< | >

The Risks and Rewards of Courting Controversy

Have you seen that new Gillette ad yet? If you haven’t, you’ve been hiding under a rock.

As with most viral videos, there have been hot takes aplenty. Was the ad too hard on poor dudes? Was it condescending to women everywhere? Was it too much, not enough, too current, too Victorian, too long? In truth it was probably all of those things since controversy, I find, is often in the eye of the beholder anyway.

But however much the ad may have stirred the pot, we marketers tend to be more subdued about this kind of thing. Since time immemorial there have been poorly conceived or offensive ads, probably since the dawn of print itself. These things come and go and never end up amounting to much. (Trust me, future generations will be far more interested in those ads we somehow did not find offensive.) In any event, the more interesting question for me is: What can we learn from this?

My general feeling on running controversial or edgy ads is as follows: if the message or cause fits your brand story, then go ahead with it. We’ve written before about this kind of thing, where it works, where it doesn’t, and why it matters. But in the main, if a political stance is something that is genuinely felt by the brand and brand leadership, and if it authentically aligns with the company’s goals and ideals, then the possible benefits may be far too great to pass up. Patagonia is a fine example of how this can be done successfully. Whether or not you agree with what Patagonia stands for, it hardly matters to their built-in granola-crunchy outdoorsy audience. And let’s face it, even if you strongly disagree with Patagonia, you’re still not likely to turn down one of their cozy fleeces when your hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

On the other hand, a company should never court controversy just to get people talking. That’s a huge mistake, not to mention a misunderstanding of what marketing is for and how it works in the 21st century. A brand trying to ride the coattails of the latest cause du jour sure can garner attention by doing so, but it can also do real harm to the brand. Customers today are extremely savvy and skeptical when it comes to sensing opportunism and disingenuousness. If you take up a fashionable political stance just for the heck of it, get ready for a drubbing by a generation of young consumers who can smell dishonesty a thousand miles off.

But apart from the two options—either do it because it works or don’t because it doesn’t—there is a third middle way, and that’s that the ad campaign suits the brand story yet may not sell a single extra product anyway. This may very well be the case with Gillette. With the new ad, they made a definitely sharp-elbowed move against a portion of their customer base in the service of cozying up to a different but similarly sized portion of same. Six in one, half dozen in the other. As a practical matter, I should say, if this ends up being the case then it’s not marketing at all—and companies need not use marketing dollars to pay for it. They can call it “corporate responsibility” and pay for the campaign from a different budget. But since marketing and selling good razors is at issue here, what may I ask is the good sense in doing any of that?

Time will tell how successful Gillette was with their campaign. If you want to learn more on how to harness the power of brand story to create compelling and successful messaging that engages your customers and grows your business, download Transformational Marketing: Moving to the TopRight today and order a copy of my new book.

< | >

See Recent Posts