Four Ways to Fail at Your Next Brand Launch
A new app touted as “Yelp for People” went viral this week. Its founder, Julia Cordray, raised $250k in venture capital, was interviewed by the Washington Post, and drove the brand’s hashtag to the top of Facebook and Twitter. Yet, if you’ve been watching the Peeple App fiasco on social media, you already know this brand’s performance is not something you want to emulate.
Originally planned as a way for people to rate other people on a 5-star scale, the app drew Internet ire for policies that mental health experts warned would enable cyber-bullying, and legal experts claimed would violate privacy and consent laws. Faced by a groundswell of criticism on social media, Cordray lashed out in a tone-deaf performance that triggered indignation and scorn, and culminated in Cordray shutting down Peeple’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts, closing the Peeple website, and announcing a 180-degree pivot via her LinkedIn account.
“I became a trending topic for the wrong reasons,” she says, and no one disagrees. As of this writing, Cordray is clumsily attempting to patch her reputation back together on LinkedIn, even as the comment section on her post fills with eviscerating commentary. Her sponsors, shareholders, and partners have gone silent.
If there’s a silver lining to the debacle, it’s that a close look at those “wrong reasons” can teach us a lot. Peeple’s implosion is a perfect case study of everything an entrepreneur can do wrong when launching a new concept.
1. Make something people hate and then force them to use it.
As Cordray quickly learned when her story was covered by The Washington Post, a lot of folks found the very idea of a rating app for human beings to be creepy and disgusting. But Cordray’s team took it a step further by announcing that people could be forced onto the app, whether they wanted to be there or not.
On the Peeple App’s now-defunct website, the FAQ section encouraged users to submit names, phone numbers, and photos of their friends.
Once the profile was set up, the subject (victim) could then be rated by anyone who had something to say about him or her. And if you didn’t want to be rated on the app? According to the same FAQ: Too bad, so sad.
As was quickly pointed out by hundreds of people, this app concept was custom-made for abuse. When questioned about how they would prevent bullies, stalkers, and angry exes from using the app to harass their targets, the app’s founders assured everyone that they had “built in a dispute resolution feature,” but the purported feature only angered the public more.
In a Sept 24 interview with Alberta Prime Time, Cordray explains that negative reviews will be sent to your inbox and held for 48 hours, during which time you can “work it out” with the person posting the review. Because who doesn’t want to have a face-to-face with the ex-friend who left a two-star review of their performance as a human being?
“If you’re not able to make a positive out of a negative in 48 hours,” Cordray cheerfully continues, “That review will go live, and you have a right to publicly defend yourself.”
A little market research might have revealed to Cordray that people don’t actually want to be rated like businesses. The humans Cordray failed to consider when planning her app were, predictably, incensed. Within hours, her app’s social media feeds were flooded with protests.
To avoid repeating Cordray’s performance on this score, listen carefully to what buyers and users say they want. Pay attention to their problems and seek solutions that meet a genuine need. Keep listening, tweak the product intelligently, and eventually you’ll have something irresistibly appealing to offer the market.
2. Completely disregard intellectual property rights.
One of the most unfortunate casualties of the Peeple app fiasco was an award-winning smart home device called…Peeple.. Peeple the device gives homeowners a way to view, on their phone or tablet, people who knock at the door. It’s a virtual peephole. Get it? Adorable.
Peeple the device (not the app) won the $150,000 John Lewis Partnership Award the same week that Peeple the app (not the device) went viral. The founder of the device, Chris Chuter, was thrilled to have earned his moment in the limelight, until his hashtag, #peeple, started receiving angry, threatening messages. The public had understandably confused his innocent product with the not-so-innocent Peeple (the app).
It wasn’t long before Wired, CNBC, CNET, dozens of bloggers, and hundreds of social media warriors noticed that not only did the two brands share a name, but also one of them (Peeple the device) owns a trademark to it, and the other (Peeple the app) is encroaching.
It’s unclear as of this writing whether Peeple (the device) has grounds to sue Peeple (the app) for hijacking their name, but it’s certainly a possibility. Regardless whether it’s a legal violation, it certainly contributed to the brand’s downfall. In documents revealed recently, it appears that Peeple (the app)’s founders knew about Peeple (the device)’s trademark and chose to proceed anyway.
While Cordray’s case is in many ways extreme, it is sadly not unusual for brands to rip off elements of another company’s intellectual property, changing a word or an image here and there to “make it their own.” Even more commonly, new products fail to do their due diligence on branding and inadvertently risk brand confusion.
To avoid this mistake, do like Peeple the device (not the app)’s founders: Be creative, protect your work, and make things people love. You might still find your brand encroached on, but you’ll have your followers on your side when it happens.
3. Throw a temper tantrum on social media.
As pressure heated up on social media, Cordray responded first by deleting negative comments and then, when they became too many to handle, by accusing her critics of “bullying” her. In one now-famous Twitter exchange, Cordray, via the @peepleforpeople account, accused well-known author Brian Solis of “cyber crimes” and claimed that the police would soon “come knocking.”
You don’t have to go viral to repeat this part of Cordray’s melt-down. Many brands do it regularly on a smaller scale:
- When customers post negative reviews online, they respond defensively and accusingly.
- They anger influencers in their industry and the media by cluelessly behaving disrespectfully toward them.
- Faced with criticism, they cast themselves as persecuted heroes, though few of them go so far as to compare themselves to Galileo (yes, Cordray actually did that).
For better results, listen to criticism openly and respond with respect. Treat disgruntled buyers and the public with compassion. Adjust your product and messaging as necessary to meet buyer and user needs.
For example, here’s the gracious way Peeple the device (not the app) dealt with the heart-breaking hijack of their brand, which helps explain why their brand is now trending for all the right reasons:
4. Burn everything to the ground and claim your status as a tragic hero.
When she had worked the public into such a frenzy that she could no longer threaten or block everyone leaving negative comments on the app’s YouTube videos, Cordray shut down YouTube comments and moved discussion to Facebook. When the same thing happened on Facebook, she shut down the app’s Facebook account and moved to Twitter. The same thing happened on Twitter, so she shut down Twitter and moved to LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is a quiet little community of nice, easy-going, gullible members who will absolutely not call people on manipulation, lying, or ineptitude. At least, that seems to be what Cordray thought when she posted an article there on October 4, framing herself as the victim of a massive misunderstanding.
In the same post, she announced a 180-degree pivot in product concept… while pretending that the new approach was how the app was always planned. The product has “always been… a positive only app,” she baldly announced.
Further, she explained, the app was to be 100% opt-in—despite FAQs still live on the website stating the opposite.
Besides the original FAQ, Cordray had left YouTube videos available in which she described the original nature of her plans, such as the “Founders Hall” webisode in which she touted the importance of the negative review feature of her app:
LinkedIn was not amused.
Experts in everything from mental health to American and Canadian law joined with professional journalists and business leaders to teach Cordray a few things about business in general, how to treat reporters, how the internet works, and accountability for bad behavior:
Within hours, the post was inundated with hundreds of similar comments, calling out legal issues, mental health issues, and the problem with publicly trashing your integrity.
It would be difficult to fully capture the magnitude of Cordray’s ineptitude, but brands make similar mistakes every day when they hide behind corporate branding that doesn’t reflect who they really are. Misleading marketing, disingenuous public statements, and poorly aligned sales tactics lead to disgruntled customers and, in the case of a brand launch, can quickly lead a company into a downward spiral.
Successful brands, on the contrary, practice transparency, and work to align marketing and sales with the brand’s true promise. Unlike Cordray, they also:
- Recognize that pivots are a normal part of the start-up world.
- Are transparent about their process and intentions.
- Are honest when they make mistakes.
- Understand that clarity of communication is their responsibility.
Cordray’s downfall has most likely not been a fun experience for her. The brand is in shambles, her personal reputation is a disaster, and it’s unlikely any serious venture capitalist will touch her with a 10-foot pole for a long time to come. Whether she will learn from the experience is still to be seen, though it seems doubtful given her response to feedback so far.
Other brands, however, would do well to take note. Avoid her mistakes, and you will probably never go viral “for the wrong reasons."
About the author
Heather Head is an author and founder of the brand storytelling company Scopcity. When she is not writing, running her business, or chasing down bad guys on Twitter, she enjoys hiking, snuggling with her husband and three boys, and avoiding the kitchen. You can connect with me here: