Squeeze, which was better received. “It’s amazing I still have a job at Unilever,” she joked.

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