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Controversy as a Tool for Business Growth

Russell Smith
Russell Smith

Controversy and business do not go hand in hand. Or do they?

The last thing we want to do here is get political. Love him or loathe him, U.S President Donald Trump is a testament to the fact that controversy is not always detrimental to your branding. It can actually have a number of benefits.

It is almost instinctual for business owners to avoid controversy. The idea of upsetting, even alienating potential customers seems to go against everything we know about "good business." While staying on everyone's good side is guaranteed not to make you any enemies, it might not get you noticed either.

The argument for controversial business promotion

In a case study conducted by renowned marketing agency Moz, it was discovered that a controversial content marketing topic could be far more successful than something more banal. By using a controversial topic, their study gained far higher responses for sharing and user engagement – both positive and negative – than more mundane content.

The core takeaway from the study was that playing it safe was resulting in boring marketing, which didn't pick up enough traction to get the content noticed. By being more controversial, they saw much better results.

But controversy can be dangerous, especially if employed incorrectly.

Take, for example, the disaster that was the 2016 Miracle Mattress debacle. For those unaware of this shocking marketing ploy, a business in Texas decided to offer king-sized mattresses for the price of a twin; a promotion that took place on 9/11. They called it the "Twin Tower Sale" and posted a marketing video of a lady accidentally pushing two gentlemen into two towers of piled-up mattresses, knocking them over.

Needless to say, this wasn't received well. Soon after the ad aired, Miracle Mattress permanently closed.

As is plainly evident, controversy can build a brand, but it can also shatter it. So how do you make sure you fall firmly into the former category and not the latter?

The answer: Use the right kind of controversy. 

Use facts to ground your controversy

Basing controversy on pure conjecture or opinions can cause real problems. Idealism may win you a few supporters, but it's hard to form a strong rebuttal against those who disagree with your viewpoint – at least one that sounds professional – when its foundations are based on your own opinion or made-up figures.

A great example of this is the toiletries brand Dove. In 2015, it sparked controversy with an ad depicting low self-esteem issues with regard to women's perception of their own physical features. The ad claimed that only 4 percent of women thought they were beautiful.

As it turned out, this figure was not based on a scientific study, or even a social experiment. It was just marketing designed to make people think something that wasn't actually true. When a study revealed that, in actual fact, 71 percent of women believed they were beautiful, or were at least happy with their appearance, the campaign faced an enormous backlash.

Without any genuine factual information to stand behind, it was hard for Dove to defend its campaign. If the data were true, it would have been a controversial message that gained a lot of coverage and interest. The controversy would have benefited the company by shining a spotlight on real issues, even if it put a focus on a sensitive topic that some people disagreed with.

However, it wasn't backed by actual data. It was faked for marketing purposes, which left Dove looking dishonest.

Don't make everyone your enemy

The definition of a controversy is a public disagreement. Therefore, you cannot be controversial without ruffling a few feathers. You are going to upset somebody. Everyone has their own viewpoint and opinions.

But, there’s a difference between controversy that upsets some of the population and all of the population. Miracle Mattress managed to create controversy that resulted in the entirety of the U.S population coming out against them. They picked the wrong controversial horse to back, as nobody would support such a campaign that made light of such a tragic event.

When stirring up controversy, you have to find the two sides of an argument and place yourself firmly on one side of it. Yes, you'll fall afoul of the opposing side, but you stand to gain the support of those on your side.

Let's look at an example of how this can work.

In the United Kingdom, the brand Protein World ran an infamously controversial campaign. Phrasing the question, "Are you beach body ready?" beside the image of a slim model, the promotion quickly picked up heated responses from critics, denouncing it as body shaming. Yet, in the aftermath of the campaign, Protein World saw enormous increases in sales. In just four days, the company reported sales totaling an equivalent of $1.3 million.

The controversy did its job. While it put Protein World firmly on one side of an argument, making the brand some enemies, it found support in those seeking weight-loss solutions; people chasing the Western ideals of beauty and health. Despite the backlash, the brand thrived, because it knew it wasn't alienating everyone who saw the ad, just a finite percentage of the population.

Match controversy to brand image

In 2014, American Apparel launched a raunchy and incredibly controversial ad campaign, titled "Made in Bangladesh." The ad was highly sexualized, depicting a topless woman wearing American Apparel jeans.

Despite being so controversial, the ad campaign performed very well, gaining a lot of media attention and even a strong helping of critical acclaim. Of course, it offended many, but it got away with it. Why? Because the fashion industry, on the whole, is known for its overly sexualized nature. It was wild and brash, but not totally out of place. It was controversy within acceptable limits.

If you were to take a different industry, such as a local plumbing service, and use such controversial, overly sexualized imagery in its marketing, you would face incredulous amounts of backlash.

Unlike a fashion retailer that promotes style and beauty, within which this kind of advertising falls, a business with no discernible link to this kind of branding would simply face backlash for cheap ways of seeking attention. That's not the kind of brand promotion that will do you any favors.

The key to courting controversy of this manner is to find subjects that fit your industry; controversies on which your voice has authority. Take chartered accountants as an example. They could weigh in on topics such as legitimate tax loopholes.

Yes, they'd be encroaching on morally gray areas, but they'd be doing so within their industry and from a position of authority. It would make sense for an accountant to be involved in such controversy, because they are an expert in the field. As a result, they may face a backlash from people denouncing their tactics, but they might also see interest from people looking to cut down on their tax bill.

For many businesses, it's all about creating the right kind of controversy.

Image Credit: Feng Yu/Shutterstock
Russell Smith
Russell Smith Member
My aim is to help our clients understand their numbers, change lives through financial education and build the best firm of chartered accountants in the UK. With close to 300 clients I enjoy working with a variety of different businesses and we have a real specialism within the creative and health sectors. Over the last 12 years I have been able to help the businesses we work with in every matter concerning their finances from multimillion pound deals to helping clients save hundreds of thousands of pounds in tax. Our whole business is shaped to ensure we give our clients the best advice, assistance and services possible - we’re not just here to do annual accounts and tax returns - what drives us is helping our clients to understand their numbers, achieve their business goals and ultimately – make more profit! I love working with people and have a fantastic team who help our clients get on top of their finances, cash and profits so there is more money left over for them and their families. We even have a Tax and Accountancy Emergency Helpline so our clients can reach us at any time 24/7 365 days a year and never lose sleep over their numbers again! If you'd like to arrange a free meeting with me to review your business you'll get: • A check on whether all your accounts and tax returns are up to date • A healthcheck on whether you are paying too much tax • A business review to see where you can increase your profits I also write a regular blog full of tax saving tips and advice on growing your profits and understanding your numbers. KNOW your numbers + TRACK your numbers = GROW your profits We love numbers!