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3 Tips For Creating Controversial Marketing Campaigns Without Destroying Your Brand

3 Tips For Creating Controversial Marketing Campaigns Without Destroying Your Brand

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Is controversy always a good thing for marketing your brand?

It’s that age-old question… is all press good press?

There are supporters on either side of the fence, both armed with examples that suit their purpose.

So which side of the fence are you on?

Let’s reframe the question like this: How much and to what extent is controversy good for marketing, and after what point does it get bad?

The answer is complex, with several things to consider, like:

  1. The level of controversy
  2. The subject of controversy
  3. The connection between the controversy, the conversation and the brand.

This may seem surprising given we are accustomed to seeing high-profile companies running controversial (sometimes highly controversial!) campaigns, and hijacking conversations on social media to rake in the profits that come from increased visibility.

But a study by academics from Wharton Business School found that while “controversy increases the likelihood of discussion at low levels”, beyond a moderate level of controversy, it “actually decreases the likelihood of discussion”.

So what are you meant to do if you want to add the right amount of controversy to your marketing campaign without going too far?

This blog post will explore how to create campaigns that provoke conversations and push the boundaries of social perception without negatively impacting your brand.


Let’s go!

Tip 1: Choose the right controversy

Just as there are different degrees of controversy, there are different types of controversial campaigns that you can undertake:

  1. Shock campaigns
  2. Taboo campaigns
  3. Debatable campaigns

Shock and Taboo campaigns are the ones that provoke widespread commentary on a contentious topic; for example, an ad that trots out the idea that all gamblers are liars or a pro-atheism poster that shows two priests kissing.

Whereas a Debatable campaign is one that has valid and rational points in both its pros and the cons, and is supported by data.

It is highly recommended to opt for a campaign that is Debatable.

That way, you can still stir up a debate, but let people decide where they stand on it. Debatable campaigns don’t solely rely on administering emotional shock or activating trigger points to generate a response, and rarely cause damage to your brand.

With a Debatable campaign, there is a minimal chance of anyone getting offended or hurt, yet everybody participating in the debate becomes aware of your brand. And this additional awareness can be leveraged by you to boost business.

A study conducted by the apartment location start-up Abodo called Tolerance In America’ analyzed 12 million tweets for profane language, then ranked US states on the basis of tolerance.

The headline may be melodramatic, but this type of content is conducive to debate amongst people, as bigotry and intolerance are hot-button topics. Abodo was not adversely affected by putting up this blog post and the campaign was a huge success with more than 620 placements (240 DoFollow links and 280 co-citation links) and more than 67,000 shares which, in turn, stimulated social media discussion.

Another way to successfully harness controversy for your brand is by taking a bold stance on a highly-charged issue.

A great example that springs to mind is Oreo.

So what did Oreo do?

They came out in strong support of gay rights with a Facebook post that contained the image of a multi-colored cookie in the same configuration as the Gay Pride rainbow flag.

The result?

Well, the image sparked fierce debate among the company’s 27 million fans on its Facebook page. While Oreo did cop some flak, the controversy also popularized Oreo wildly and the company reaped a massive dividend from the ensuing publicity.

With more than 50,000 comments and 300,000 likes, it was so successful that there was even a petition for Oreo to manufacture real-life rainbow cookies. The general perception was that Oreo was a ‘brave’ brand for taking a courageous stand on a contentious issue.

There are several other lessons that can be drawn from this example, and some others which we will examine later in the article.

For now, the key takeaways are:

  1. Keep your campaign debatable, or…
  2. Take a stand on a contentious issue and center your campaign around that.

Tip 2: Connect the controversy to your brand

Deciding on a Debatable controversy is not enough. You also have to find a way to connect the controversy to your brand.

Otherwise you will simply be stirring the pot without translating it into measurable outcomes (be it tweets, likes, dislikes, shares, comments or sales profit).

Take this example of a 1-minute video advertisement released by United Nations Women, titled ‘The Autocomplete Truth’, that highlights gender inequality. The campaign compiled the Google autocomplete search results from around the world for the words ‘women should…’

Watch it for yourself.

The campaign was a huge success with the hashtag #womenshould gaining 224 million impressions on Twitter and earning the top spot of ‘Most Shared Ad of 2013’ on Facebook.  The campaign also helped to spark a global debate on gender equality and women’s rights – both offline and online.

You can see how a controversial campaign like this allows the data to speak for itself; in this case, for Google search results from around the world.

Another example of a high-performing controversial campaign is from Sisley.

It subverts the stereotype of fashion models as starving and drug-addled by depicting fashion models ‘snorting’ clothing off a reflective surface.

While debate raged about whether the advertisement was glamorizing drug usage, one thing is for sure, the advertisement was racy and pushed the envelope of good taste. But it did so with a self-referential wink.

While it contained elements of a Shock campaign, it wasn’t just shocking for shock’s sake. And it definitely didn’t do any damage to the brand, with most of its target audience embracing the idea of being ‘fashion junkies’ or ‘addicted’ to expensive style.

Today’s consumers love to take a peek ‘behind the curtain’ and relate to witty content that speaks directly to them, so this type of campaign is well-placed to succeed.

Tip 3: Have a crisis management plan

As we’ve already discussed, controversial marketing campaigns are, by nature, well… controversial.

Before launching your campaign, it is imperative to discuss and have in place a crisis management plan to handle any backlash.

That way, you won’t have to fumble in a conference room putting together a press release in the wake of a social media storm. A good response system is crucial to effective brand management and maintaining your campaign’s integrity.

In other words, have a thoughtful and prepared response ready to go.

Let’s return to the example of the Oreo image.

While the company was successful in gaining massive online and offline support for their post, it did cop some flak.

Despite gaining more followers than they lost (or alienated), Oreo ending up pulling the image from its Facebook page after succumbing to pressure from followers threatening to either boycott or leave the page.

This is exactly the sort of situation you don’t want to wind up in.

Oreo’s panicky response in removing the image made them look less ‘brave’ than initially intended and indicated that their marketing team hadn’t properly considered the potential ramifications of the post. It showed a susceptibility to pressure as well as a regrettable inability to handle criticism.

So, here are some failsafe tips to put a crisis management plan (or as you may prefer to think of it, positive response system) in place.

  1. Take a top-down approach. In other words, people at the top of your organization should take the initiative in responding. This shows that they lead by example and tells the public that their concern is being taken seriously.
  2. Adopt a positive and empathetic tone when engaging with consumer complaints both online and offline. Offer a solution to fix the problem instead of merely apologizing. Show grace, tact and sensitivity.
  3. Follow-through with those affected or offended by the marketing campaign in question to demonstrate an ability to listen to feedback across multiple platforms and action the ensuing results.

In conclusion

Don’t just court controversy for the sake of courting controversy. Instead, ask what it can do for your brand in moderate dosages and examine how it can be connected to your existing marketing messages.

Sometimes it is better to stay cold than to play with fire, however, if you decide to undertake a controversial campaign, use the above tips to generate the positive results you want.

Remember, your aim should never be to offend anybody, simply to tap into popular ideas and debate as an integral part of your engagement strategy.

Now tell us: what is your take on deliberately introducing controversy to a campaign? Share your thoughts below and let’s start a discussion.

Tip: Hire a branding expert or freelancer on Fiverr.com.

Guest Author: Vaibhav Kakkar is Co-Founder and Chief Growth Officer at RankWatch and NotifyFox, Software Solutions that help digital marketers perform better. Apart from helping businesses succeed online and writing about Internet Marketing, he spends time digging deep into the beautiful world of search engine algorithms. You can connect with him on LinkedIn

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