Describe the taste of chilli. It’s hot. Painful, even. Sharp. Intense. Now, describe the taste of chocolate. It’s rich, warm, earthy, indulgent, sweet.
Now… describe the taste of vanilla.
… Well. it’s nice, I suppose? No harm in a bit of vanilla. But if you try to recall and describe the taste, it probably escapes you. I certainly does me. I’ve definitely had a few delicious vanilla puddings in my time, but can only describe the taste as… well… vanilla.
Vanilla is the taste that few can object to, but even fewer will testify to it being their favourite.
Now, sometimes vanilla works. If you’re entertaining a fussy eater, they’ll likely be happy with it. But even the fussiest of eaters will be unlikely to recall and then describe the taste.
Now, let’s apply that to business. If I were to ask a member of your crowd – captivated or otherwise – to recall and describe the taste of your business… what would they say? In fact, what if I were to ask you! Can you describe it yourself? If you can’t, your customers and leads certainly won’t be able to. Of course, I don’t mean taste in a literal sense. That would be weird. But in a figurative sense, taste is evocative and can bring back memories in just the same way as sights, sounds and smells can.
With that in mind, let’s examine the following: controversy. You already know what the word means, so I’ll spare you the definition. Whatsmore, you can probably name a dozen or more controversial brands right off the bat, each maintaining a level of controversy for different reasons. Regardless of what those reasons are, you know the brand and you probably know what they do.
Whether you’re a customer, or a potential customer, of theirs very much depends on the type of controversy.
BAD BUSINESS CONTROVERSY
Sports Direct have been in the news a fair bit of late, and are a good example of why the old adage of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is not strictly true. If you Google the term “Sports Direct” you’re treated to a smorgasbord of very negative news stories, mostly surrounding their treatment of workers. As of six hours ago, from the writing of this article, the average turnover of staff has been reported at 22% – three times higher than the UK average of 8%.
Sure, they’re in the news a lot. But unethical treatment of workers is not the kind of thing you want staining your name. Mike Ashley, the tycoon at the helm, has reported a profit loss of 15% (as of July 2016)… and is therefore slashing staff bonuses. Nice work!
Let’s take a look at another recent example of when controversy goes bad.
Byron Burgers. without going into too much detail, Byron have been the subject of adverse public attention (including some pretty visceral protests and calls for a boycott) when news broke that they trapped several members of their London staff in order to be turned in to immigration police, 35 of which were therefore deported. Regardless of your stance on Byron’s actions, few can argue that the press and public backlash have done the restaurant chain any favours in the sales department.
Yes, both chains are in the press, with new stories breaking every day. Yes, they are controversial and yes, you know their names… but not for the right reasons.
Now, let’s look at the flipside.
GOOD BUSINESS CONTROVERSY
Last Christmas, the little-known coffee company Starbucks released (as they do every year) their coffee cups to celebrate the festive season. Instead of their usual brand of festive-motifs and traditional frills, they opted for minimalist red cups.
The response astonished everyone – including Starbucks! Fans of the more ‘traditional’ Christmas took to social media to complain about the “unfestive” cups, going as far as to say Starbucks were trying to be “politically correct” with their choice of design.
The whole thing was, of course, ludicrous. And the vast majority of the public and the press recognised it as so. Starbucks got some serious circulation on social and in the press, and sales increased as a picture of “the controversial red cup” became as desirable as having a misspelled name on your cup. Some lucky folk managed to get both!
[clickToTweet tweet=”Vanilla is a taste that few can object to but even fewer will testify to it being their favourite. Don’t be vanilla.” quote=”Vanilla is the taste that few can object to, but even fewer will testify to it being their favourite.”]Deliberate controversy is a difficult thing to achieve at the Starbucks Red Cup level, admittedly. But there is a lesson to be learned.
If you want to adopt an image – any image of any kind – you are going to turn on one crowd… and turn off another. That’s how the game is played. Controversy (the good kind) is the perfect way of defining your image to turn on and turn off the right and wrong kind of people. Yes, you will appeal to a much narrower niche, but those who you do attract will be able to recall the “taste” of you perfectly.
You’ll be chilli, or you’ll be chocolate… but you’ll never be vanilla.
Now, I’m not suggesting you work on a campaign designed to insult as many people as possible, but I am suggesting you look at your marketing and ask yourself the following question:
“Who will this [insert piece of marketing here] turn away from my brand”
If the answer is “no one” then you can guarantee you’ll get the same answer when you reverse the question to ask who it will turn on.
Marmite are a perfect example. They knew their product divided opinion, and they embraced that to form what has to be the perfect marketing campaign… a campaign that, on paper, sounds like an appalling idea. But it worked. In fact, it worked so well, “Marmite” became synonymous with “something you can’t have middling opinions on”. They achieved adjective status in a matter of weeks, the marketer’s Holy Grail. It was controversial… and man, did it work.
(For the record, I love it.)
When it comes to controversy: be Starbucks… or be Marmite. But avoid being Sports Direct or Byron Burger. And yes, that in itself is a controversial statement to make. Come at me.
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