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Current as of 23/05/17 08:00AM NZST
NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Marketing madness fit for the lynch mob

Telecom is a giant on the New Zealand corporate stage. That's probably why this attempt at humour has failed. Photo / Supplied
Telecom is a giant on the New Zealand corporate stage. That's probably why this attempt at humour has failed. Photo / Supplied

The world's greatest marketing blunder occurred in 1978 when Cincinnati radio station WKRP released turkeys from a helicopter flying over the Thanksgiving Day parade.

They hit the ground "like bags of wet cement" and station manager Arthur Carlson, who had miscalculated the flying abilities of the turkey, was lynched by the angry crowd.

Okay, technically that was in a sitcom, not real life. Apologies if it was an inappropriate example. Let's just call it an ill-judged attempt to make this column more edgy. But that WKRP in Cincinnati episode is a classic and is still highly relevant.

With the heightened commercial environment of the Rugby World Cup, marketing and branding are extremely hot topics - as adidas and Telecom have found.

Edgy marketing is always a high-risk strategy and there have been plenty of real-life flops.

In 2005, McDonald's ran a campaign featuring teenage boys looking longingly at a double cheese burger, with the slogan: "I'd hit that."

When the campaign was pulled the marketing manager claimed he had not understood the actual meaning of the slang term. For those who don't know, the meaning relates to that thing which Sean Fitzpatrick has been urging us not to do.

Locally, one of the worst campaigns was a direct marketing effort by the Auckland Art Gallery. In 1996, it tried to promote its Transformers exhibition by sending people a live monarch butterfly chrysalis in a box.

Presumably people were supposed to watch them hatch and set them free. Unfortunately, many hatched early, so recipients opened their box to the grizzly sight of half-formed dead monarchs. Not quite a turkey drop, but close.

The exhibition went on to be one of the gallery's biggest hits anyway.

So how does Telecom's decision to put one of the nation's greatest All Blacks on a motorised pink fist and deliver a Benny Hill style monologue about sexual abstinence rate in marketing blunders? Judging by the public response - pretty high.

To be fair, Telecom lost control of the campaign when it was leaked to the media. Fitzy on the fist was not a good look but it may have been softened by other adverts making it clearer the whole thing was in jest.

But despite protestations from the marketing people that it was a good campaign, the public has spoken and it has been pulled. Good on Telecom for listening and not letting it become an obstinance campaign.

It simply wasn't worth persisting with and Telecom has dodged any threat that public distaste will do more serious brand damage, such as adidas is now dealing with.

In financial terms this remains insignificant for Telecom. It is nothing more than a distraction for a company which yesterday wrote down $257 million in value on its copper wire network and delivered a solid result which saw its shares rise.

Telecom is a giant on the New Zealand corporate stage. That's probably why this attempt at humour has failed. It's like telling the dirty joke at Christmas dinner. It's cheeky and irreverent when its your younger cousin ... not so much when it's Granddad.

If it had been comedian Rhys Darby on the pink fist and the company had been 2degrees, would the reaction have been different? Probably - underdogs have a distinct advantage with edgy campaigns.

Other mature corporates have walked a fine line with risque advertising. Air New Zealand has been pushing the boat out for several years. While its ads don't always sit that well locally, the airline makes the point that they do create a buzz in bigger foreign markets - markets in which Air New Zealand still fits the bill as the cheeky underdog.

So the marketing blunder this week was not so much a failure of the campaign itself but a failure of Telecom to judge its own relationship with the New Zealand public.

The pressure to maintain a youthful brand is enormous these days. There is an ongoing risk that your brand will be seen as old and irrelevant. There is need for constant reinvention. Telecom will shortly split into two companies - a heavyweight network company called Chorus and a more consumer-focused retail brand.

There will be plenty of opportunities for redefining the brand. One wonders why the company didn't wait and play it safer with its World Cup branding.

It might be a fair criticism to say New Zealanders take rugby too seriously. But right before the most important rugby event in a generation was an unwise time to try and get fruity with the national game.

Follow Liam Dann at

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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