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Is Controversial Branding Worth the Risk

There’s no such thing as bad press. Is that really true, though? Some brands are intentionally putting this adage to the test and embracing controversial branding. Generally speaking, when you communicate as a brand you want your message to be understandable, universal and unoffensive. However, there have been some brands that are taking the risk to create ads that might not be well-received by all.

Why is this happening?
To put it succinctly; Millennials. This generation is expected to spend $1.4 trillion in the year 2020. That represents 30 percent of total retail sales in the United States just from this one group. You can see why brands would want to catch their attention. Millennials look for value-driven companies and expect social responsibility from brands. Since they seek socially conscious messaging, even if the message is portrayed as “controversial” to older generations, it will capture the attention and dollars of this powerful age group.

Controversial messaging
Here are some examples of brands that tapped controversial messaging:

Gillette – The razors have often used the slogan, “The Best A Man Can Get” in reference to the product and the quality of the shave it provides. Gillette took a risk and addressed the #MeToo era and produced a commercial that spoke out against toxic masculinity. With a twist on their slogan the spot was titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” and features men standing up to the current standards of masculinity. The commercial was both praised and panned by different groups, with the spot receiving twice as many dislikes as likes when it launched. While some appreciated the message and applauded the brand, others promoted a boycott online. 

Nike – You’ve probably heard of Colin Kaepernick and his activism supporting the Black Lives Matter movement by kneeling during the national anthem. Some assert that this action was a show of peaceful protest while others determined that it was disrespectful to the flag and the country. This resulted in him being left off of rosters for the 2017 schedule. Nike tapped the athlete along with others for their spot “Dream Crazy” which is narrated by Kaepernick including him saying, “Believe in something. Even if means sacrificing everything.” Following the first airing of the ad support and distain for Nike’s message were palpable. Some posted videos of them burning their Nike gear with the #NikeBoycott hashtag while others were vocal in support with hashtags #ImWithKap and #TeamNike.

Lil Dicky – The musician released a song called “Earth” where he promoted the message to save the environment, but in a comedic and controversial manner. He uses curse words, references marijuana, calls out specific countries and has lines about sex in the song. It gained massive attention and went viral. Even though many criticized the immature lyrics, the song charted on the top 100 billboards proving that millennials were listening. Every time the song is streamed, money goes to charities that help restore the environment. He also teamed up with Leonardo DiCaprio (who is featured in the song) to promote his charity as well. In the wake of the backlash for the inappropriate lyrics, Lil Dicky’s overall image was reflected in a positive light.

Worth the risk?
Even though controversial messaging can be a PR risk, if done correctly can have a huge pay off. The biggest piece of advice before deciding to embrace controversial messaging would be to follow your brand’s voice. Gillette has been addressing men for decades and decided to take their message about masculinity into the new era. Nike is all about their tag “Just Do It” and took their sports message and applied it to social activism. Lil Dicky has a passion for saving the planet and used proceeds from his video views to donate to environmental charities. Knowing your target market is critical as millennials and many others seek brands that are willing to stand up for a cause.

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