Biggest brand fails across Asia Pacific in 2021

Campaign Asia's annual look at the brand disasters and slip-ups that dominated headlines this year

Dec 21, 2021 04:08:00 AM | Article | Surekha Ragavan

Amid the ever-raging pandemic, brands continued to push out new offerings and campaigns to trigger so much as a spark in the fatigued minds of its audiences. Evidently, some were more successful than others. 

Foodpanda: Delivering piping-hot offense in 30 minutes or less

The delivery platform has undoubtedly shown useful to many as dining-in restrictions were periodically imposed in some markets. However, a comms slip-up in Thailand sparked by a single social media comment proved disastrous for the brand. As anti-government protests swept across Thailand in July, one Foodpanda delivery rider was incidentally caught on film setting fire to an image of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn. With little thought, Foodpanda threw its employee under the bus, instigating a barrage of comments on social media against it.

Later in October, the brand also faced a shower of attacks as a Bollywood-themed ad featured a nearly all-Malay cast dressed in traditional Indian costumes. The ad was released around Deepavali celebrations, but Foodpanda denied that it was related to the festival.

The ad in question triggered a conversation in Malaysia about cultural appropriation and the erasure of Malaysian-Indians from popular culture. Despite some parties defending the ad, there was no coming back from the crisis.

Vitasoy: No soy-lution to this unending saga

One of the most uncomfortable and unnerving places to be is the point of tension between China and Hong Kong. Beverage brand Vitasoy was thrown in this exact spot over a politically charged crime conducted by a Hong Kong employee against a police officer. The company appeared to show sympathy towards the employee’s family, following which it faced the wrath of Chinese social media users. The brand U-turned by expressing support for the police, by which time Chinese influencers and brand ambassadors had already cut ties.

It didn’t help that a month later, Vitasoy was reported to ask employees to sign a personal data-processing consent form agreeing to share personal information about them and their family members. This information reportedly collected included work history and affiliations with associations and other groups. If required by law enforcement agencies in the future, the company will disclose this information to them. Some on LinkedIn—including senior staff at the company—rightfully expressed concern.

Pinduoduo: The deathly cost of convenience

Chinese ecommerce platform Pinduoduo poorly handled a crisis involving the death of a staffer earlier this year, allegedly due to overwork. The staffer’s death sparked a social-media backlash against the company and its alleged poor working practices, and more largely drew attention to China’s normalisation of extended working hours in the tech industry. While the brand expressed sympathy to the employee’s family, no mention was made on its working practices.

A week later, an engineer was reported to have committed suicide after working at the company for six months. Pinduoduo said that Tan had asked for leave the day prior to his reported death, but didn't give a reason. Following the incident, the company is said to have launched a counselling service to provide psychological services for traumatised employees.

Separately, an employee who used Wang as a pseudonym was fired after anonymously posting a photo of an ambulance that had arrived at the office building. In the post, Wang allegedly said "another warrior has fallen" referring to a colleague being taken away by ambulance. The post went viral. The company also said that it was "highly suspected that he had randomly filmed and anonymously released information" to harm the company's reputation even when the facts weren't clear. Regardless, the brand demonstrated a lack of remorseful and empathetic communications around an issue as serious as this.

Clubhouse: A quiet place part 2?

This one is less of a brand fail and more of a brand lull. Despite the audio-based social media platform gaining much hype due to a conversation that Tesla chief Elon Musk hosted, the app has also become a classic rise-and-fall pandemic tale.

At one time—in early February to be precise—advertisers keenly eyed the platform as a fast-growing, highly engaging tool and agencies scrambled to learn the ins and outs of the app. Many months and moons later, the roar of the club has regretfully quietened. This may be attributed to multiple issues: the app’s slow rollout on Android, its inability to meet demand, it’s confounding invite-only rule, or its growing privacy concerns.

“It was fun while it lasted,” Forbes reported. There there, Clubhouse.

Meta: Enjoy hate speech in a virtual 3D environment 

Ubiquitous with continually finding itself on the defense, Meta this year wasn’t short of crises, scandals, and Congress hearings. One crisis that dominated the news cycle was sparked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who detailed that the company’s services deliberately hurt some children’s self-esteem and abetted human trafficking.

While handling this crisis of high importance, the company decided to announce a rebranding of its corporate name to Meta—which completely failed to address the aforementioned problems. The rebranding in itself was mocked widely by a litany of brands, something that the company’s brand manager was reportedly “prepared for”. 

In more recent news, dozens of Rohingya refugees in the UK and US have sued Facebook for US$150 billion, accusing the company of allowing hate speech against them to spread. Some 25,000 Rohingyas are said to have been killed during a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.

We suppose it's been just another year for one of the world's most contentious companies.