Leveraging controversy for marketing campaigns comes with a level of risk, but there is clearly value to be reaped when executed right.
In this post, we'll look at how you can create a controversial marketing campaign that converts, the pros and cons of such, and the basic 'do's' and 'don’ts' of successful controversial campaigns.
The two sides of controversial marketing
It wouldn’t be controversial if it didn’t have its pros and cons. When stirring debate and discussion is at the core of your plan, you’re actually hedging your bets on not pleasing everyone. Here are some pointers on how to weigh the good against the bad.
The cliché suggests that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and while that’s not entirely true, the initial goal of controversial marketing is to stir the pot. Campaigns that are shocking, unexpected, or taboo will always be up for debate, which can help to generate the necessary buzz you need to cut through the noise.
Playing to people’s emotions is a big part of any successful campaign - be it a tweet, an email subject line, or a short video.
If you can trigger an immediate emotional response, then you’ve already won half the battle. Such was the case with Superdrug Online Doctor’s “Perceptions of Perception” campaign, where designers from 18 countries were asked to Photoshop a model’s body according to the beauty standards of their respective cultures.
At the time, the contrasting images of “beauty” generated over 600 stories - and close to a million social shares. It’s a subjective topic rendering an opinion on beauty and culture – a combo that’s sure to trigger emotion.
Start a meaningful dialogue
Only the best campaigns actually manage to do this, and that’s what UN Women’s “Auto-Complete Truth” was able to do. As you can see above, it's a fairly simple idea – superimposing images of women with actual, albeit sexist, Google queries.
Such was its success because it was founded on the core values promoted by the organization, particularly their mission to eliminate discrimination against women and girls.
As noted by WordStream, it resonated so much, the message of female empowerment was echoed by platforms like Adweek, The Guardian, and Fast Company. It was also revisited later in the year, where it enjoyed similarly successful results.
In today’s culture of outrage, people - particularly online - will always find ways to rubbed the wrong way. But controversial campaigns, like Nike’s “Dream Crazy”, are able to resonate with people by encouraging them to look at things differently - in this case, to “Believe in something, even if it means losing everything.”
The campaign was built around Colin Kaepernick, who was outcast from the NFL for kneeling during National Anthems in protest against racial inequality. Despite being one of the better quarterbacks in the game, no team has signed Kaepernick since 2016. But that hasn’t stopped him from advocating for what he believed in – and that has resonated with people.
While focusing on a divisive topic, shortly after releasing the ad, Nike’s sales skyrocketed by 31%. This shows that although there will be people who will be on the other side of the fence, controversial campaigns that are sincere in their stand can foster loyalty – which can ultimately translate to sales.
Tendency to offend
In 2019, almost everything carries the possibility of offending certain people.
Starbucks’ Red Cup campaign, despite generating buzz, and resulting in higher sales, was considered as an affront by certain sectors.
Controversial campaigns will almost certainly offend someone - you need to make sure the benefits outweigh the backlash.
May ruin brand reputation
The backlash against Pepsi’s “Live for Now” ad, which featured Kendall Jenner, was so great that it managed to do the impossible - unite the internet. After 5x as many downvotes as upvotes on YouTube, along with a deluge of negative reactions, Pepsi removed the ad from their channel just hours after posting it.
It's a classic example of emphasizing a product more than the issue at hand, and being extremely tone deaf along the way. People are very good at sniffing out insincerity and fluff, so if you don’t actually believe in a cause, it’s best not to pretend.
Dos and don’ts for successful controversial marketing campaigns
While it’s hard to ensure that a controversial campaign will be received positively, there are some general rules of thumb you can follow that’ll afford you the biggest opportunity for success.
Choose the right subject
Being controversial doesn’t necessarily entail backlash. And that’s because there are different ways to stir “controversy” with subjects that are:
While shocking and taboo campaigns may generate the necessary buzz, in the long run, they won't bring the benefits of controversial campaigns the way debatable subjects do. So when choosing to build on a controversial subject, look for one that has valid, rational points in both its pros and cons, which can be supported by data.
This way - as opposed to merely activating trigger points - you can actively engage people from both sides of the discussion (or more), while making everyone participating aware of your brand.
The image above sparked debate among Oreo’s 27 million Facebook followers. It also generated over 50,000 comments and 300,000 likes. Two things they did here were: come up with a debatable campaign, and take a stand on a contentious issue where the campaign is built around.
Another way of finding out which subject to tap into is by studying your competition. Check if they've already handed a controversial marketing campaign before, check their relative results, and analyze which worked and which didn’t.
In doing so, you can create a superior campaign out of their previous failures or successes.
Don’t be too self-serving
There'll always be a part of a campaign (however cause-centric) which leads back to building a brand. But going back to the infamous Pepsi example, too much of it - bordering on superficial and pretentious - can do far more harm than good.
Connect the controversy to your brand, but as Heineken did with its “Worlds Apart” ad, make sure it’s also able to focus on the issue at hand – which was that people with differing views can (and should) still engage in a dialogue.
Present facts and don’t over-sensationalize
Adhering to this is as close to making your campaign bulletproof - and it’s what Travelmath’s “Hotel Hygiene Exposed” was able to accomplish. Essentially, the campaign set out to let travelers know which hotel rooms are the dirtiest.
Of course, as an online trip calculator, the campaign was bound to ruffle a few brands’ feathers. But because they had collected over 30 samples from nine different hotels - proving that five-star hotels have the most germs - they had enough facts to back their claims.
Don’t exploit contentious issues
It’s fairly easy to just say something outrageous and wait for the backlash from the controversy it naturally creates. But preying on things like religion and politics, and similarly polarizing issues, just for the sake of generating buzz and publicity, isn’t the way to build a brand positively.
Instead, strive for something similar to what Anheuser-Busch did with its “Born The Hard Way” campaign, and how it discussed the contentious issue of immigration. The company came up with a video of their founder’s origin story, which made people realize that something as American as Budweiser can also have immigrant roots.
It allowed the brand to take a stand and spark discussion - while also garnering more than 21.7 million views in just three days.
Inspire a respectful discussion
While you can never guarantee such, it helps when you put the necessary safeguards in place against mindless trolling, as ABODO did with its study on tolerance and race. The apartment locating platform educated prospective homeowners by gathering over 12 million tweets, and showing which areas used the most prejudiced and derogatory language across the country.
It sparked massive debate, as you might imagine, with 67,000 social shares. But they did a few things that made the discussion positive:
- They let the data speak – It’s one thing to take a stand, it’s another to back it with facts. They did the latter, which let the data speak for itself.
- They presented more than one side – Apart from highlighting cities and states with the most prejudiced tweets, they also presented the places with the least prejudiced. This made it more objective, helping its credibility.
- They were transparent with their methodology – If you’re going with a fact-based campaign, make sure the process for how you came up with your data is clear. This combats any contention about how the information was derived.
Keep your team on-board
Team unity and collaboration is a MUST in this kind of campaign. Every member of the team should know the idea and branding guidelines, in-line with your chosen controversial marketing campaign, and be on an active look-out for factors that may impact its success.
But this doesn’t mean daily meetings are required. As noted by Sharelov.com, more meetings do not equate to more productivity. Because such campaigns require real-time updates once launched, it's best to circulate updates on cloud, and set a seamless workflow.
Have a crisis management plan
There’s going to be backlash, no matter what, so it’s imperative that you’re prepared from the onset. This prevents fumbling around a boardroom coming up with a press release designed for damage control.
Here are some of the ways you can handle backlash:
- Take a top-down approach – This means having the people at the very top of the organization take initiative in responding to any negative response. This shows that concerns are being taken seriously.
- Adopt a positive tone – As much as possible, offer to fix the problem when engaging with consumer complaints - but when that’s not possible, show grace by being sincere, whatever stand you choose to take, be it by apologizing or staying put.
Again, in the current culture of outrage, it’s easy to stir controversy and create a buzz. The challenge lies in striking the balance between rousing the public, and an intriguing marketing campaign. People have become well-versed at recognizing publicity stunts. So while it could give you publicity, it won’t do your brand any good in the long run.
Controversy with a purpose is good. Controversy for the sake of being controversial – not so much.