Risky business

Can employing controversy as a marketing strategy pay off?

Employing controversy as a strategy in marketing is far from a new idea. In the 90s Benetton ran a memorable ‘shockvertising’ campaign using deliberately provocative and hard-hitting themes and graphic images. The ads caused outrage, complaints and were frequently banned, but the longer-term net effect was positive with heightened brand awareness. 

By setting out to be controversial, brands calculate that any shock and offence caused in the short-term results in an overall positive image. Nike absolutely made this choice when it engaged Colin Kaepernick as part of its latest Just Do It anniversary campaign. As they may well have expected or hoped, POTUS tweeted his objection and this guaranteed a hot debate on social media. Although there was criticism of the brand for being partisan (and anti-Trump) with objectors using the hashtag #justburnit, online sales went up 31% (source: Edison Trends). 

But courting controversy is a risky business. Brands must know their audience when making their choice because the purpose overall has to be to build – not damage – reputation and affinity, not simply drive a spike in sales. Nike, of course, knows its audience and how to push their buttons. It claims that Kaepernick’s story – and those of the other athletes chosen for the campaign – ‘all leverage the power of sport to move the world forward’. In the context of current politics in America, this is exactly the positive spirit Nike wants people to associate with its brand. 

Of course, who a brand chooses is determined by what they represent. What it is that makes them, or their story, controversial and where is the alignment with the brand, if any? Depending which side of the political divide you stand on, Kaepernick is a figure of strength in his stand for racial equality and other rights, or a disrespectful anti-patriot. For some people, and many brands looking on, Nike wins kudos for even going near such a sensitive issue, irrespective of personal politics. 

Done wrong, this is not only risky business, but potentially bad for business. How did Pepsi get it so wrong with their ‘protest’ ad last year? Featuring Kendall Jenner, one of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, ‘Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding’. But, by its own admission, it ‘missed the mark’ and was accused of misappropriating the Black Lives Matter campaign. The ad was pulled. The controversy on social media raged. 

The idea that Pepsi could invoke world peace is in some ways, perhaps, comparable to Nike’s lofty ambition. But its campaign was a construct, placing a rich social media influencer in a fake protest setting. Being released on 4 April, the 49th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, this created an association that was highly insulting to some audiences. And as the concept was developed by Pepsi’s in-house creative studio, the ad reflected badly on the culture of the business for being out-of-touch and inauthentic. 

Was it, in fact, bad for business? Not according to the share price. But the impact on perceptions of the brand is more difficult to discern. In Pepsi’s case it is possible, but unlikely, that it was a deliberate act to court controversy. With 95m followers on Instagram (40m more than the President), Jenner probably wasn’t looking for trouble either. 

Press coverage and discussion on social channels about a brand campaign – both good and bad – ultimately has to be understood in context of net commercial impact and brand perception over time. The end may justify the means, but this is a dangerous game to play. And one which can’t be played too often.

This article contributed to a wider piece in Elite Business Magazine(pg15).