Marketing a Controversial Product: The Challenges & Lessons I've Learned About Changing the Public's Perspective

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Frances TangFounder and CEO of Awkward Essentials

Friday, September 24, 2021

There's nothing that will grab people's attention and get them talking more than good ole fashioned controversy. Launching a product or service that's guaranteed to generate opinions is not a feat for the faint of heart. You need tough skin and a really good sense of humor to be in the biz of creating controversy.

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The Lessons (and Challenges) of Marketing a Controversial Product

Let's face it: anyone can create a safe, likable product. But it takes a true powerhouse to create (and promote) a product that you KNOW some people are going to just straight-up hate.

Luckily for you, I’ve been there and continue to return, and today I'm going to share the challenges and lessons I've learned about marketing a controversial product—and changing the public's perspective along the way.

Challenges

Of course, there will be many challenges that come with promoting something that either isn't talked about much or already has a bad reputation to begin with. So let's start there.

1. Shifting the mindset away from the status quo/norm

In most cases, people have strong, negative feelings about a product because it’s unfamiliar. They don't understand why it exists or how it can benefit them. So your first job is convincing people that what you're doing has real value.

You have to be the lone wolf who goes against the grain and shows people that it's okay to do so. Don't care that it's taboo. Don't care what anyone else says about it.

In the beginning, you're making people upset because you're changing the way something has always been done, especially if you're introducing an invention of some sort.

2. Educating and explaining the product

Again, especially if you're inventing something new, there's a good chance you'll have to do a lot of explaining. Why? Because people often misunderstand the purpose of the product or the product itself.

When you’re trying to communicate the unique value of an innovative product or service that does something different, explain it in simple terms and don't underestimate the importance of education in your marketing efforts. Create educational content that helps explain why your product is different from others and how it will change the way people live.

Take the hate and negative comments as a learning experience and build strategies to help educate potential customers. Use their protests as inspiration for questions you can answer and concerns you can address.

3. Paid digital marketing platforms

Many controversial products have a tendency to be banned from paid digital marketing or social media platforms because they're deemed inappropriate. Some brands are able to narrowly escape harsh restrictions by categorizing their product in a niche that’s less controversial, like hygiene or wellness, but you always run the risk of being banned from digital advertising when your product sparks some debate.

If you can't run ads internally, you can try using an agency, since many have direct relationships with account managers on paid platforms. Oftentimes each ad will need to be manually reviewed.

4. Backlash from the internet

Controversial products are magnets for snap reactions. Combined with social media, people will make sure their opinions are heard. That's okay though, embrace it. Don’t shy away from your comment section. Instead, face the naysayers head-on and reply to as many people as you can.

Yes, I said respond to the haters! When you're challenging the status quo, you have to be ready and open to receive all kinds of feedback—even feedback you don't like.

Now there's a difference between constructive criticism and just straight-up hate. One has a necessary place in business, and the other can just be deleted and forgotten.

Lessons

And, of course, in every challenge, there’s always a major lesson to be learned. Here are some of the ones I came across in my experience.

1. Find your allies and build your network

There are people out there who will support and even love your controversial product. Find them and give them all of your attention and love, as they’ll be your support system when the inevitable challenges arise.

With your allies, you can share ideas and lessons and even help each other through similar challenges.

2. Stay true to your brand personality

It may not feel like it at first, but “your people” WILL find you. Be confident in yourself and your product. Always stay true to what you believe in. No matter how big or small the opposition will grow into, your tribe will stay loyal if you are authentic. They’ll also support you when it seems like the world is against you, and that’s really important.

3. Your product or service may not be for everyone—and that's okay

When you're a pioneer in your industry, creating something that not everyone loves can be discouraging. I encourage you to embrace the controversy and understand that every time there is a negative comment thrown your way, it means people are seeing (and possibly buying) your product.

Keep that saying "all press is good press" very close to heart.

Haters are gonna hate, and it's imperative that you take nothing to heart and have fun with it.

Final thoughts

Sure, it would be easier to market watered down, more collectively appropriate version of your product—but it would also be much less rewarding in the long run. If there are haters out there, you're doing something right. You're making noise and getting people talking about things that they wouldn't otherwise be talking about.

Be proud of who you are and what you do. The people who truly love what you're doing will support you regardless of outside opinions. And the people who don't like it can take their opinion and use it to buy something else.

I hope this post helped shed some light on what it's really like to market a controversial product. Now go out there and make some people mad.

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Frances Tang

Founder and CEO of Awkward Essentials

awkwardessentials.com/

Frances is the founder/Captain Awkward/CEO of Awkward Essentials, a company that makes products that address the unspoken parts of hygiene. She is also the inventor of the dripstick — an after-sex cleanup sponge. Frances Tang never intended to build a company around a post-sex cleanup tool, but the Awkward Essentials founder saw a need — and an opportunity — for an entrepreneur willing to go there. Now, Frances is leading a revolution for female founders, showing that fearlessness is a founder’s most important value.

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