What small businesses can learn from big brand blunders

Motivation and fun

23 July 2019

Failure. A seven-letter word to send shivers down the spines of business everywhere.

But as feared as it is, every accomplished business has found out the hard way that, sometimes, failure is integral to success. Because you can’t grow your business if you don’t take risks. And if you don’t take risks, then you can’t fail – or triumph.

So, is it better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all? Potentially, as big brands like Nintendo, Dyson, KFC and Dove have all come back stronger after a misstep.

Here, AXA examines how these brands bounced back from their mistakes and look at the lessons you can apply to your own company to achieve the seven-letter accolade revered by business owners worldwide: success.



Home to beloved characters like Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Link, Nintendo is easily one of the most iconic and profitable video game companies in the world. But it wasn’t always the video game gargantuan that we know and love today.

The North American video game market collapse of 1983 resulted in a demand for high-quality games with no supply to keep up. Seeking to mine this consumer interest, and believing in the quality of its console, Nintendo launched the NES in 1985 in North America’s most difficult market: New York City.

Nintendo's president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi argued that if the console could make it there, the company could make it anywhere.

They couldn’t.

The problem? After witnessing the crash of big brands like Atari and Mattel, retailers didn’t believe that Nintendo could become a serious contender in the volatile video game market – even though their console had been a huge success in Japan. Nintendo needed a miracle to bounce back from this miscalculation.

Enter the world’s most famous Italian family plumbing duo, Mario and Luigi. Super Mario Bros. was launched in September 1985. The game was the brainchild of two creatives on Nintendo’s development team and took America, and the world, by storm.

What happened next goes down in the pixels of video game history. Not only did Super Mario Bros. go on to become one of the most influential video games of all time, it cemented Nintendo’s status as one of the major players in the industry.

LESSON: Timing and quality are key

The quality of Super Mario Bros. and Nintendo’s decision to launch it after the 1983 collapse wiped out its competitors, were crucial to it success.

Consumers were suspicious of new games because they were usually over-priced and poor quality. By giving audiences the high-quality content they wanted, Nintendo were able to successfully capitalise on the power of Super Mario Bros. and dominate the market – tactics which you could adopt for your own business.  

Make your business stand out from your competition by ensuring that the products and services you provide are of the highest quality. Customers are more likely to return to you or recommend your business if you give them a service that’s a cut above the rest.

Timing is also crucial to your business’ success. For example, can you offer discounts or deals during quieter periods to encourage more custom? Or could you ensure that you offer specific services and time-sensitive deal to meet seasonal demands? Whatever tactic you opt for, always consider if it’s the best time to do so.


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The brand that creates products of such high quality that the company owner, James Dyson, decided to stick his name on it. And it’s little wonder that Mr. Dyson’s confidence soared so high; the company have been at the vanguard of the vacuuming and engineering worlds since 1983.

However, things weren’t always this way.

The first of Dyson’s inventions that caught the attention of investors was a wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a wheel. But after being dissatisfied with the suction of a top-of-the-range Hoover in 1978, he focused his efforts on improving the hoover instead.

Putting a fresh spin on the vacuum was no easy feat. In fact, Dyson tested 5,271 prototypes over the next five years before he got his cyclonic technology just right and created the world’s first bagless vacuum. Despite this accomplishment, Dyson had a hard time getting anyone onboard to license and sell his creation.

Unable to get industry support, Dyson decided to go it alone by putting his house up against a bank loanand using the money to create the vacuums himself.  

His stick-with-it-ness has paid off. Dyson still owns 100% of his company – which employs more than 5,800 engineers and invests almost £8 million a week in product development – and the 60+ products his company have invented hoovered up a whopping £4.64 billion in 2018 alone.

LESSON: Try, try and try again.

As the time and tested saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The Dyson brand’s success is largely down to James Dyson’s resilience. Who else do you know that would make over 5000 attempts to make their product perfect? This was by no means an easy task for Dyson. It came with plenty of financial risks and a lot of knockbacks but there is important lesson you can take from his unwavering determination.

If, like Dyson, you believe you have a product that’s a cut above the competition, then it’s worth honing it to perfection and overcoming any obstacles that come your way – although be careful never to overcommit yourself financially and run the risk of bankrupting yourself. Most importantly, you should never let failure set you back. Dust yourself off and try again.

And once you’ve fine-tuned a product to the best it can be, look out for other areas of your business that you could better. Success shouldn’t mean the end of your journey. Be like Dyson and keep looking to innovate, no matter how difficult it is.



KFC experienced a particularly embarrassing start to 2018. The restaurant famous for its finger-lickin’ good chicken were left without any chicken to serve at the majority of its 900 locations after switching delivery partners to DHL at the beginning of the year. The chicken wasn’t leaving the depot, never mind crossing the road to the nearest chain.

The company was forced to close of all of its locations across the UK and Ireland as a result of the #KFCCrisis – not the secret recipe for success that the Colonel had built his empire on.

To KFC’s credit, they remained transparent with customers on how they were putting the cock-up right. They even saw the funny side of the PR nightmare and, with their tongue firmly in their cheek, joined the fun on social media with their eggcellent tweet, the colonel is working on it.

Understandably, many customers were still angry with KFC over their mistake.

KFC UK responded soon after with it’s award-winning, “FCK, We’re Sorry”, print ad that ran in The Sun and Metro. The ad featured an almost-expletive anagram of the KFC brand name on the side of chicken bucket – to grab readers’ attention – before offering an apology written in everyday, conversational language.

The ad then directed readers to a special microsite, kfc.co.uk/crossed-the-road, which again, used the same sense of humour to reduce customer frustration.

KFC’s response was a huge success and helped them win back customers by the bucketload.

LESSON: Honesty is the best policy

Rather than pointing the finger at DHL for their supply chain woes, or hiding behind a corporate lingo-filled apology, KFC opted for a crisis management tactic that was funny, honest and down-to-earth – and very FCK’ing clever.

According to Meghan Farren, KFC’s chief marketing officer for the UK and Ireland, this allowed people to empathise more closely with the situation, which goes a long way in rebuilding trust and forgiveness.

Whether it’s big or small, KFC’s honesty is something you could adopt for your own business if things go by the wayside.

At the end of the day, brands are run by humans beings. And one of the most human things we can do is make mistakes. So, if your business does have a trip-up, don’t go on the defensive. Hold your hands up to the mistake, apologise, and tell your customers clearly and openly why it happened and what you’re going to do to fix it.

It might take a while to win back their trust, but your authenticity is likely to get them onside sooner than denying any wrongdoing in the first place.



Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign encourages woman to love the skin they’re in and has featured real women to help front it. The 15-year-strong campaign is often regarded as one of the most successful marketing campaigns and has never shied away from promoting body positivity.

However, the darling of the advertising world dirtied its squeaky-clean image when its “Real Beauty Bottle’ campaign went pear-shaped.

For the 2017 campaign, Dove created a limited-edition line of bottles supposedly shaped like real women. This idea was dreamed up to highlight the power of the diversity of a woman’s body. In reality, it made women feel more self-conscious than ever. By only providing seven different shapes of bottles to buy, women were essentially forced to choose the bottle that matched their shape.

The campaign release worked audiences into a lather, with many taking to social media to voice their bemusement – and punchlines. However, it’s difficult to say exactly what caused Dove’s bubble to burst with such a bang.

Was it because the bottles seemed like a gimmick that went against the sincerity of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign? Are people becoming increasingly fed up of brands positioning themselves as having beliefs and deeper meanings to increase sales? Or would consumers rather brands focus on how their products can better their lives – i.e. will this body wash make me smell good?

Potentially, it’s a combination of all three.

Dove learned some valuable lessons from this particular misstep, and it’s clear that they put them into practice with their latest body positive campaign, #ShowUs. Created in partnership with Girlgaze and Getty Images, the campaign aims to revolutionise how women are represented in the media – and recently bagged a Silver Lion Award for change at Cannes Lions 2019.

LESSON: Respect your customers

When you’re marketing what your business has to offer, do it in a way that respects your audience’s views and beliefs. Spend some time swotting up on the unique makeup of your customer community to better understand the diverse needs within it.

If you lose sight of the real, tangible role that your business or products plays in your customers’ lives, you run the risk of patronising your customers.

Always try to keep the overall purpose of your products and services at the forefront when you’re developing your marketing strategies. Your customers want to feel good about the products and service you offer, so always ask yourself if your adverts and marketing make your customers feel empowered.

Respecting a holiday, custom, or special requirement could win you a customer for life.

Success can be a long and winding road. There are no shortcuts to it but there is a recipe for it: planning, persistency, hard work and learning from your failures. As a business owner, it’s important to remember that failure isn’t fatal, and success is never final. As shown from the examples above, customers will stick by your business if you provide a service or product that is genuine, honest and makes a positive change to their lives.

Building a successful business is never easy. Protecting it is.

The road to success is filled with ups and downs. We’re working to pay more claims in 24 hours, so we’ve got your back if an incident results in the unexpected – leaving you more time to focus on building your business to new heights.