March 1, 2016

Give Your Brand a Refresh By Insulting the Public?

Give Your Brand a Refresh By Insulting the Public?

Have you caused an uproar with your scandalous marketing? If so, will aggressively defending it yield dividends?

Sometimes your business just needs a brand reset after an unfortunate series of events. Everyone makes mistakes. At some point, even the most well-intentioned amongst us will utter a phrase or a joke that some incredibly sensitive souls might consider ill-advised or even Hitler-ish. When this happens, you have three choices:

  1. Ignore it, and pretend absolutely nothing happened.
  2. Apologize profusely and begin a lengthy process of public groveling.
  3. Become offended yourself, and loudly insist that your views are valid, and that all those who criticize them are humorless idiots.

Yes, there is a right and wrong choice.

The brand Protein World, which no one had ever heard of before April 2015, came out with, frankly, a fairly innocuous advertisement featuring a standard bikini model, asking the viewers if they are “bikini ready.” Now, we would have thought that the vast majority of people wouldn’t give the ad a second thought. And they didn’t. However, a small but extremely vocal minority declared that they were profoundly offended by the blatant “body shaming” and went on a campaign to get the ads removed. Now, in response to the backlash, Protein World went with defense strategy option 3 – antagonize critics at every possible turn. It might have gained them some notoriety and sales for the time being, but is this strategy sustainable?

Probably not. The social media comments made by the company made them seem not merely callous, but downright mean-spirited. Using such hashtags as #getagrip, and #winning, they asked why they should make the protestors’ insecurities “their problem,” and accused them of being a nation of “sympathizers for fatties.” Ouch.

However knee-jerk the public might have found the protestors’ response to be, Protein World didn’t exactly come out smelling like roses. It’s one thing to say that they stand by their ad and that it accurately represents what the brand is about. It’s another to blatantly sneer at the public, and start bullying detractors. It makes the company seem infantile.

No such thing as bad publicity?

But what about the spike in revenue? Didn’t the response actually help the company? Maybe, maybe not. That spike would have likely happened anyway, since the advertisements were not only objected to, but also roundly violated. People began to paste their own protests over the offending posters, causing the rest of the public to wonder: What’s the big deal?

The answer is: nothing, really. And it generally doesn’t take long for the public to realize it. This is the exact sort of thing that causes a freedom-loving citizenry to get quite riled up, particularly Americans (even though this is a British campaign). The ad itself is probably the least interesting thing about this whole fracas – it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and nothing we won’t continue to see. Nevertheless, occasionally even the most unworthy subjects touch a nerve. When such a huge and largely unwarranted backlash occurs, sometimes the best course is for the brand to be as bland as possible, and watch how it plays out. Sometimes the public does the work for you. After all, the extremely vocal critics were advocating censorship of the ads for an imagined slight. However, the Protein World response took the focus off of the proposed censorship, and put it squarely on their inability to handle criticism well.

The short vs. long term

What many brands – particularly young brands – fail to recognize is that they should be looking to the long-term. Momentary controversy can be great for this quarter’s sales, but it’s the reaction to the controversy that solidifies the brand’s identity in the public’s mind. We’re sure that Protein World has done its share of brand research, but it probably wasn’t as finessed as it could have been. Consumers will probably forget that the bikini model made them feel self-conscious about their bodies, but they’ll definitely remember that the brand went out of its way to make them feel even worse.

The public has to trust you – the way you present your brand is absolutely essential. In this case, Protein World actively made themselves seem as though their chief concern wasn’t with providing a healthy and useful product to the public, but with maintaining a juvenile image.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

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