Should Your Brand be Controversial? | h2o | Creative Communications Ltd.
Should your brand be controversial? We explore how it's never good to aim to offend but pushing the boundaries on occasion can have big results.
brand, controversial branding, branding, marketing, digital marketing,
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Should Your Brand be Controversial?

Should Your Brand be Controversial?

There is an age-old saying that no publicity is bad publicity. Whilst this is true to an extent, I would bet that the careers of a number of disgraced politicians and celebrities would beg to differ. To a much lesser extent, this approach appears to have been the strategy for Greggs with the launch of their advent calendar.

The calendar contains discount vouchers for owners to get their favourite pastry treat. Given the plethora of novelty advent calendars that have sprung up over recent years, it’s definitely on the less exciting end of the spectrum. You’d expect only a die-hard pasty fan would be truly excited about this launch — this is from someone who is from Newcastle and therefore raised on Greggs.

The marketing campaign for this launch would need to be great to make this product stand out amongst the beer, wine, gin and jewellery-centric competition. Greggs went for a controversial approach that has undeniably succeeded.

The brand has featured one of their famous, and admittedly delicious, sausage rolls in the lead role in a nativity scene. Seeing a baked good surrounded by wise men has offended a minority of Christians and ‘traditionalists’. This has led to widespread press coverage with articles in all of the major newspapers and a vast amount of discussion on social media. The outrage generated by their campaign has raised its profile beyond anything it could have achieved organically. There have even been calls to #boycottgreggs from right-wing groups.

The predictable attention the campaign received begs the question; Did Greggs do this on purpose? We’ve written before about brands cultivating a bad/alternative/shocking reputation. Whilst a beloved (by us Northerners) pasty company would not be your first thought when it came to edgy and controversial branding, they are hardly the first. We also wrote a blog about this during the aftermath of the Pepsi protest uproar.

This is another example of the ‘if you can’t beat them, play a bit dirty’ strategy. ‘Merry Greggsmas’ was never going to beat the big-budget and expectation associated with the John Lewis et al. Christmas ads. But by creating a bit of a stir with a slightly controversial campaign, they’ve been able to generate a similar level of publicity for a fraction of the budget.

Whilst for many this is a storm in a teacup. It’s also possible to argue that this is lazy controversy-coveting. Christianity is a famously easy target as it doesn’t carry any xenophobic or racist connotations. Brands know that a bit of offence is great publicity, and offending Christians is definitely a safe option. It’s difficult to imagine another religion being targeted in this way. So whilst we can say Greggs have been clever, they have also been a bit unimaginative with their target. Every year there is the debate about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas being lost in a sea of commercialism, (but that is a discussion for a different blog.) so this is hardly an incredibly original topic.

People buying novelty advent calendars are typically millennials. We hate this stereotyping umbrella term almost as much as we love avocados, hipster beards and cold-brew coffee. The majority of millennials in the UK are atheist. Therefore, this campaign is likely to only offend those that weren’t going to buy the product anyway. For Greggs, it’s win-win, safe controversy without affecting sales of the calendars. Regarding the boycott, this isn’t a huge deal Twitter outrages typically last a couple of days before a fresh injustice distracts us.

Although the calendars only went on sale on Monday, the marketing strategy can be deemed a ‘success’ already. It has generated a fantastic amount of interest and publicity for the product. It’s likely that Greggs will sell more of the calendar to UK Atheists looking to make a point that they would have done to sausage roll aficionados.

The brand quickly issued a cut ’n’ paste apology for offending people. However reading between the lines, it was difficult to not see the joy of ‘mission accomplished’ behind the vanilla statements of innocence and the na(t)ivety (see what we did there?).

Before you consider making Nigel Farage your brand ambassador, this tactic is risky. Use it too often and you can acquire a reputation as an offensive brand that’s out of touch with modern society. It’s also important to not offend literally everyone, whilst Greggs’ campaign has offended a small minority, there’s a majority that will have given a wry smile or chuckle and moved on with their lives. For many, Greggs’ campaign is operating in the grey area between cheeky and offensive. They are entertaining the majority by slightly offending the minority. Dangerous stuff.

Another brand that thrives in the offensive grey area is Cards Against Humanity. Their latest marketing campaign involved buying land on the proposed Mexican border wall and hiring specialist land acquisition to fight the inevitable government legal challenge. This has gained huge notoriety and obviously offended Trump’s rabid supporters. Again, offending the minority, amusing the majority and gaining lots of publicity via the outrage.

So what have we learned? Whilst it’s obviously never good to aim to offend, pushing the boundaries on occasion can have big results.

Megan Tyce