Controversial Marketing: Should Marketers Play with Fire?

Controversial Marketing: Should Marketers Play with Fire?

Marketing is an essential part of every successful business. Not only does it allow you to reach new customers, but it also separates you from your competition.

A new, popular strategy that emerged in this field is controversial marketing. This strategy aims to create viral campaigns through passionate but often shocking messaging.

While campaigns might dominate headlines, controversial marketing is a double-edged sword. Although it can create quick success, it can also cause a PR nightmare that cripples your product line.

Below, you will discover the pros and cons of using this campaign style in your marketing. You’ll learn through real-world examples what to keep in mind when developing your new set of ideas. 

What is controversial marketing? And why do businesses do it?

Controversial marketing generates controversy, shock, or strong emotions about a brand. Campaigns deliver their messaging using emotive and trending issues relevant to customers.

Controversial marketing is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. In this marketing game, you are using contentious issues to provoke or raise awareness on a divisive issue. There are no rules to obey—only rules to break.

There are various reasons why marketers are leaning toward controversial marketing:

  • Engagement: Brands can engage with important topics that customers care about. These include social issues, politics, the environment, and more.
  • Visibility: Campaigns can go viral, leading to huge publicity and social buzz worldwide.
  • Legacy: Campaigns can leave a lasting impression on customers and produce indefinite publicity.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Using trending topics can help reduce advertising costs and develop campaign assets.

However, like with any business strategy, there are pros and cons to using controversial marketing. Let’s discuss these important factors in more detail.

The pros of controversial marketing

Firstly, there are many pros to using conversion marketing in your campaigns. These include:

  1. It can boost sales despite the controversies

Sometimes, there is no such thing as bad press. Even if the public reaction is negative, controversial marketing can help boost sales.

Take the diet and supplement brand Protein World, for example. Their campaign “Beach Body Ready” caused backlash and media scrutiny in the U.K. in 2015. Giant billboards were seen as body-shaming and caused quick hysteria wherever they appeared.

Despite the opposition, the brand reportedly made over £1 million in just four days from the campaign. Against a budget of just $250,000, this shows that sometimes causing a stir is just what the balance sheet needs.

  1. It can help raise important issues and debates

Marketing has become important in raising important issues to a customer’s attention. Brands can use “controversial” topics to share their brand’s message, raise awareness, and educate customers.

For example, research from an Ipos study found that roughly two-thirds of women changed clothing and appearance to avoid harassment in public spaces. Recognizing this issue, cosmetic giant L’Oréal Paris used these statistics in their campaigns. They created “Never Your Fault” to support the fight against street harassment.

The brand launched the campaign on International Women’s Day for maximum impact. They also included QR codes to help empower the public to respond to harassment. In this way, brands like L’Oréal Paris can help educate people on relevant issues while using stark issues to spread brand awareness.

  1. It can raise awareness of a brand

Brands can also use controversial topics to raise awareness of their product lines. This is evident in Nike’s 2018 campaign, “Believe in Something.”

The apparel company collaborated with Colin Kaepernick for the campaign’s face. At the time, Kaepernick was embroiled in controversy over his decision to kneel before NFL games.

While there were campaigns to boycott Nike from those against the protesting, the overall success was monumental. It has been reported the campaign increased Nike’s overall value by billions of dollars.

The cons of controversial marketing

Controversial marketing isn’t for the fainthearted. And sometimes, the attention you earn from it can be counter-productive. Below are just some examples of how it can go very wrong:

  1. It can be offensive

Brands must be prepared for potential backlash if they are involved in contentious topics. This is especially the case if a campaign takes away from the power and purpose of a specific movement. 

In these instances, the bad press and backlash can eclipse any exposure to a product or service. Take Pepsi’s infamous Live for Now campaign in 2017 as a stark example. Starring Kendall Jenner, the ad was criticized for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The backlash was so great that the ad was pulled, and Jenner released a statement regretting the campaign shortly after. If a brand is to involve itself in an emotional campaign, it must not take away from the movement itself.

  1. It can damage your reputation with loyal customers

Controversial marketing can also be highly volatile to existing customers. A new angle on marketing can upset loyal customers and undue previous campaign work.

Take Dove U.K., for example. The personal care brand upset customers with its controversial “Real Beauty Bottles” campaign. The campaign used a variety of bottles in different shapes and sizes, intending to reflect diversity in body shapes.

While its intentions may have been pure, customer reaction was negative. Many reportedly thought the idea was condescending and went against Dove’s “Real Beauty” messaging.

To be or not to be controversial?

The goal of any marketing is to connect with your audience. And to do this, your campaign needs to catch their attention and deliver a strong message.

Controversial marketing has become a popular mechanism for quickly driving hype and attention. However, it is still an uncertain strategy for many brands. 

There is a fine line between creating something impactful and causing a PR nightmare. With proper research, marketers can cause a stir without upsetting their loyal customer base.

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