The Marketer’s Guide to Controversy


Marketing Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for Marketing pros

Friday, September 25, 2020

Oscar Wilde once said that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’, a phrase which has morphed over time in the minds of marketing gurus to ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. For much of the 20th century, this mindset largely held true. Despite a few high-profile controversies (we’re looking at you, Pepsi), marketers could mostly rely on the uproar subsiding, leaving behind increased brand visibility to work with.

Article 5 Minutes
The Marketer’s Guide to Controversy

While it’s still largely better to be talked about than not, the rise of social media and its often-reactionary discourse means marketing directors are walking a more precarious tightrope than ever before. The ability for everyone to access information and share their opinion has lifted the lid on transparency and authenticity in marketing, and a negative response can be far more damaging than it used to be.

So, should you steer clear of controversy in marketing? A controversial marketing campaign, if managed correctly, can help your brand reputation skyrocket while attracting new customers and boosting sales. 

We’ve gathered some tips on how you can reap the benefits of a controversial campaign while avoiding the pitfalls.

How being controversial can work

“Marketing isn’t about being risk-averse; it’s about mitigating risk and taking smart risks.” - Serenity Thompson, Managing Director for A23 Advisors


In order to create a successfully provocative campaign, you need to create some sort of opposition in order to spark debate and make it ‘go viral’. There are several keys to a successful outcome, but you need to be ready for some negative response.

Gregg’s Veganuary campaign is a prime example. In early 2019, the UK high-street bakery capitalized on seasonal consumer desire for better eating habits and the ‘Veganuary’ trend by releasing the vegan sausage roll, an announcement that saw a massive increase in its online follower count and a circa-10% sales boost in the first two months of the year.

Its attempts to appeal to a broader audience led to an inevitable reaction on social media. While many lauded the campaign, others were less complimentary. Greggs were able to manage the conversation effectively though, and their willingness to cater to changing consumer habits and awareness of societal trends meant that the negative reaction was absorbed successfully.

When controversial marketing goes wrong

For such a largely successful brand, Pepsi has had its fair share of marketing faux pas, going as far back as its 1963 launch in China, under the strapline ‘Pepsi Brings You Back to Life’.

More recently, however, its attempt to tie its brand to the fight for social justice backfired massively when it released an advert featuring Kendall Jenner strutting through a protest to hand a can of Pepsi Max to a riot officer.

The intent was clear: Pepsi wanted to promote their product as a unifying force in a polarized culture. But it was badly misjudged. 2017 saw a proliferation of political and social protest movements across America (and the world), including the Black Lives Matter movement, and the similarity of the images in Pepsi’s ad to those of real protests struck the wrong chord. There was an overwhelmingly negative backlash on social media, centered around the opinion that the campaign trivialized serious social inequality and represented an inauthentic and opportunistic attempt by Pepsi to tie their brand to a contemporary cultural movement.

How to conduct a successful controversial marketing campaign

If you want to court controversy and provoke debate in the right way, there’s a few things you need to remember:

Learn from others

Learn your lessons from those that have failed as well as those that have succeeded. The conclusion from Pepsi’s campaign was clear: your campaign must add real value to the subject you’re taking on. When developing your campaign, think about what your product does, and whether the message behind your campaign aligns with the view of your target audience.

Avoid miscommunication

Don’t allow your campaign to be misconstrued. If you have a consistent tone of voice and message throughout your content, there’s less chance of this happening. Pepsi is one example of this; they wanted to promote a message of harmony, but it looked like they were saying a systemic issue could be solved with a can of soft drink.

By connecting your marketing to the core values of your brand, you’ll show this consistency and there’s less chance your message could be interpreted in a negative fashion. If you’re conducting a controversial marketing campaign, there’ll be some adverse reaction whatever you do (and that’s the point), but you don’t want conversation to go in directions you hadn’t anticipated.

Own the conversation

To do this, make sure you’ve got your finger on the pulse of public feeling before you go live with a campaign. Speak to your employees and keep an eye on social media to maintain an awareness of what’s important and relevant to your audience. Be ready to explain how your product relates to the topic at hand and what problem it solves. Have proof ready, in the form of data, and prepare scripts that help your representatives react to the controversy in a more authentic and satisfactory way.

Do something unique

This is perhaps the most important aspect of conducting a controversial marketing campaign. At the heart of any viral campaign is a conversation, and to get people talking you need to do something nobody else is. In the digital environment, ideas that push boundaries see higher engagement. You can do this by challenging an established paradigm or offering an unconventional solution to a conventional problem.

Overall, you need the courage to take risks and the preparation to mitigate those risks, and though it can be scary to court controversy, it’s been proven to pay huge dividends if you get it right.

Marketing Insights for Professionals

The latest thought leadership for Marketing pros

Insights for Professionals provide free access to the latest thought leadership from global brands. We deliver subscriber value by creating and gathering specialist content for senior professionals



Join the conversation...