Dissecting a flop: Hakanoa's 'swap a ginger' campaign falls flat

All consumers want from a brand is for the brand to be honest and to fulfill its promise.

Typically, consumers are looking for a great product or experience. Coke tastes like Coke and it never deviates from this promise (well there was this one time, but we’ll cover that later), which is why people buy it.

Swap a ginger

Last week a campaign run by Hakanoa Ginger Beer called ‘Swap a Ginger’ proposed to parents of ‘ginger’ children that they swap their kids for a six pack of ginger beer. While I’m not going to explore why this idea is so Marc Ellis circa 2005, I am going to look at how Hakanoa could have avoided landing ‘flat on their face’ in the fallout from a pretty average idea and why calling your customers idiots is not a great way to build loyalty.

Hakanoa beer swap a ginger campaign

Last week I received a copy of an apologetic email from the marketing manager of Hakanoa Ginger Beer. The marketing manager explained that the campaign wasn’t designed to sell more product or to raise brand awareness, but rather, the idea behind ‘Swap a Ginger’ was to raise awareness about the bullying of ginger-haired children. Initially I thought the email was a joke, then after checking it was genuine, I realised Hakanoa was trying to absolve itself of a crap idea in the face of public and social outrage. Here’s a pull quote from the PR release.

Hakanoa ginger beer swap a ginger campaign

We’re all idiots

Yep, you heard me. For all of us who thought this idea was funny, witty, or edgy, we’re all idiots. Idiots for laughing at carrot tops, rust heads and fire crotches. Not only have the ‘brains trust’ behind this idea insulted ginger people, they’ve insulted the very people they want to buy this product. The creative genius from M&C Saatchi – not to be mistaken for the agency that came up with the doomed Abstain For the Game campaign, though the outcome is eerily similar – has dropped its client in it big time.

The blame game

While the owner of Hakanoa Ginger Beer, Rebekah Hay, must accept a certain amount of responsibility for the idea going to market, the onus is squarely on M&C Saatchi creative director Dave King. He initiated the campaign after approaching Hay and, reading between the lines of the press release, failed to develop a compelling plan to deal with the negative publicity. But maybe King’s motive was less than pure. Cynics often say that agencies come up with an idea not to benefit the brand but to win awards. Believe me there are some amazing ad people out there (Dave Nash from Ogilvy is one) but there are a small number who bugger it up for the rest.

Lessons learnt

What should Hakanoa have done differently? First and foremost, it should have spoken with a brand agency. Creative ideas can be great but what’s the point if you fail to understand your market and what drives loyalty? Now at this point I’m painting with broad brush strokes, but the second part would have been to frame the idea much more intelligently.

You don’t raise awareness of racism by being racist, just like you wouldn’t put the spotlight on child abuse by abusing children. The creative idea should never get in the way of the message. Instead of reinforcing negative sentiment towards ginger people, why not reward them for standing up in the face of daily abuse by offering ginger people a six pack of Hakanoa Ginger Beer? I can guarantee people would have dyed their hair ginger just to get their hands on some.

Even Coke gets it wrong sometimes

And lastly, my next point brings us back to the branding 101. Customers buy a product or are loyal to a brand because of shared values and because a strong brand keeps its promises. Another word on Coke: in the 80s the brand ditched its famous formula after blind taste tests indicated consumers preferred Pepsi. It’s fair to say this was an unmitigated disaster; people hated ‘New Coke’ and boycotted it. Coke’s mistake was that it insulted a loyal base of customers who loved the product. And what saved it? The company admitted its mistake and quickly went back to the original formula.

Therein lies a lesson for all of us; customers can smell bullshit from a mile away and the press release from Hakanoa is total BS. Be honest, admit your mistake and ask for forgiveness. Customers are human, we all make mistakes, but we respond well to honesty. Brands need to respond similarly.


In last weekend’s Herald there was an article that said Rebekah Hay was receiving death threats. What the hell is wrong with some people! I’ll definitely be trying a couple of bottles of Hakanoa to support her through what must be a difficult time.

Kaleb Francis is digital brand strategist at Marque - Brand Partners

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).