Is your advertising provocative, controversial or offensive

Is your advertising provocative, controversial or offensive?

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Any brand manager worth their salt is looking to cultivate and manage a brand that is noticed and valued. But how far should a brand go in that quest for distinctiveness? Interestingly, the answer doesn’t just come down to taste.

Differentiation is a word much used and little understood. It requires your brand to deliver more than just another variation on the mainstream view. It requires you to fashion a way of working and a way of promoting what you do that fundamentally challenges at least one previously-unquestioned assumption.

Bland-vertising is a waste of your marketing budget

You’re looking for a reaction to that of course – not just from customers but also from competitors and perhaps from the wider community – because a brand that is not noticed is nothing more than wallpaper. Bland-vertising is a waste of your marketing budget. I’ll go further and suggest that if you are not seeking to create waves in some form then in all likelihood you are not doing your job as a brand owner.

How far is far enough?

Let’s take a closer look at what happens when you push the boundaries past comfortable:

Provocative – an excellent way of getting attention for brands intending to start a conversation amongst customers and beyond. People might like or dislike the conversation that you are starting, depending on whether they side with what you are saying. That’s OK. Provocative brands are looking for both actions and reactions, and the interplay between pro and con. So while they want some people to agree with what they are doing, they need others to be disturbed by what is being suggested.

The debate you’re looking to provoke will almost certainly take place through social conversation. Not for profit brands use this technique to get issues out into the open and to stimulate consideration. Challenger brands looking to get a rise out of the incumbent they are targeting also use this approach.

Be provocative if you want to get noticed, widen circulation, garner headlines and drive social traffic. Be aware though that it can be hard to convert provocation directly to sales (usually because the message overshadows the call to action).

Controversial – if you’re intending to encourage others to side with your opinions, use controversy to express your point of view. Dove’s “Choose Beautiful” campaign is a classic example of pushing people’s buttons in terms of what can and should be considered beautiful. Benetton is another example of a brand that has continued to challenge what can and should be spoken about in public. Whilst controversial advertising often focuses on issues that some might consider beyond the natural talking points of advertisers, it can be a highly effective way to state where they stand on particular matters and therefore to establish boundaries.

This is a powerful approach if you are looking to attract like-minded consumers or if you want break-out in a sector that is normally circumspect. Expect and plan for a counter-argument. Not for the faint-hearted.

Offensive – brands are offensive when they choose to exploit a situation or attitude for their own gains and at the expense of those they have featured. While some brands deliberately set out to cultivate a ‘bad brand’ image and gleefully introduce ideas and statements that target and upset parts of the community, others misjudge controversial or, in their bid to be noticed, advertise in ways that reinforce stereotypes, single out groups or parts of society for ridicule, and/or lack compassion, empathy or judgment.

Often, brands that stuff up their marketing this badly defend what they are doing as freedom of expression or invoke the ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ defence. There are, however, no excuses for behaving this way. It’s just dumb because, unless your whole brand is built around this premise, such advertising simply positions you as out-of-touch or as a brand with literally nothing to say that’s of any value. Inevitably, the initial defiance of the marketing team to the reaction they generate is followed by a back-down as brand managers find themselves on the receiving end of consumer actions that quickly affect their bottom line.

Complaints are the price of doing business this way

Whichever of these approaches you take, one thing is certain. There will be complaints because as soon as you step outside the norm, there are bound to be reactions. The critical judgment calls come down to knowing why you are taking the approach you are taking, how it differentiates you as a brand and why it aligns with your business strategy.

I’m of the view, as I said, that every brand should look to push the boat out – but know why you’re pushing it, where you’re pushing it and who you’re taking with you when you do so. One last thought. If you’re ever tempted to adopt a message that belittles the vulnerable or reinforces someone’s uphill battle, have the guts to recognise that is unacceptable, and walk away. Be better than that as a brand.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title How Far Is Far Enough In Brand Advertising?

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