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Become a bolder brand: how to leverage controversy in marketing

Read time 5 min
We’ve all heard the saying: “All publicity is good publicity.” It’s an idiom that has driven many a brand to push the envelope, sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment. So, how can today’s brands successfully use controversy in their marketing? When is making a point more important than playing it safe?
Controversy in Marketing Hero

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I don’t like conflict. I cringe silently during heated political discussions. I inwardly craft comebacks that I won’t ever say. And I’ve been told on more than one occasion to “Stop saying you’re sorry!”

But when it comes to creative advertising and branding, I won’t lie: I find the right level of conflict or controversy (we’ll get to this caveat shortly) surprisingly appealing. Maybe because it shows me something that’s sorely lacking in myself: the ability to step out and say something without hesitation, apology, or doubt.

Infusing marketing content with bold, controversial messaging isn’t a new concept. We’ve all heard the saying: “All publicity is good publicity.” It’s a commonplace phrase with Oscar Wilde roots: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It’s an idiom that has driven many a brand to push the envelope, sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment.

So, how can your brand successfully use controversy in your marketing? When is making a point more important than playing it safe?

I believe controversial marketing can be wildly successful, with a couple of critical caveats:

1. You have to be something to someone.

As a creative agency helping brands fuel engagement and growth, we at Bonfire Effect (top branding agency) have talked about this nuance a lot in the past. We’ve discussed the value of mastering an opti-channel approach instead of blindly hopping onto the omnichannel marketing bandwagon. We’ve touted the wisdom of Judd Apatow and explored the great marketing paradox: “the more specific you are, the more universal you are.” And it all boils down to one key point: You can’t be something to everyone. You’ve got to truly know your audience and be something significant to them.

2. You have to consider the bigger picture.

Before making waves, ask yourself the greater, introspective “Why?” of what you’re trying to accomplish. Is it controversy for the sake of controversy? Or is it a message that’s going to reflect your inner brand and support the larger “why” behind what you do? It might not appeal to everyone, and it shouldn’t. But will it engage, encourage, or inspire your target audience? If the answer is yes, then by all means, make a move!

On those thought-provoking notes, here are a few brands that have harnessed conflict and used controversy to their advantage (and to the advantage of their target audiences).


University of Wyoming, ”The World Needs More Cowboys”

On the surface, people can interpret this campaign as a misogynistic message that belittles the role of women, not just within the University of Wyoming but in the world. But it’s that initial element of controversy that makes the campaign so powerful upon deeper reflection. It takes a narrow, confined word and uses it to champion inclusivity. Using unexpected visuals that fly in the face of the “stereotypical cowboy,” the University of Wyoming defines “the modern cowboy” as an individual who pursues a “spirit of curiosity and adventure,” regardless of “race or gender.”

Despite early backlash, “The World Needs More Cowboys” campaign earned two honors at the 34th Annual Educational Advertising Awards, including Best in Show and silver. The slogan even inspired a new Chancey Williams song. And according to University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols, the overall campaign has garnered “the attention of thousands of prospective students.”

Liquid Death Mountain Water, “Murder Your Thirst”

When it comes to knowing your audience and spurring them to chase a specific ideal, Liquid Death Mountain Water is killing it. With over-the-top cartoons featuring unreal levels of guts and gore, the brand takes a “completely unnecessary approach to bottled water.” Liquid Death Mountain Water uses the shock value of ridiculously violent visuals to awe and captivate their audience. They send a conventional message in an unconventional way: “drink more water more often” (with cans that are actually recyclable). By being “loud, fun, and weird” in their marketing (they’re definitely not seeking to please), Liquid Death effectively reaches a niche group of people who are tired of the “aspirational” and “airbrushed” world of health and wellness advertising. Whether or not you can get onboard with the blood and carnage, one thing is certain. The company’s out-of-the-box marketing method makes staying hydrated and heralding the #DeathToPlastic philosophy anything but boring.

Maybe that’s why their debut video generated 1.2 million views on Facebook in less than two months, with only $600 in paid media. Recently, the company’s founder Mike Cessario also announced that the brand had earned $1.6 million in venture funding.

Colorado State University, Canvas Stadium 

When Colorado State University sold the naming rights for their on-campus stadium to Canvas Credit Union (Public Service Credit Union of Colorado at the time), not everyone was happy with the end result. Yet while the new Canvas Stadium name may not have been universally popular in the beginning, it represented a more strategic move on the part of Colorado State University for the future. By accepting one of the most lucrative naming rights deals in all of college athletics, CSU not only made national news and enhanced the visibility of the stadium across the country. The university also secured funds to offer expanded opportunities for athletes, students, faculty, and the greater community. So really, there are approximately 37,700,000 reasons to like “Canvas Stadium.”

Getting out of your brand comfort zone

You might have a tendency to dance around discord (like me), or maybe you love a good-natured debate. But what about when it comes to your brand? Are you saying what you need to say? Are you being the guide you need to be for your audience? Or are there ways you’re still holding back?

Take a moment to ponder. Then take the next step. Maybe getting out of your comfort zone is just what your brand needs.

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