Courting Controversy: Should Your Brand Embrace Controversial Positions?



If you look at products of traditional brands found in everyone’s homes, you’ll notice the one thing they share in common: completely benign messaging. Sure, their promotions might be cute or tongue-in-cheek, but those brands never actually make political statements or align themselves (on purpose) with controversial groups, causes, or people.

However, there are a growing number of brands that are putting their values first – values that some people definitely won’t agree with.

While it’s true your brand is not best served courting controversy directly (unless you’re TMZ or a slip-and-fall lawyer), there are times when your organization’s stance and values can be your key brand differentiator.

In our new economy, we are used to the semantic web and custom services and products that serve our needs. As a result, the desire to use the same laundry detergent as everybody else is replaced by the need to own products and use services that telegraph to others what one’s values are.

Consider the rise in charity promotions like pink for breast cancer awareness and Product [RED]. These campaigns started within retailers themselves (KitchenAid and The Gap, respectively, leading the charge). To date, sales of these products are in the hundreds of millions. Consumers like it when brands lead with values – even if those values are at times controversial.

Consider brands like Axe body spray and Duck Dynasty. They don’t just touch controversy by association, they actively court it, and to great financial success. Can you successfully court controversy with your brand?

How to Know if You Can ‘Court Controversy’

If your brand is in any way affiliated with schools, charities or institutions, which otherwise shy from controversy, do not attempt this tactic.

If your brand is independent and has none of these affiliations, you can court controversy, but you need to be very clear about why you’re doing it. Axe body spray makes sex jokes in their ads because they know few women purchase their products, and that is a market they are unlikely to capture. Duck Dynasty doesn’t get very many LGBT viewers, so the same practical concerns apply.

Know the Degrees of Controversy

Controversy is a broad tent. Anything can be controversial (especially on the internet, where full-blown arguments can erupt over food preferences or phone companies), but there is a scale of controversy. On the most extreme end are political hot-button issues (the stuff you can’t discuss at dinner parties) and it’s safe to say those will be off limits to 99% of brands. There is a wide berth in the middle where your brand can play, however.

Choose topics you’re genuinely passionate about. Manufactured controversy is a bad move (as Urban Outfitters, who recently had to recall their infamous “Kent State” shirts can attest to).

How to Successfully Court Controversy

Like every campaign, it is possible to test whether your customers are OK with your brand expressing a controversial opinion. You can participate in small partnerships, or though social media you can share updates from causes or people who you think share your controversial views.

Consider the breastfeeding movement – controversial, but most people can see the point being made by mothers that babies can be unpredictable and need to eat. Better to feed a baby than to not. This is an issue that a large percentage of women and men are behind. If your company decided to publicize its support for breastfeeding mothers, you could court this demographic to patronize you.

Tone is very important when courting controversy. In the breastfeeding example, unpretentious signage and a statement circulated on your social media channels is sufficient to make your stance known. Simple, descriptive language (such as “This is a safe zone for breastfeeding mothers”) is sufficient. You don’t need to get sassy.

You could also consider reaching out to allies in your political area. In this example, you could reach out to members of the La Leche League who are proponents of breastfeeding and ask them to participate in events at your store to help educate new mothers. You could also redistribute their social media posts in your own channels or offer support to them in your newsletter campaigns.

Your company could help raise the profile of your partners, too, by jointly reaching out to news agencies, sponsoring targeted events, or speaking on panels at conferences. You can make your values raise your company’s profile as much as you can do the reverse.

Controversy doesn’t have to be a dirty word for your brand. With marketplace fragmentation and consumers actively seeking out brands that reflect their lifestyles and values, your organization can succeed by following its beliefs and making connections to communities rallied around similar value systems. Stay out of the definite “no-go” zones, but lead with your values, and you can win.




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