Top 5 (or is it Bottom 5?) Worst Brands of the Year

Last week, I wrote about the Top 10 best brands of the decade on the basis of position clarity and consistency. And I asked for your vote on who you thought deserved the #1 spot. Click here to see the results!

Again on the basis of position clarity and consistency, this week I offer for your consideration the Top 5 worst brands of 2009. Why just one year? I didn’t have the stomach (or let’s face it, the time) to dig through an entire decade of disasters. Please forgive me.

5. Head and Shoulders
Head and Shoulders has always been about fighting dandruff, period. But it seems P&G wasn’t satisfied with world dandruff domination. So in 2008, they tried to expand their brand position to encompass beautiful hair – with the tagline A truly great hair day begins at the scalp. At first I thought it was a great idea. It still seems obvious that a healthy, dandruff-free scalp is a precondition to beautiful hair.

But their ad campaign has suffered from inconsistency that muddies the intended brand position. Already, Head and Shoulders has changed their tagline – to Respect the scalp. Love the hair. And they’re also talking about “the seven signs of healthy hair.” But exactly who has the time or inclination to remember seven things about their hair?

While the “seven” theme has been smartly integrated with a wider campaign, the message is further confused by running ads with NFL football player Troy Polamalu, who has a head of hair not unlike The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob.

The ultimate problem, however, is that Head and Shoulders is a victim of its own success. They so completely own the dandruff position that your average person would not be caught dead buying this product – unless they have dandruff.

No amount of advertising is about to change this perception. So guys: dandruff ain’t sexy, but it works for you. And you’re stuck with it.

4. Subway

Subway has the distinction of being in both the top 10 of the decade, and the Bottom 5 of the year. Specifically, it is the Canadian division of Subway that deserves the Bottom 5 honour for the stunning breakdown of brand consistency and discipline involved in changing their tagline, Eat Fresh, to the quizzical Think Fresh. Eat Fresh.  

Exactly what is gained by deviating from the parent brand, which has doubled revenue and stores – to $8.2-billion and 30,000, respectively – this decade? It could be that the Canadian operation wants to establish a degree of independence from its American parent. Which would be a very bad idea – the equivalent of a very small tail wagging a very large dog. Which segues nicely into a quip, which Subway’s hosers would do well to recall, about not pooping where you eat.

3. Shoppers Drug Mart / Baléa 

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Baléa, the value brand that is replacing Life in a number of categories at Shoppers Drug Mart. I recently discovered it only by accident, or rather by necessity, while looking in vain for some Life brand shampoo. Shoppers maintains that its customers don’t want the same brand name across all categories – hence the change.

The name change has not been well executed. Brand names have a job to do, and Baléa falls far short. Chief among the jobs a name must do:

  • Communicate the brand’s point of difference
    • Life = yes (stuff you can use for everyday living)
    • Baléa = no (because it has no intrinsic meaning in English. If you’re interested, it refers to a lake in Romania)


  • Pass the cocktail party test: can you hear it at a cocktail party and then remember it well enough to Google at home?
    • Life = yes
    • Baléa = no (a lack of meaning makes it difficult to remember, and its spelling and pronunciation is not obvious)


  • Be rich in associations / have multiple levels of meaning : key to memorability
    • Life = yes
    • Baléa = no (again because it has no apparent meaning)


That Baléa does not measure up on any of these dimensions is of particular concern for a value (read: discount) brand that will not receive much advertising support. All said, Shoppers has not only blown a major opportunity to define an exciting value proposition for its value brand, a lack of naming savvy means Baléa risks losing share vs. the national brands it’s supposed to be competing with.

Finally, the lack of naming discipline employed here is a curious contrast to Shoppers’ 2008 introduction of Nativa, the wonderfully rich name selected for its line of organic food products.

2. Lululemon

In addition to making this list of brand bumblers, Lululemon, along with Subway, has the distinction of being one of the top 10 brands this decade. Their top 10 status derives from a crystal-clear position (empowerment / your butt will look great) so compelling that the brand flourishes overwhelmingly on word-of-mouth referral (they spent just $37,000 on advertising in a recent year).

To position clarity add consistency: Lululemon has continually referred to the spiritualism of their Manifesto to guide their behaviour – the Manifesto offering such life lessons as “dance, sing, floss and travel.”

So how exactly can you square this brand’s professed spiritualism with their recent attempt to profit from the Vancouver Olympics without paying for the right to do so? Answer: you can’t.

Lululemon’s decision would be inexcusably poor and off-brand for a multitude of companies with far less integrity.

1. Bell

For perfectly demonstrating that a logo and tagline do not a brand make, Bell is our big winner for the worst brand of 2009.

They call their new logo and new tagline, Today just got better, “a significant rebrand from the basement up.” But we know the truth – that in contrast to their wishful thinking, their reprehensibly bad service continues, unchanged from my observations in Marketing magazine last October:


What do you think? What brands deserve worst-of-the-year status?

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