The Consumer Intelligence Blog - Infegy

Social media insights into the top 5 experiential marketing fails

In 2007, global confectionery and beverage brand Cadbury Schweppes came very close to sponsoring the desecration of a 357-year-old graveyard. If it weren’t for icy pathways that prompted Boston parks’ employees to lock the gates to the cemetery, the final resting place of several historical figures (including John Hancock and Samuel Adams) would have been overrun by hundreds of treasure hunters in search of a hidden coin worth $10,000.

While the graveyard was spared, Cadbury Schweppes had to issue a public apology to the City of Boston … but it didn’t save them from getting slammed by city officials for their “their tasteless stunt.”

Although this happened 16 years ago, Infegy Atlas’ historical data reveals that people discussing this event online weren’t any more tolerant and discussed the closely-averted marketing disaster with extreme negativity (Figure 1).

All this for a poorly-planned experiential marketing promotion for Dr. Pepper.

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Figure 1: Linguistic analysis of people discussing “Cadbury Schweppes” and graveyard shows extreme negativity (2007); Infegy Atlas data.

Here, we summarize social listening insights into five experiential marketing fails. We share the consumer experiences and sentiments that each fail evoked and leave you with a list of what not to do when planning an experiential marketing event.

5 experiential marketing examples of what NOT to do

#1: Don’t neglect promoting the experience

At first glance, not promoting an experience seems to have relatively few consequences other than a poorly attended event. But who wants to explain to a client the near-zero ROI on the millions of dollars they spent?

In 2019, Reese’s launched an interactive social media campaign for Halloween. Hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris, the brand invited the participation of Facebook users throughout October 2019 and interactions included voting, live streams, and culminated in a live event – also hosted by Harris.

Considering that the majority of the experience was negotiated online, we should have seen a giant spike in the conversations around Reese’s and Halloween during the month of October 2018. We didn’t. Infegy Atlas analysis of the conversation around Reese’s and Neil Patrick Harris showed 382 individual posts in the month of October 2019 for the event (Figure 2). On the actual day of the event, we saw just 22.

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Figure 2: Post volume for Reese’s October 2019 interactive Halloween campaign; Infegy Atlas data.

Reese’s spent millions of dollars on the entire production but barely generated any buzz around their brand during the run of the experience. The dire lack of participation speaks to a lack of promotion, as well as planning. In fact, visitors to the live event and watching the livestream described it as so awkward and unplanned that even Neil Patrick Harris couldn’t save it.

#2: Don’t assume everyone wants to participate

Forcing an experience on unwitting and unwilling consumers in the name of promotion is a sure way to drum up some brand negativity!

Apple did this in a big way in 2014 when it delivered U2’s newly-released album, Song of Innocence, into the iTunes library of every registered account holder. Devised as a part of Apple’s promotion of the newly launched iPhone 6, the experience involved a download button you couldn’t bypass, and no option to delete the album.

It wouldn’t have mattered if you were a U2 fan or not: not having the option to opt into the experience generated immediate outlash against iTunes and Apple (Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Negative sentiment around Apple and iTunes surged to 90% during the time of the album launch (January 2013-present); Infegy Atlas data.

This bad experiential marketing moment is also an example of how long a negative brand experience can last in the consumer mindset.

It’s been nearly ten years and yet, social listening analytics from Infegy Atlas show that people still discuss what was essentially an invasion of their private, curated music spaces. Conversation around this issue surged again in 2022 after a sarcastic tweet from a Twitter user in the UK compared Liz Truss becoming Prime Minister to “that time when Apple made everyone have that U2 album they didn’t want in their iTunes library”(Figure 4).

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Figure 4: Post volume about iTune and U2’s album over 10 years; Infegy Atlas data.

#3: Don’t sacrifice safety for spectacle

It could be a lack of proper research, poor execution, or an over-zealous pursuit of spectacle in the name of creating a memorable brand experience – regardless of the reason, injuring or endangering the lives of the experience visitors will have people recalling your brand for the wrong kind of reasons.

This happened in 2013 at what would have been a delightful experiential marketing event for Jägermeister: a pool party in Leon, Mexico. The event organizers poured liquid nitrogen into the pool to create a wondrous smoke effect. Unfortunately, the liquid nitrogen reacted with pool chemicals to create a toxic fog, sending several guests to the hospital.

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Figure 5: Top negative topics in the conversation around Jägemeister’s pool party over 15 years; Infegy Atlas data.

The incident drove a large conversation on social media and was reported globally. While all the guests recovered from the incident, analysis of 15 years of conversations involving Jägermeister and pools reveal that the incident made its mark: when filtered to negative topics, “liquid nitrogen,” “pool,” and “toxic” come rushing to the surface.

#4: Don’t forget the cultural and historical contexts of your audience

When it comes to experiential marketing, small cultural oversights can translate to big cultural offenses. This is all the worse if you successfully pulled off the “experience” part of the marketing event.

The organizers of Amazon’s 2015 immersive experience promotion for their show Man in the High Castle neglected to account for the ethnicities that make up the population of the city when they wrapped the interior of several New York subway cars and stations in Nazi-propoganda. While the Nazi-inspired artwork for the show would have caused some level of offense in any city, New York has one of the densest populations of Jewish Americans in the nation.

Furthermore, the subway and other public transports are an essential part of the lives of most New York residents; they had no way to opt-out. The profuse coverage of the propaganda-style show art, which evoked a present-day fascist regime, also coincided with rising xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric that was part of the campaigning landscape of the 2016 US presidential elections.

Amazon lost thousands of dollars as then-mayor Bill De Blasio insisted Amazon remove the train advertisements and subway treatments shortly after they were displayed. He called them “irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers.”

Infegy Atlas analytics show that topics in the conversation around the experience were heavily negative. Furthermore, sentiment analysis of the top Entities related to the conversation show the conversation around “Adolf Hilter” and the governor at the time, “Andrew Cuomo” surged when people discussed the experience (Figure 6).

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Figure 6: Top Entities in the conversation around the promotion for “Man in the High Castle” in 2015; Infegy Atlas data.

#5: Don’t stop short of the finish line

Top brands know that the best marketing experiences need a strong finish, i.e., following-up with the consumers who engaged with your brand. However, this step is not exempt from careful planning and attention to details either – details such as audience insights that impact messaging.

Adidas learned this the hard way in 2017.

Adidas has sponsored the Boston Marathon since 1989. The brand spends thousands of dollars branding the event and creating supportive experiences for the marathon participants throughout their process.

In 2017, however, the brand stumbled at the finish line with their post-race congratulatory email. 2017 was the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing which killed three and injured hundreds. The email that year began with a poorly-worded header: “Congrats. You survived the Boston Marathon!”

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Figure 7: Negative sentiment keywords in the conversation around Adidas and the Boston Marathon (2017-2023); Infegy Atlas data.

Infegy Atlas recorded a huge spike in post volume following the delivery of the email but Narratives show that two of the largest topic clusters that dominated the conversation were about the email. Sentiment analysis shows that people were offended, calling the brand’s email insensitive, hurtful, and a mistake (Figure 7).

All the time and resources Adidas expended to generate positive brand visibility was forgotten – overrun by the negative consumer response evoked by their email.

It’s unclear whether the email was an attempt at humor gone terribly awry or a case of casual inattention. Either way, some consumer insights would have gone a long way in preventing the brand-damaging mishap; social listening data would likely have revealed that the fifth anniversary of the tragic bombing was close to the hearts of the participants, and that the topic should have been treated with care.

Successful marketing experiences need planning and consumer intelligence

At the risk of being Captain Obvious, let's just say you can’t over-prepare for an experiential marketing event.There are too many variables that can cause the entire event to flop, or worse -- back-fire.

Preserve the brands under your care, save your clients millions of dollars, and spare your agency embarrassment. Begin all your marketing – experiential or otherwise – with solid research and consumer intelligence.

If you’re wondering if social listening insights need to be part of your research stack, request a free demo to tour Infegy Atlas and discover the answer for yourself! Infegy Atlas is the fastest, most flexible consumer intelligence research platform on the market. We’ll even make a custom demo to show you how we can meet your particular business needs.