Controversial Marketing: The Risk and The Payoff

Nike Controversial Marketing
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Surely you’ve heard the old adage: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”

While it may not be the case 100 percent of the time, the saying still contains a kernel of truth.

In this post, we will explore the concept of using controversy in your marketing how it might help or hurt your business. 

What is Controversial Marketing?

In its most basic sense, this term refers to using controversy as a marketing tool.

This could entail things such as using images, messaging, and other types of content marketing that may not be considered politically correct.

Controversial marketing also includes expressing a darker sense of humor to get a reaction from the public. 

Potential Effects of Controversial Marketing

Without that controversial video, Kim Kardashian and the rest of her siblings may not be the marketing moguls they are today.

Of course, not every brand would dare go to such extremes. Below are some of the things controversial marketing can do to your brand.

Pros

Draws Attention

You’ll certainly get yourself noticed if you decide to try out a controversial campaign.

In today’s social media-dominated world where everyone is always on their phones and has the space to express their opinions, controversial marketing will definitely stir up conversations about your brand.

Creates Brand Awareness

When people start talking, more people will ultimately find out about your brand. If you’re a brand with a smaller marketing budget, you could get a lot of publicity for less money invested. 

It Can Appeal to the Right TargetAudience

If your market is on the edgy side, a controversial marketing campaign is likely to resonate with them more than a traditional one could.

This can help foster a better connection between them and your brand. 

Cons

Controversial Marketing Can Be Divisive

Of course, as controversies are wont to do, you might split public opinion when you come up with a controversial marketing campaign.

This could lead to a segment of the public supporting your brand even more, while others adopt a more negative take. 

You Could Lose Customers

In today’s cancel culture, you will run the risk of losing customers should they decide that they’re offended by your controversial marketing efforts. 

It Can Lead To More Work

When you stir up controversy, people are going to voice their opinions. You will need to address their concerns. Will you have the time and resources to do so?

Controversial Marketing Successes

Controversial marketing can help you make a splash when done right. Here are some brands that did it just right.

Nike

Known for their iconic campaigns as much as their sports apparel, Nike’s “Believe in Something” once again hit the nail on the head, despite being one of the most controversial ads in recent history. 

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Nike Advertisement: Just do it.

Nike backed controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the campaign, showing a tremendous understanding of their target market.

The message resonated well with the millennial and Gen Z segments.

Why? Because these groups value brands that take a stand on social justice issues.

As proof, a simple tweet by Kaepernick generated some $43 million in free advertising for Nike.

At the same time, sales skyrocketed by 31 percent, along with its stock hitting an all-time high in the aftermath of the ad. 

Gillette

Gillette Controversial Marketing

Source

While the campaign drew both praise and criticism, Gillette’s exploration of “toxic masculinity” is considered a success.

They were lauded in some circles for their efforts to drive the conversation about questioning the justification that “boys will be boys.”

It also helps that the subject works perfectly with their longstanding slogan “The best a man can get.”

Burger King

Burger King’s “Whopper Neutrality” did a splendid job of deftly explaining a complicated topic like net neutrality, while getting the attention it wanted.

In its ad, customers needed to pay a premium in addition to the regular price of their food if they wanted to get it quickly.

This served as a relevant parallel to what would happen to internet speeds under the repealed regulations surrounding net neutrality. 

Burger King Controversial Marketing Whopper Neutrality

Regular Burger King videos on YouTube get an average of 286,000 views. “Whopper Neutrality” received over 4.6 million views and a great ratio of 127,000 likes to 10,000 dislikes.

Anheuser-Busch

The company behind Budweiser tackled the controversial subject of immigration with its “Born The Hard Way” campaign.

In the ad, it shed light on their founder’s own immigrant roots.

In the process, this advertisement reminded people that America was built on the backs of people who came to the country dreaming of a better future. 

Anheuser Busch Controversial Campaign Focused on Immigration

Pointing out that the “all-American” beer company had immigrant roots might strike others as polarizing.

However, its target audience, which was tuned in to the Super Bowl amidst widespread protests over a federal immigration ban, saw the ad for what it was: an embodiment of the American spirit. 

Running a Controversy Marketing Campaign

If you attempt to try your hand at a controversial marketing campaign, you’ll find the challenge to be a tricky one.

Below are some guidelines you can refer to when checking to see if you’re on the right path. 

Don’t Necessarily Pick a Side

Running a controversial campaign doesn’t always mean making a controversial stand. Sometimes, stirring the conversation about a contentious topic is enough.

Instead of taking the risk of alienating a segment of your audience, you can offer points of conversation that could further drive an intelligent discussion. 

This way, you’ll get the exposure while avoiding much of the backlash. 

Speak to Your Values

Nike and Anheuser-Busch did a tremendous job of this.

Both companies appeared to lean in a specific direction with the topics they picked for their controversial marketing campaigns. At the end of the day, their audience understood where the message was coming from: the company’s soul.

So whether it was Nike sticking to its core value of wanting to inspire and empower athletes, or Anheuser-Busch highlighting its immigrant roots, both marketing campaigns showed strong alignment to their own social value systems.

If you’re able to make your brand values the central message of the campaign, it will always be a clever marketing message that people can respect. 

Widen Perspectives

You can also try to encourage the audience to tackle a controversial subject from a more compassionate point of view.

Sometimes, simply inspiring people to look at things from a different perspective can resonate with them in a powerful way.

If you can come up with a way to do so while tackling a controversial topic, you are likely on the right path. 

Calculated Risks

As you can see from the examples above, controversial marketing always entails risks. But to alleviate such, you need to have a perfect understanding of your audience.

You won’t always please everyone. But if they can see that your messaging is founded on your core values and not just done to jump on a bandwagon (see: Pepsi), then there’s a good chance your controversial marketing will resonate with the people you want to foster a connection with.


Image taken as screenshots from the controversial marketing campaigns referenced in this blog post.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions stated in this post are that of the author, and Return On Now may or may not agree with any or all of the commentary.

This guest post brought to you courtesy of Return On NowProfessional Austin SEO and PPC Services Company.

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Manuel Fornillos

Chief Content Officer at Startup Credo
Manuel is the Chief Content Officer of Startup Credo. His writing covers topics such as social media, digital marketing, technology, and mobile applications. When he is not writing, you’ll find him in the garden with his plants to connect with nature.

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