NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When toymaker Mattel announced the shocking Barbie-Ken split two days before last year's Valentine's Day, was it a savvy marketing ploy or a big branding bungle?
According to branding expert Kelly O'Keefe, it was a branding blooper.
"I'm not sure that Mattel expected more hearts than just Ken's would be broken," O'Keefe said. "Barbie and Ken together are iconic."
Ken was Barbie's beau for 43 years. When the breakup happened, the news prompted many to scold Mattel for putting her values in question since she dumped preppy-looking Ken for a surfer dude from "down under."
Said O'Keefe, "Mattel embarrassed itself with this move and tried to save some face by bringing in a bubble-gum pop princess," referring to the company's decision to enlist teen popstar Hillary Duff as an official spokesperson.
Mattell's decision to break Barbie and Ken up ranks among the top branding blunders companies have recently committed, according to O'Keefe, CEO of Richmond, Va.-based brand strategy firm O'Keefe Brands.
"Building a brand can't be done overnight, but brands can be diminished or destroyed in an instant," he said. "Some of these mistakes might not come back to haunt the offenders, but some will have long-term consequences."
Really? Well, Mattel (Research) actually saw a resurgence in U.S. Barbie sales over the holidays, the first time that's happened in nearly five years.
For now, O'Keefe is standing by his "Branding Hall of Shame."
Other losers include:
--Anheuser-Busch. The maker of Budweiser and Bud Light got a little perturbed when SAB Miller, the parent of Miller and Miller Lite, said it was "un-American" to call itself the "king" of beers.
So Anheuser-Busch countered with a "queen of carbs" campaign, and the feud ignited. Miller Lite ads began promoting better taste (like the Pepsi taste test.) Anheuser-Busch boasted of being fresher and began doing its own taste tests. Miller Lite introduced football referees who threw flags for the penalty of drinking Bud Light. Bud countered with refs of their own who crave Bud Light.
Funny thing happened in this war, though, said O'Keefe. Sales of Miller Lite, which have been sluggish for years, are up, while Bud Light's have slipped.
"Anheuser-Busch took its eye off the ball – its own products – and began watching and reacting to its smaller rival," O'Keefe said. "Instead of taking care of business as usual, it has been on its heels and actually may have brought more attention to its competitor by engaging this feud."
-- Mr. Wendy. He's the first new "spokescharacter" the fast-food chain introduced since its affable founder Dave Thomas died in 2002. Mr. Wendy appeared in a series of light-hearted commercials. Wendy's (Research) bagged the campaign in November, nine months after its debut.
"No matter what Wendy's does, people are still going to think of Dave Thomas," O'Keefe said. "Mr. Wendy belittled that wholesome image. It was a misguided attempt at being cute when Wendy's needed to remind consumers that its food is still better than the competition's."
-- Pier 1 ditches Kirstie Alley. Instead, the home furnishings retailer hired design guru Thom Filicia from Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
OK, this one is certainly debatable. Kirstie Alley was the company's celebrity endorser for three years. However, Pier 1 Imports sales were rapidly declining toward the end of Alley's stint. So the retailer hired the services of another celeb pitchman. Filicia had an even shorter association with the retailer than Alley as sales continued to slump.
A spokeswoman for Pier 1 (Research) told CNN/Money that the company dropped Filicia last month as an official spokesperson for the brand and is currently in the process of creating a new campaign devoid of a celebrity.
"[Pier 1 is] a classic case of a company that once had a fantastic brand but has floundered and now has no conviction to its brand," O'Keefe said. "Corporate marketers and CEOs assume that if numbers aren't great, it must be time to can the ad agency and start anew. Brands aren't built by constantly churning slogans, campaigns and agencies."
-- Dell's DJ. Dell had visions of competing with Apple's iPod when it introduced its DJ. But industry observers says its late introduction hurt holiday sales in 2003 even though Dell (Research) priced the DJ to undercut the iPod.
The DJ saw very little marketing last year while Apple continues to cement its leadership position in the market for digital music players.
"What's the point in trying to go head-to-head with the market leader if you're not certain you really want to?" O'Keefe said. "Belief is crucial to the brand, and Dell has shown little signs that it believes in this offering. So why should anyone else?"