08 May Can a Bad Reputation be Good for Business?
Joan Jett once sang that she didn’t give a damn about her reputation. In this blog, we’ll be looking at brands that have seemingly taken this lyric to heart. Recently there has been a spate of brand PR ‘mishaps’ and ‘misjudgements’ from assaulting your own customers, to making light of social injustice protests, to congratulating Boston Marathon runners on SURVIVING. It has been quite a busy couple of weeks for many brand’s PR departments.
It is important to make a critical distinction at this early stage. There are also businesses that have a genuinely poor reputation and get bad press due to the quality of their products or their strategy. This blog will not be focussing on these businesses, we’ll be focussing on brands that are normally fairly successful with their marketing and branding strategies, but make the occasional ‘blip’. Additionally, we’ll also be looking at brands that seek to differentiate themselves from their competitors by adopting a different message to the conventional approach of ‘we’re really good and will make life easier/better for you.’
We’ve already discussed Pepsi’s protest advert that was pulled less than 24 hours after it launched. To read our thoughts, click here. Whilst the advert was obviously offensive to a lot of people, it can be said that it achieved more attention than if they had not tried something different. An advert that depicted the standard group of smiling people having fun whilst enjoying a night out/concert drinking only Pepsi would have probably made little impression in a world where we’re becoming increasingly immune to standard adverts.
Whilst you’ve probably seen the advert, you may not know that Pepsi’s approval rating increased by 44% following the advert and their subsequent apology. The fact that it is still being discussed AND has had an apparent positive effect on their brand means that it could technically be labelled a success. The more cynical of us out there could even speculate that this has been the desired outcome all along. In an era of consumer apathy, is an offensive advert and slick apology and crisis management an actual marketing strategy? Obviously, this cannot replace a typical marketing strategy, or be used regularly as the negative associations would definitely replace the brand’s regular ‘good’ reputation. But it does appear that some brands use this approach to create a spike of attention.
On the other end of the PR management scale, there is United Airlines. We’d love to represent them, as doing literally anything else would be an improvement on their current PR and marketing strategy. Many people still remember 2009’s ‘United Breaks Guitars’ viral hit that has set the tone for their relations with the public in recent years. Before United discovered it was easier to ‘re-accommodate’ passengers if they were concussed, they discussed banning some teenage girls for trying to fly in leggings. Not exactly living up to their ‘Fly the Friendly Skies’ motto. The lack of an immediate, empathetic response has seen millions of dollars wiped from the value of the airline. Not ideal for them, really.
I appreciate that Pepsi’s advert and a passenger/staff altercation are two different scenarios. However, they can both be loosely termed controversial events. Therefore the key requirement in a shock and apologise marketing strategy is a swift and sincere apology and a good crisis management strategy. If you’re inspired to adopt a Pepsi approach-take note.
Some brands seem to base their strategy and business model around having a bad or infamous reputation or providing a product that openly promises to be unpleasant.
A strategy that can prove to be effective is the ‘Royal Marines’ approach that 99.9% of people can’t handle, or don’t like, this product. This sets the consumer a challenge to be part of the 0.1% and prove themselves. Making a brand exclusive and almost a badge of honour demonstrating that the user is special and different is a very effective tactic and has been used effectively by products as far ranging as spicy chilli sauces to endurance running events like Tough Mudder. This approach can generate a legion of loyal brand advocates who are eager to show how elite they are by their affiliation with this extreme product. Before you rush to make your brand super exclusive, just be sure to check that the 0.1% that you’re targeting is big enough to sustain your business and that your marketing messages are seen as a challenge rather than a genuine attempt to put people off.
Other brands seek to differentiate themselves by appearing to be rebellious, immoral or anti-establishment. Although once they’ve achieved a certain level of success it is debatable whether you can be a mainstream rebel. The Brewdog brewing company brand themselves as anti-establishment punks fighting against mainstream beers. They once famously campaigned to get one of their own beers banned as it was too strong. They also have a non-alcoholic beer called ‘Nanny State’. Other marketing activities have resulted in a fine from the advertising standards agency for too much swearing on their website and serving beer in taxidermy roadkill bottles. For more of their marketing stunts, click here. Associating yourself with this brand can make the consumer seem edgy and anti-establishment, characteristics that are increasingly popular given the current global political climate.
This punk reputation has been slightly tarnished as the business has ‘sold out’ in selling a 25% stake, admittedly for £250m — even punks need to pay the bills. If a brand is considering a Brewdog-esque punk reputation, our advice is to be cautious. This image only works if it’s perceived as authentic and genuine — hence Brewdog’s rather extreme (or distasteful) marketing techniques. If you’re seen to be simply paying lip service to the rebellious image, it could be a reputational disaster. Being truly rebellious means not caring about the consequences and taking the flack for your activities. Something that is difficult to do whilst trying to balance books and make a profit — it’s a tough balancing act.
The nihilistic Cards Against Humanity (CAH) game describes itself as a party game for horrible people. This is clearly a departure from the regular image a brand tries to cultivate. Consumers traditionally like to be reflected in a positive light by the brands they favour, not be told they are horrible. The wild success of the game since it was successfully crowd-funded in 2011 demonstrates there is definitely a market for preaching to the dark side of the consumer.
CAH supports its brand image with suitably dark, depressing marketing that emphasises the futility of life. For example, on Black Friday they spent $100,000 that they had crowdfunded digging a hole. When asked why they hadn’t donated it to charity, the business replied, ‘why didn’t the donators?’ They added that they hope they hit lava as then they might ‘feel something’. This world-weary approach to business has been seen to be refreshing in a sea of forced positivity that many brands’ marketing strategy adopt.
As with the rebellious attitude, this approach relies on its authenticity. It takes a lot of creativity and imagination to orchestrate marketing activities that are sufficiently futile, yet will gain attention (or notoriety). If their marketing is perceived to be outwardly attention seeking or traditional, it would adversely affect their brand image. Crafting an alternative brand reputation takes a lot of thought and effort, or conversely (and more successfully), a flagrant disregard of the rules and consequences.
A final brand option is slightly more obscure. Aim for infamy. Be so tasteless, or awful that your brand becomes an experience; a story that consumers tell their friends. An example of this is the Heart Attack Grill in America where burgers are known as bypasses, going up to 8,000 calories per serving and fries are cooked in lard. ‘Food so bad for you it’s shocking’ is the slogan. Clearly, a brand that doesn’t follow traditional fast-food rules-where calories is almost a dirty word.
Another bizarre example of a successful, yet terrible reputation is sugar-free gummy bears on Amazon. If you’ve not seen the reviews of this product, they are well worth a read. Despite promising a truly awful experience for the consumer, the sweets continue to sell (if they didn’t, they would have been pulled). This is an interesting approach, as it taps into our self-destructive, or malicious, how-bad-can-it-really-be mentality. Be warned, with this type of product and strategy, you’re unlikely to receive many repeat customers.
To conclude, having a ‘bad’ reputation can work for you if you’re prepared to commit to it, although it is definitely risky. For every potential customer that loves your brand’s sarcasm or rejection of political correctness, there will certainly be at least the same amount who dislike it. It either takes a lot of effort to appear careless or a genuinely reckless attitude that captures the public’s sentiment. Also, if you’re planning for the shock and apologise approach, please don’t hurt anyone.