What Went Wrong? A Township-based Marketer On The Real Reasons Social Media Fails Happen

Updated on 13 July 2017

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What Went Wrong? A Township-based Marketer On The Real Reasons Social Media Fails Happen

As critical as social media is to your business, like the proverbial two-edged-sword, it can spell disaster if it’s done wrong.

Who can forget Pepsi and their controversial Kendall Jenner ad or United Airlines’ passenger PR nightmare. Local brands haven’t been immune either, remember FNB’s failed attempt at humour on Twitter and Outsurance’s recent social media catastrophe with the ‘racist’ Father’s Day advert?

Kiss To Survive – Keep It Simple Stupid
To get the local perspective on how these epic social media fails could play out for an SME, we speak to award-winning, township-based entrepreneur, Lebogang Mokubela. He is the founder and CEO of Lemok Digital Agency (Lemok), a digital marketing agency located in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria that is focused on the SME market. He also hosts weekly podcasts on entrepreneurship called Podcasts For Your Business.


Lebogang Mokubela, founder and CEO of
Lemok Digital Agency.

Their focus on the black and township markets means they are all too familiar with racial stereotypes, cliches and cultural missed cues that are all too common in social media and advertising campaigns.

Lemok creates and manages social media strategies for clients with the aim of helping them steer clear of such brand-damaging disasters.

“I think brands sometimes try too hard on social media. They want to be part of the conversation so bad that they miss the mark. Social media and digital marketing should not be about trying too hard. At the end of the day, digital marketing and social media is about helping your customers, not necessarily being part of the conversation,” says Mokubela.

Here are 5 headline-grabbing social media disasters that nearly toppled giant corporates and Mokubela’s advice for how you can avoid the same in your business. 

OUTSURANCE – ‘Father’s Day Slipup’


While South Africans celebrated Father’s Day, insurance giant Outsurance was putting out social media fires after their followers reacted negatively to their Father’s Day advert branding it as ‘racist’ for featuring mainly white fathers. A number of Twitter users criticized the insurer and threatened to cancel their policies arguing that the campaign wasn’t representative of South Africa’s demographics.


Outsurance responded with an apology and said that the ad was “ill-conceived by a ‘young’ staff member”.

Mokubela On What Went Wrong: I think the biggest problem is [I’m going to sound a bit controversial on this part], but I feel that sometimes when companies are choosing agencies, especially when it comes to digital marketing, they need to look at the demographic of the agency itself.

We are all prone to our own nuances and biases, therefore if you hire an agency that is predominantly white, you are going to have ‘white’ views and biases showing up in the advertisements.

His Advice For SMEs: When you build a campaign or when you choose an agency, make sure the demographic of the country is shown in the team because they will all contribute to the ideas.

I feel that as a black business owner we are more prone to building a black team because we resonate with, or we relate better to black people, but depending on your targeted audience, you need to build a team that resonates with that demographic. You cannot run away from nuances and biases, but you can use them to the advantage of your business and your customers.

How To Avoid This Mistake: It’s about intentionally hiring a diversified team in all structures. Even if you don’t hire a diversified team and you’re using consultants or creatives, make it a point that the team is diverse.

PEPSI – ‘Missing The Now Moments

Pepsi recently released an advertisement that depicted Kendall Jenner, the reality television star and model, joining a protest and offering a can of Pepsi to a police officer. However, the brand found itself on the receiving end of severe social media criticism from people who accused them of trivialising the Black Lives Matter protests over police killings of black people.


Mokubela On What Went Wrong: I think the issue with the Pepsi saga was that they completely misjudged the environment in which they were responding to in their attempt to be part of the conversation in terms of what was happening politically.

Again, it was one of those situations where a brand is trying too hard to tap into something current. This blew up in their faces because they were not able to understand the cultural context of those events.

His Advice For SMEs: I’ve often seen with the big corporates using white-owned agencies and I believe the biggest problem with these white-owned agencies is that they sit in Sandton, armed with ‘data’ and ‘market research’ but no cultural or social knowledge.

For example, they want to come into the townships and market to a black person through competitions. The misconception is that black people like to dance and love freebies, so just go to Soshanguve and put on a brand activation, make them dance to win branded t-shirts.

These white-owned agencies look at the person in the township as a statistic. That’s where the problem lies – not every black person is poor and not every black person says ‘heita’ when they greet one another. We may all live in the township but not every one says ‘sho’ when greeting. You have people driving million rand cars in the township.

How To Avoid This Mistake: I believe we need to be more intentional in building teams. Diversify your team and bring them in when you are creating marketing campaigns. This will help you understand the nuances, cultures and biases of your chosen market.

UNITED AIRLINES – ‘Service With A Touch Of Violence’


American airline company, United Continental, encountered the wrath of social media after a dramatic video circulated depicting a screaming and bleeding passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked United Express flight earlier this year.


Mokubela On What Went Wrong: After a very public PR nightmare, they failed to handle the situation appropriately on social media. They tried to justify what happened instead of admitting that it was the wrong way to deal with what was essentially their mistake.

At the same time, I believe brands have not totally understood what social media and smartphones have done to disrupt. You can no longer hide behind ‘reputation management’. Social media has created transparency and coincidentally customers feel entitled to this transparency.

His Advice For SMEs: As SMEs, I believe we need to also start understanding that poor customer service can no longer be hidden. It is imperative that we understand that your biggest vice, in terms of your brand, is a smartphone armed with social media. One tweet can reach thousands.

Never before has transparency been such a compelling issue for the sustainability of businesses. SMEs need to ensure they are transparent and honest. If you drop the ball, be open about it. Especially where social media is concerned.

H&M – ‘Positively Bad For Business’


Shortly before US retail giant, H&M, was set to open its doors in Sandton and Cape Town in 2015, they had a social media storm on their hands. The company had to deal with a public relations disaster following a less than diplomatic response to a Twitter user who questioned them on the lack of black models in their advertising campaigns.

According to a News24 article, Tlalane Lethlaku, a Cape Town resident, tweeted that she noticed how H&M had no black models on their posters at their Waterfront store, saying that they needed to work on that to appeal to everyone.

H&M’s response to Lethlaku, however, opened a can of worms when they said that “their marketing plan was one which intended to convey a positive image” – implying black models were not in line with this image, the article states.


After experiencing backlash from a slew of tweets, H&M attempted to do damage control by stating: “(campaign) includes all ethnic groups. What is important is that our campaigns celebrate the fun & diversity of global fashion.”

Mokubela On What Went Wrong: I think the first mistake with this campaign was that they adopted ‘international’ guidelines, in terms of the marketing collateral, without factoring in the fact that South Africa is an extremely diversified country. I think this is also the burden of being a multinational company as marketing guidelines are usually communicated from the head office, which is usually in another country.

However, with regards to H&M’s reply, they handled it very badly. All H&M had to do was accept the suggestion and assure the customer that they will escalate the suggestion to the marketing team. And yes, I acknowledge H&M is an international brand, but they are operating in South Africa. Brands and agencies need to understand, truly, that there are many dynamics within the South African market and they also have to understand the political landscape in the country where racial tensions are at an all time high.

His Advice For SMEs: The lesson here is that you need to go beyond the traditional ‘target market analysis’ and start looking at your market from a buyer persona perspective. Get to know the individual and how and why they do things. This will give you a true understanding of the market, and how to appeal to it through your marketing tactics.

FNB – ‘Where’s Steve?’

Following FNB’s long-running “Steve” campaign, a customer asked on Twitter about the whereabouts of the bank’s widely-known persona. FNB’s Twitter personality, Rbjacobs made a social media blunder when they responded to the question with: “He’s somewhere in Afghanistan, putting a bomb under a wheelchair and telling the cripple to run for it!”

The backlash was immediate. The account apologised, saying the “joke” was not intended to cause any offense and the tweet was subsequently deleted.

Mokubela On What Went Wrong: This was just a joke gone bad, ultimately. The one issue with this saga is when you have a team that handles your social media or digital marketing, and it’s not a diversified team, this sort of thing will happen. Every culture has its own offenses and its own ‘internal’ jokes. For example, what is a joke to a white person may not be a joke to a black person.

From a personal perspective, it is okay to say the jokes within the circles if you belong to the circle. But I believe as a business or as a corporate brand or as a digital brand, whatever the case may be, we cannot be making such jokes.

The Lesson For SMEs: Large corporates effectively have social media policies in place – even though they aren’t sometimes used. As a startup or small business, you need to have social media policies that govern your social media interactions. This will govern what your team can and cannot say.

How To Avoid This Mistake: Firstly, for small businesses, you should have a social media policy in place. And also script it out. Give your team a list of frequently asked questions (with approved responses) so that when your team gets certain kinds of question on social media, whoever handles it, can have a guideline on how they are supposed to respond.

But also I would suggest to small businesses, if they have the necessary budget, to appoint a digital agency to handle all digital marketing. I say this because, with agencies, you will have a collective of professionals, that know what they’re doing and who you can hold accountable, working on your digital marketing.

When you do social media haphazardly, as and when you have time, such mistakes happen because you want to be relevant, you just post about Throwback Thursday and Monday Motivations and Travel Tuesdays, but there is no strategy behind it and there is no policy behind it.

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