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Controversy in marketing, and how to judge a political brand campaign

May 9, 2017
Controversy in marketing, and how to judge a political brand campaign

Unavoidably connected to political, social and cultural debates taking place in the outside world, marketing plays a role in shaping conversations through its content and brand associations. However, being in on the discussion brings the potential for controversy, as brands grapple with reading the public mood and weighing the value of their role as an influencer against the safety of non-alignment with a cause.

This week we’re looking at the role of controversy in marketing, and asking how brands can judge their engagement with political or controversial debates.

Is controversy really a problem for brands?

Controversy in marketing has been a hot topic in recent weeks, as that Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert caused explosive debates over cultural appropriation, trivialisation of the now iconic Baton Rouge photograph and a misjudgement of the political mood it had hoped to mirror. A recent spoof ridiculing the advert has gone viral, as Californian Vito Gesualdi attempted to hand out Pepsi cans at a real-life protest at UC Berkeley, only to find spreading peace and unity wasn’t quite so simple.

Yet after conducting a survey of 2,200 British people who were asked their opinion of the scandal, PR Week found that of the respondents who had seen the campaign, only 2% said that they would stop buying Pepsi products because of it, with a further 7% saying they now felt more negatively about Pepsi having seen the ad.

In a simultaneous survey not connected with the Pepsi scandal, PR Week found that only 5% of Britons said a misjudged ad campaign or outdated advertising would make them stop loving and stop buying a product. Poor customer service, poor product quality and pricing were all seen as more likely reasons for “falling out of love” with a brand.

This then begs the question; does controversy really cause damage to a brand? Forbes contributor AJ Agrawal suggested there are pros and cons to every potentially controversial campaign - while it can be a tool to drive conversation, brand awareness and shareability, brands often risk offending portions of their consumer base, pushing traffic away from their organisation and having a long term impact on their reputation.

How can marketers judge a potentially controversial campaign?  

Agrawal suggests that:

‘a successful controversial marketing campaign predicts the public’s reactions from all angles before it's implemented. The business takes these predictions into account to reconsider and fine-tune the marketing campaign in order to please the largest amount of people possible, while remaining bold and shocking.’ 

But what does this mean in practice? HubSpot suggests there are a number of ways brands can engage with controversial content without alienating people. One of their suggestions is to remember that over and above the shock factor of the campaign, there must be an underlying message and value for audiences which is aligned with your brand values.

HubSpot also suggests grounding your campaign in strong data and evidence, in order to lend credibility to your brand and ensure that your message is trusted. HubSpot sees UN Women’s “Auto-Complete Truth” campaign as a good example of this. Using autocomplete results from Google searches like “women need to,” “women should,” and “women cannot,” the campaign was able to highlight remaining gender preconceptions that are close to their core message as an advocator for women’s rights.

When brands get it right 

Another good example from which brands can take the lead is Heineken’s ‘Worlds Apart’ advert. Reaching over 11 million YouTube views in the two weeks since it was first launched, the video sees two strangers come together in a room to complete a number of teambuilding challenges. Having completed their challenges, the pair are shown a pre-recorded video in which it becomes clear they hold diametrically opposing political views, many of which could be offensive to the other. Given the choice to stay and discuss their differences over a bottle of Heineken or to leave, the campaign hoped to bring Heineken’s hashtag #openyourworld to life.

Hailed as ‘the antidote to that Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad’, Fast Company argued that Heineken’s advert ‘gets to the heart of political engagement in a straightforward way that makes Pepsi’s self-congratulatory ad seem even more embarrassing.’ While recognising that a 4-minute advert for beer could never fully explore issues of climate change, transgender rights and the gulf that lies between left and right wing politics, Fast Company suggests that ‘encouraging actual dialogue is a thousand times more of a mature and responsible way to address our current international predicament than glamorizing, fetishizing, and whitewashing the protest movement.’

Of course not all were convinced, as Guardian writer Jamie Peck saw both Pepsi and Heineken’s attempts at political commentary as no more than the co-opting of progressivism for the cold hard sell of material products. Though brands will never win them all, the important lesson here is that timing, subject content and space for debate are essential ingredients for any brand judging the value of engaging with political or controversial topics. In what will always be a tough line to walk, investing care and attention in campaign planning can lead to successful results, and spark the kind of conversation a brand can stand by.


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