? Is negative publicity always negative? - Principio Marketing

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Companies must manage their communication with all sorts of stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, suppliers. If a problem becomes public, the company must ensure the accuracy of the information and manage how it is presented in the media. If a customer is dissatisfied and complains about it on social media, the company must respond with great tact. With all these pressures on companies to present the best possible image, why are there some that do very well by going completely in the other direction and by maintaining a negative or polarizing image?

The simple answer is: because there is a market. But let's dig a little more.

I recognize that the majority of examples that come to mind for negative or polarizing brand images are people, but some companies do it as well.

In terms of people, think of some UFC fighters like the Diaz brothers, Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey when she was fighting in the UFC (she is using the same approach now with the WWE). For these people, the strategy is obvious. Whether we want to see them win or lose, the constant is: we want to SEE them. For some fighters, the salary is in part associated with tickets and pay-per-view sales. So the more eyes are on them, no matter what the motivation, the more money they make.

Let's look at a person who does not use negativity to promote himself. Because of his point of views, he has become a polarizing figure: Professor Jordan B. Peterson. His promotional activity is very neutral; he gives his opinion on various highly sensitive topics that play a part in today’s landscape. But his point of view is far from being unanimous. Which creates a polarity in the opinions about him. In his case, controversy helps his notoriety. People who share his point of view talk about him just like those who are against him. Everybody talks about him. The result is millions of videos viewed on YouTube and very positive outcomes for the sales of his products/services.

The last example I would mention is the Sloche product (Slush) sold at Couche-Tard retailers (the equivalent of 7-Eleven in the US). If we go back in time, here are some flavors: Winchire Wacheur (windshield liquid), Goudron Sauvage (wild tar), Poussin Frappé (chick shake), Swompe (swamp), Liposuccion (liposuction), Gadoue (a mix of wet snow and dirt), Crème à barbe (shaving cream) just to name a few. Not the most appetizing names for refreshment, but they have greatly helped to raise the awareness of the product amongst the target audience: young teenagers. In this case, the company bet on the fact that teenagers are nonconformist and do things to shock their parents or friends. The bet paid off. But since 2015, the names of the drinks have become more "normal".

We just saw that in some instances, there is room for controversy in the management of our brand. To know if this is good for you, you must look at your objectives, the market, the possible impacts on you and your brand, and go for it.

If you have questions or comments, do not hesitate. In the meantime, I wish you happy thinking.


Stéphane Elmaleh-Riel, B.Ed., MBA
Marketing consultant