Lessons in the Controversial — How a Brand Can Make the Best of It

The Company
13 June 2019

There’s no denying it — sex sells. It’s not just an advertising slogan; it’s the real deal, and you see it everywhere you go. Billboards, magazine spreads, even in food advertising. It’s controversial but garners attention. Within the digital marketing realm, it’s not just about sex anymore, it’s about dipping your toes into the controversial. While sex in itself has a long-standing history as being ‘controversial’ within the marketing and advertising industry, today it’s not so much about the topic, it’s about how companies keep their target audience in spite of the controversial methods. 

In recent times, however, brands have been focusing less on the shock factor of scantily-clad women and more on tackling controversial current topics. Some might think that brands ‘picking a side’ on political matters could alienate segments of their audience. But in today’s world of social media and progressive social justice, taking a stance can mean a lot to a business. 

Taking (social) responsibility 

Brands like Nike and Gillette have been in hot water recently about questionable marketing campaign choices made in recent times. These ads and campaigns were geared towards tackling important issues like the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movement, which caused a sizeable amount of backlash online. 

 Following Nike’s partnership with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for their “Dream Crazy” campaign, there was a worldwide call to boycott the brand. This was brought on by Kaepernick’s controversial stance of kneeling during the national anthem to show his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which led to a large number of ‘anti-Nike’ movements across the United States — which included the burning of their Nike products. 

Even celebrity personalities jumped in at times, condemning Nike for their choice of partnership with the athlete. Donald Trump, the current President of the United States, claimed that any player who knelt during the anthem was a “son of bitch”. He later suggested that the NFL withhold the salaries of players that knelt during the anthem. 

 And yet, Nike’s sales only climbed higher. 

 The same can be seen with Gillette’s ‘We Believe’ campaign, which tackled the issues circulating the culture of toxic masculinity cultivated by society and the ways men should be encouraged to hold each other responsible for the behaviours they perpetuate. Many accused Gillette as ‘turning feminist’ (as if somehow that was a bad thing in the 21st century), but Gillette continues to see its revenue grow among the masses. 

Social responsibility, no matter how controversial, is key in developing and nurturing a strong audience base and customer loyalty. 

Stay in touch, stay engaged 

With the constant growth of digital technology and the transition this current generation has made from traditional news sources to social media platforms, it’s become imperative for businesses to keep an active presence on social media platforms. Keeping engaged in the conversation happening between your brand and its audience allows you to gauge more accurately on the reception of potentially controversial marketing campaigns.

Mind your tone or face the consequences 

When dealing with delicate topics focused around issues like gender, race, sexuality, and overall social justice, it goes without saying that a business should tread carefully when thinking about their campaign execution. 

Tone-deaf marketing tactics can backfire easily among the younger crowd, who prize a brand’s social responsibility above most other factors.  

Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now’ ad featuring Kendall Jenner is a good example of what could happen when brands make a tone-deaf campaign around a controversial issue.

Whatever your brand chooses — and who, for that matter —, the most important part is staying true to your brand values. It can be difficult to gauge the reactions your campaign will get from the masses, but a delicate hand while addressing the issue is key. Stay true to your brand and what it stands for. It isn’t always better to ask forgiveness than permission, and a thorough social media dive into the issues at hand could prove beneficial when executing a controversial campaign.

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