Big branded blunders: Four times brands slipped up on social media

Communications can be a perilous minefield for companies large and small. This is perhaps most evident in the precarious world of social media. Whilst traditional modes of brand communication have focused on targeting consumers, social media facilitates dialogue. This dialogue affords brands the ability to connect with new audiences and develop an identity.

Unfortunately, a wrong move can attract the ire of millions. This dynamic, along with the desire for brands to drift into the political space, has landed some in the mire.


Sir Richard Branson recently fell victim to this unforgiving environment through an insensitive tweet. The Virgin CEO posted a photo of himself along with eight others to announce the launch of his new Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, South Africa.

However, the lack of diversity in the photo failed to accurately reflect the demographic makeup of a country with a sensitive past, it didn’t take long for social media to blow up.

“Wonderful to be in South Africa to help launch the new Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship” the text accompanying the image read, “We aim to become the heart of entrepreneurship for Southern Africa”.

The post was met with the type of social media invective you’d expect, fashion designer Mr Thula Siundi wrote: “That must have really taken an honest effort for exclude the majority of the population which is just as skilled and talented.”

Tebogo Ditshego, head of a public relations and marketing at a firm in the country, added fuel to the fire, asking: “Where’s the diversity in that team?”

Branson has since deleted the image and issued an apology statement acknowledging his failure to represent the country’s diversity. To Virgin’s credit, the rest of the published content representing the event did in fact represent diversity.


The company also issued a strong statement: “The tweet linked to a blog about the launch of the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship South Africa, which assists aspiring entrepreneurs of all backgrounds with the skills, opportunities and inspiration they need to succeed.

“We apologise for the poorly chosen image but would like to emphasise that this does not reflect the diverse make-up of attendees.

“As the video, other social posts and other images of the event show, many of the diverse group of Branson Centre entrepreneurs, trustees and team were present and the image attached to that particular tweet should have reflected this too.”

Regardless this was an awkward start for the launch of a service designed with good intentions.


Snapchat are no stranger to public indiscretions either and theirs have been particularly costly. The social media giant was hugely insensitive in the decision to run an ad created by a third party that ostensibly made light of Rihanna’s experience with domestic abuse. The ad, which posed as a would-you-rather type game, asked users if they would prefer to slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown.

Unsurprisingly, the content elicited heated responses from users of the app, including Rihanna herself, whose response reportedly cost Snapchat over $1b.


Dove’s “real beauty” campaign experienced considerable success in its early days. By celebrating the natural beauty in everyone, Dove challenged the unrealistic expectations of beauty imposed by the industry with a campaign which sought to give women self-confidence. The idea was ambitious, progressive and for many, inspiring. Until a blunder threatened to unravel it all.

An advert posted to Facebook showed a black woman removing her top to reveal a white women underneath, relating the transformation to Dove body lotion. The post was removed from Facebook but not before it was shared and bombarded by a wave of disgruntled audiences.

Naomi Blake shared the content, and asked:

“What does America tell black people? That we are judged by the color of our skin and that includes what is considered beautiful in this country”

Dove was quick to remove the post and issue an apology, stating: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused.”

And in a further statement explained:

“As a part of a campaign for Dove body wash, a three-second video clip was posted to the US Facebook page.”

“This did not represent the diversity of real beauty which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs, and it should not have happened.”

“We have removed the post and have not published any other related content. We apologise deeply and sincerely for the offence that it has caused.”

Dove’s apology of course, was sharply over-shadowed by the barrage of criticism that flooded the internet. Dove was accused of racism and many decided to boycott the company, citing the content as an example of “black boycott”.


In 2016, supermarket Aldi incensed Aussie shoppers in a social media promotion that captured the danger of bad timing.

In the midst of a storm of controversy surrounding their continued sale of eggs produced by caged hens, Aldi decided to engage their customers through humour.

Aldi had remained silent on the issue of caged hens, unlike its competitors. Coles had stopped selling them under their branded line and Woolworths announced their decision to phase them out completely by 2018. Meanwhile, Animals Australia had posted a grotesque expose on the conditions Aldi caged chickens were subject to.

The public were already flocking to Aldi’s social media posts, calling on the supermarket to sell free range. This environment was not really conducive to barnyard banter, however Aldi proceeded to make the following post:

The post was met with fierce backlash, forcing Aldi to delete it within the hour.

Social media allows brands to extend their voice and engage with audiences in ways unimaginable only 20 years ago. However, to operate in this world it is vital to have a team of advisors to help navigate political and social risk; what might look like a harmless post can have catastrophic effects on your reputation and your bottom line.