“Being controversial, pissing people off, is actually the safest thing you can do,” says Chris Friend, managing director of Iris Amsterdam in advance of his session at Promax Europe on March 25-26, 2019.
That’s in contrast to most marketers’ innate impulses but in an era where consumers are being bombarded with brand messages every day, standing out is the name of the game. During Friend’s session, the 25-year vet will challenge brand managers, content creators and campaign strategists to step outside their “neutral zone” and influence others’ opinions by stating their own.
Accomplishing that successfully requires more than just distributing a controversial campaign and hoping it sits well among the majority. It’s about starting a conversation, taking a stance, and connecting with the consumers whose opinions have been impacted.
“Campaigns that have an impact on people’s opinion increase a customer’s willingness to pay for a brand that they remember is causing an emotional reaction,” Friend said.
He cites Nike’s support of quarterback, speaker, and Black Lives Matter activist Colin Kaepernick as an example. In 2018, the athletic brand endorsed the football player through a campaign that convinced others to stand for something they believe in, similar to Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem.
Despite the campaign’s controversy, Nike’s sales grew 31 percent the weekend after its endorsement, according to Time.
“That’s because people realized Nike stood for something,” Friend said. “If a brand says ‘I’m for this, but against that,’ it’s easier for people to associate themselves with a brand, believe in buying a product and understand why the company exists.”
Relating to the audience’s opinion decides, in part, which products they buy and recommend to others.
“The likelihood of you recommending a brand that has core values you believe in is much greater than one that plays it safe,” Friend said. “People buy what other people buy.”
But even as as marketers take risks, it’s important to remain sensitive to real issues, know what moments to lean into, and make sure that the brand is aligned with its chosen cause. Friend cites Gillette’s recent toxic masculinity advertisement as an example.
The brand’s controversial advertisement illustrated toxic masculinity, suggesting that “men could be better.” The campaign divided the internet by addressing a trending topic; however, because it sparked conversation and resurfaced Gillette’s overall awareness, Friend considers the campaign successful.
“It feels a bit weird to say, ‘We’re now standing against toxic masculinity.’ And if they would have been too heavy handed with it, it could have been quite dangerous for them,” Friend said. “But I think they navigated it reasonably well.”
But the best thing about taking risks—whether they work or not—is that people eventually forgive and forget.
“Consumers don’t think about brands the way we do,” Friend said. “They’re not comparing brands like, ‘Gillette said something about toxic masculinity’ or debating whether Kaepernick was the right guy to back or not. They’ll forget about it over time. So why not take a risk and push the boundaries?”
And it’s the data-driven industry, in part, that makes it difficult for some brands to push those boundaries. But in a field where marketers are constantly challenged to be innovative, it’s not realistic to rely solely on numbers.
“One of the things about data is that it’s useless,” Friend said. “What you need is insight. Lots of companies collect data for the sake of it, but don’t try to understand it. The real question is, what are we learning from this? What does that data actually mean in the real world?”
In the end, if marketers feel too comfortable about a campaign, it might not be as successful as they expect, Friend says.
“If no one criticizes the work you put out there, it hasn’t done its job,” Friend added. “If they do, you’ve hit a nerve. If you’ve hit a nerve with one person negatively, you’ve hit a nerve positively with 10 people. And there’s value in that. If people are talking about it, that means they’ve noticed it. If they’ve noticed it, they might just buy your product.”