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How to (and How NOT) to Deploy Controversial Marketing

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What marketing strategies can you use to make your company stand out from the pack? In order to answer this question, many marketers push the envelope seeking to gain mindshare by humoring, shocking, or in some cases, offending their audience. Known as Controversial Marketing, these efforts do just that: they seek to spark awareness and dialogue through sensational, controversial content.

While often considered a guerilla tactic, best saved for fledgling companies in need of a “big bang,” controversial marketing and advertising initiatives have recently been adopted by many large companies such as Clearasil, Dove, GoDaddy, and Carl Jr’s.

But before Carl Jr’s made the decision to put a large cheeseburger in the hand of a scantily clad Paris Hilton, or Dove posted large billboards above New York City featuring un-retouched images of unclothed women without makeup, these companies had some strategizing to do. While a well-executed, controversy-laden campaign can be just what’s needed to push brand awareness or sales through the roof, the mantra “no publicity is bad publicity” is not always the case, and missteps can send marketing teams back to the drawing board, and that’s only after they’ve groveled for public forgiveness.

Before you decide to put your company in the line of fire with a controversial advertising or marketing strategy, there are a handful of things you need to carefully consider. First off, you must have a crystal clear understanding of who your customers are. If you can design a campaign that speaks directly to them in an honest and direct fashion, you are on the right track. Understanding their wants, needs, fears, and desires will help you to make decisions that don’t accidentally alienate any part of your target market. For instance, in the case of those racy Carl Jr’s ads, the company had an unwavering desire to address the 18-35 year old single male. They didn’t care if they alienated or offended the family market that companies like Wendy’s or McDonalds so eagerly pursue.

Secondly, you must always consider what the backlash might be. Not that this should deter your efforts, but upon creating a campaign, step back and ask the questions: “How many customers might we lose because of this?” This is the time for expert risk assessment. If you determine that you’ve positioned yourself to gain many more than you’ll upset, then its okay to go full steam ahead. No matter what, you must make sure you’re business is prepared to navigate whatever the repercussions may be.

The last and most important tenant of controversial marketing is to know when to pull the plug and apologize. There are times when companies overstep their boundaries, offending the good taste of those they didn’t mean to offend. Efficiently issuing genuine apologies can be the first step in repairing any bruised customer relationships.

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David says

Thanks for this article. As an entrepreneur working towards launching a true "anti-shoe" product, I have put some thought into controversial marketing. My product and my brand's mission is to re-educate runners that the human foot is perfect, despite what the major shoe companies have been telling us since the 70's. Bottom line: I can can choose to go safe and market to those that are awaiting just such this product, or I can gain additional consumers through mind blowing tactics. If one's company/brand is true to its core and mission (not money) then I believe there is limited need to worry about "overstepping boundaries". Cheers!
Posted at 8:54 pm
Pete says

Very interesting post!
Posted at 11:18 am

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