How controversy can work for brands

Our opinions, and the way we express and embody them, are part of what make us human. It’s what attracts some people to us, and sends others running off to mysterious appointments whenever we walk into the room.

So why, then, are so many brands scared to express any sort of opinion whatsoever? The answer, quite simply, is controversy.

Controversy, in the world of marketing, is generally seen as a bad thing (unless you belong to the school of thought that dictates that all publicity is good publicity or operate a well-known budget airline). It leads to reputation management crises and social media fire-fights. It upsets people and the last thing any company wants to do is to upset potential customers.

This one-eyed view of controversy has led to a swarm of companies producing identikit vanilla content, both on their blogs and on social media. It’s a wave of happy-go-lucky, eternally cheerful content posing questions that can only be answered via LIKE or SHARE. It’s inoffensive at best and banal at worst.

Unfortunately, people – including your potential customers – are latching on to it and are beginning to turn their ire towards brands wasting their valuable brain space with misplaced pictures of dogs. The popularity of the Condescending Corporate Brand Page is testament to this.

condescending corporate brand page

In short, being completely inoffensive won’t get you far.

Contrary to popular belief, controversy doesn’t always mean appalling everyone with an ill-timed joke about abortion at the Pope’s birthday party. Rather, controversy can mean saying (or expressing something) that people might not necessarily agree with, but might be willing to debate.

Controversy all comes down to the way you package it and present it. Frankie Boyle, for example, while saying some things that are so close to the bone that they might as well be marrow, has made a living out of being controversial. While some people might be offended by what he says, there’s an even bigger legion of people who not only enjoy it, but expect it. The Frankie Boyle brand is essentially built on jokes about the Queen’s lady parts.

While no company is going to succeed employing Boyle levels of controversy (although I’d love to see them try), a brand can still benefit from a healthy dose of controversy. Getting people talking about your content will lead to increases in social media shares as well as potentially driving links and giving your search engine optimisation efforts a nice boost.

Here’s a quick guide to employing controversy (and hopefully making cash) in your content.

Controversy needs a goal

Controversy can only be successful for a brand if it has a point, a tangible goal that could be achieved by expressing a strong opinion. This could be getting more engagement on social media by starting a debate, garnering more links to your blog or pushing a certain product.

Having some kind of goal allows you to set boundaries for controversial content; for debates, you can establish a point at which you step back slightly and let your customers engage with each other. For links and sales, close monitoring of tools like ahrefs and Google Analytics can help determine whether your controversial approach is working.

Choose your topics wisely

When meeting new people, it’s generally accepted that politics and religion are ‘no-go’ topics of conversation. The same, it could be argued, applies to brands and their content – the strength of opinion people have regarding both means that people are rarely swayed from their starting opinion leading to potentially endless arguments.

In the rare case you’re working with a company with a stated political opinion, politics can be discussed but in general, I’d leave both off the table.

Similarly, topics that are obviously offensive are best left well-alone. Abortion, social welfare, crime, immigration and so forth are all topics I’d personally avoid. In fact, on the whole, I’d avoid any kind of topic that could cause offense en mass.

So, what does that leave us with? Well, voicing a controversial opinion on a hot topic in your industry is a very good start. If you want to move out a bit further, expressing some kind of opinion on topics that ‘matter less’ (i.e. celebrities, pop culture, etc.) can also be quite fruitful. Keep in mind, however, that you need to…

Be consistent

Have you ever stumbled across an infographic, enjoyed it and then scrolled to the end and wondered why a washing machine company is making infographics about Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?

Being controversial is all well and good, but whatever you say or produce needs to be consistent with your brand. It makes no sense for a company manufacturing brooms to start producing blog posts on American fiscal policy, no matter how much engagement said post might receive. A post on the flaws of current broom design, however, might just work.

Know your audience AKA research, research, research!

The biggest mistakes a lot of brands make when trying to be controversial is to completely misjudge their audience. They produce content thinking it’ll ignite debate and encourage links, and end up mystifying and offending both current and prospective customers.

The moral of the story is to engage in plenty of research before embarking on anything that might cause a stir. Try to determine what your audience expects of your brand, and whether your planned content fits into that expectation. Similarly, try and come up with some brand personas and try and imagine how they’d feel about what you’re producing.

There’s no way to fully predict how an audience will react to something controversial, but you need to do everything you can to get an idea.

Don’t troll

And finally, the most pertinent point in this post: don’t troll. A brand being aggressive, needlessly offensive or even just rude is a sure way to guarantee a reputation hit and lose a few customers in the process.

Those are just a few of the guidelines for employing a bit of controversy into your brand content. Good luck (and try not to cause too many arguments!).

  • Written by on 11th September 2013 at 09:06
  • “Fluid Creativity is an award-winning, multi-service digital agency based in Manchester.”
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