Brand controversy: how far is too far?

Brands need to be more than controversial

If your goal is to get people talking and you deliver thought-provoking advertising and that happens, then you have succeeded. Controversy often works if you’re a challenger brand trying to upset a rival; if you’re a NGO trying to incite action; if you share opinions with your customers and you choose to share those opinions with the world; if you want to poke fun at something that runs contrary to your brand’s values and purpose. There are times, and subjects, where that approach works just fine. You may shock some. But you will reach and appeal to the people who believe in your brand, what it stands for and what it challenges.

But if your marketing plan was to entice customers to think about you in a new way, to charm, to persuade, to engage – and people end up talking about how angry your advertising makes them feel and how it belittles them and seems hateful or that it sends a message that is damaging or dangerous, then your strategy has failed.

You can dress it up however you like – call it humorous, explain that it has “started conversations”, point to the traffic that has made its way to your site, highlight the media attention, say your attention was to achieve cut-through, whatever … the fact is, you’ve turned off the very people you were trying to turn on. And no amount of jingoistic justification of what you intended or the ‘real’ meaning of the approach will change the fact that you have disenfranchised your brand from the very people you were looking to reach and appeal to.

It’s easy for brands in this situation to tell themselves that they’re being edgy and clever when in fact they’re being rude. It’s easy to convince yourselves that your advertising is brave and has chutzpah when in fact it’s dumb and sad and plays to a whole lot of stereotypes. It’s too easy to say that what you’re doing is challenging social attitudes when in fact it’s the customers who have moved on. And it’s far too easy to say that any negativity will blow over, that it was all part of the plan and that any publicity is good … Because it’s not.

It’s hard to be a courageous brand

Of course, you’ve never going to please everyone. You only have to look at the kinds of complaints that get dealt with by advertising standards regulators to see that there are people with just too much time on their hands, but …

Unless you have an inspiring reason to be a controversial brand, don’t be. The world doesn’t need more arseholes.

Be exciting, be surprising, be interesting, be lateral, be clever, be poignant, be stark, be direct, be funny, be welcoming – and in doing that, be respectful, be smart, be intelligent, be kind, be optimistic, be positive, be insightful, be human. Because pulling that off is hard. It takes skill and judgment and, yes, courage. Controversy in the wrong hands and for the wrong reasons, however, is none of those things. It fails not because of what it is, but because of how it makes your customers (the audience that matter) feel. It’s a true loss leader – it leads to losses – loss of loyalty, loss of reputation, loss of credibility and perhaps most importantly, loss of faith in your judgment and your taste as a brand.

Your brand is about you. But here’s the thing – it’s not just about you.

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