Nothing Fails Like Success

Beware the campaign that succeeds too well

One of our colleagues at Centigrade needed some work done recently at her home. She called three contractors; all local, with good websites and glowing testimonials. One came out, viewed the job, promised an estimate but after two weeks and three further phone calls still hadn’t responded. The other two never returned her original calls at all. How hard can it be to spend money?

It’s easy to see how that can happen for the ‘one man and his dog’ business. One job a week is happiness. Two is stressful, but you can cope. Upwards of three and you’re so plagued by calls that you stop answering your phone. For the small business, there’s a very fine line between not enough work and way too much.

That’s the danger of too much success at a micro level, but is it possible for a large, mature, marketing-led organisation to be too successful? Sadly yes, as one prestige car manufacturer found a couple of years back. Its marketing team planned a wonderful summer party to celebrate 100 years of the brand. They located a glorious setting, with entertainments for the family, a line-up of classic vehicles, picnic hampers and lavish hospitality. Having set up the event, they created an online invitation and sent it out to their entire customer database.

They were swamped. Instead of the response rate they’d experienced for other events, the take up was over five times that high – way more than the venue could accommodate. Suddenly they had a major problem on their hands – how to uninvite customers who’d already blocked out the date in their diaries?
With a lot of hard work, they managed to keep most customers happy. But the fallout was damaging. Consumers today have an unprecedented number of ways of making their dissatisfaction known, whether on ratings sites or social media. For the marketer, creating a demand you can’t satisfy can be worse than not creating demand in the first place.

The ultimate ‘disaster from triumph’ came in the 1990s, when the British division of The Hoover Company attempted to clear surplus stock by offering a free flight with all purchases over £100. They reasoned that anyone in the market for a washing machine or vacuum cleaner might be tempted by the ‘extra’ of a free flight, but that most wouldn’t bother to go through with the application process. Instead, huge numbers of consumers bought appliances, not because they needed one, but in order to get the flight. Demand swamped the company and cost it almost £50m.

These examples are a useful reminder to plan for campaign overachievement as well as under. To ask yourself; ‘what happens if this goes viral?’ People are surprising; they behave predictably for years then throw you a curveball. In the UK, the leaders of the Brexit campaign went to bed on the night of the referendum expecting to wake to a narrow defeat. The French have just elected a president without a party. And the US…? Well, quite.

There’s an old advertising saying: ‘nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising’. But when advertising creates a demand that can’t be satisfied, even good products can suffer a consumer backlash. Sometimes, nothing fails like success.