Creating a strong brand that stands out in today’s competitive market can be a process that we learn and grow through. Many companies are using controversial statements in their branding to gain a competitive advantage. 

But using controversy is not as simple as it appears. There is a lot that can go wrong, but when it is done correctly it can be rewarding.

Even though controversial statements can lead to an influx in followers, we need to remember that bad publicity is still prominent in our society. Kofi Oppong, founder of Urban MBA, is a firm believer in cancel culture. The power of social media and Generation Z vocalising their perspective poses a problem for any brand. Kofi says “old-school thinking of spin doctors does not work as well because of the online platforms.”

Jeannine van der Linden, founder of DeKamer, believes that an online presence is important and how you handle your online image is up to you. She explains her argument by pointing out how you choose to promote yourself, “if your coworking space has a diverse community, it is vital that you show this in your branding. It attracts the right sort of coworker to your space and allows them to strive in your community.” 

There are certain trends and statements that can ruin a brand, and treading the ground carefully is key here. Mientjie Kleinhans, editor of Animal Talk, believes that certain publicity stunts can ruin your brand. 

Why do brands decide to go through with controversial branding when it can be such a high risk strategy? Here are some of the reasons why they choose to go through with it:

Why is controversial branding used? 

Using controversial statements in branding creates a specific image and reputation. When controversial branding is done correctly the brand shows themselves as ethical and concerned about societal issues. 

By aligning a brand with specific views and messaging it can make the audience consider the perspective of the brand. When their beliefs are reinforced by a brand, it makes them more likely to associate themselves with the brand.    

That being said, if done in a manner that is performative rather than supportive, the brand will be seen as manipulative and attention seeking. This can be detrimental to the brand’s reputation. 

Kofi states “I think that if it’s a powerful statement against wrong it is encouraged, the best example of this is Colin Kaepernick. He protested peacefully but many Americans, spurred by right wing media, went against him. Despite this, Nike stood up for him and kept him on contract and used it positively.”

Jeannine had expressed a similar opinion in that companies should use controversy for a positive reason. However, she states that they should only use controversy when they believe in what they are taking a stand on.  

“Companies should stand up for what they believe in and not get involved in issues they do not believe in. Decisions should not be driven by what the current consensus is, but by what world you would like to see. Many companies are afraid of upsetting their clientele by making controversial statements, but there is a way to make controversial statements without sounding manipulative,” Jeannine says.  

Mientjie goes further to explain that using controversy is a case-by-case basis “With controversial branding there are cases where it has worked and where it has not. It is important to do research and find some examples to have a clear basis of what works well and what to avoid.”  

What makes a controversial statement work?  

When browsing online platforms, coming across an advert that uses controversial statements successfully is not as easy as one would assume. That begs the questions, what makes a controversial statement work in branding? 

There are two ways to address controversy in adverts, it can either be a serious narrative or a comical story.   

A Serious Narrative 

What defines a serious narrative:

 A comical story 

In contrast to the serious narrative approach, the comical story does not have a serious or emotional tone. It has more of a lighthearted and satirical tone that can grab the audience’s attention just as well as a strong narrative.   

Depending on the controversy, the comical story can be successful. Here is how to make a successful comical story for you brand:

Here is a successful serious advertisement:

Dream Crazier 

Nike | Dream Crazier #Justdoit  

The Dream Crazier advert from the brand Nike is incredibly successful. In the advertisement several female celebrities were used to convey a message. By incorporating women of different ages, religions, and ethnicities Nike’s advert is seen as inclusive and empowering to women. 

The message that the advert conveys is that women should reclaim the word ‘crazy’ for their own.  What makes this so successful is that the product is not overpowering or taking the spotlight from the issue, but rather raises it.   

An unsuccessful advert

That being said, using controversy in branding is a high-risk/high-reward strategy. Here are some branding tactics that can be avoided to lower the risk. 

There are companies that create a bad reputation for themselves and use it as an opportunity. The age old saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity” still reigns true in their books, even if it is not the case. 

Pepsi | commercial starring Kendall Jenner 

Pepsi’s advert for their cold drink product is an example of a brand being tone-deaf when using controversy in their branding. Pepsi is not a brand that is known for having a bad reputation, so this advert received backlash and damaged the brand’s image. As a result of the backlash the advert had been taken down, banned and sales had decreased.  

When this advert was published it was seen as being tone-deaf to police brutality in America and being ignorant towards the struggles African Americans face as a result of police brutality. It seemed that the message of the advert was that years of racism, discrimination and rioting can be solved with giving a policeman a cold drink.    

Due to this the brand received public backlash and had to remove the advert as civilians began boycotting their products until an apology was made. Despite the brand making a public apology they had seen a plunge in their sales since the release of the ad. 

A time for controversy

Kofi believes that there is a time that is more appropriate for controversial statements, but also remaining silent can be the wrong move in some cases. He explains that “Adidas did not have an opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement but retweeted Nikes tweet. They  received backlash for this, and when this story came out on LinkedIn related to Black employees’ treatment, it made them look even worse.” 

Jeannine explains that “there is a right and wrong time for everything. A common mistake companies make when using controversy is that they only add their opinion after the dust has settled and they missed their chance.”

Mientjie believes that timing is important but the way the statement is phrased should also be taken into account. She states that “it also depends on what the controversial topic is about. If being controversial can cause something better, then it is worth it to explore the best time and also choose the best words carefully. But when it is detrimental to the brand, people or specific groups of people, then a company should consider the best time.”

These are some of the aspects that make a successful and unsuccessful advertisement when using controversy. That being said, something to keep in mind when using controversy is to cancel culture, as it can impact the company if the advert fails.  

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