Controversy sells

Brands are always looking for ways to make a splash, stay relevant and influence the market. That’s how they sell more stuff. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they screw up, badly. Most brands just try to toe the line, create inoffensive marketing and work with middle-of-the-road influencers in order to avoid standing for anything that might be unpopular on social media. That’s why so much advertising and influencer-marketing is boring. Instead of being uncontroversial, they discover instead that nobody cares.

What am I talking about?

Last week, KFC had some kind of supply problem – 700 or more stores in the UK had no chicken and they were very embarrassed. This week, they issued an apology in the media, choosing to be humorous, tongue-in-cheek and break with their uncontroversial, family-friendly brand bullshit. It really worked, and whoever came up with this ad, deserves a medal:

FCK image

Maybe you don’t think that’s a clever ad, maybe you even find it rude. You have to be honest and admit you noticed it, that you see the word FUCK. Let me tell you a story: When we launched our independent digital platform at, we were approached by lots of interested supporters. They were excited to get on board with an uncensored, unscripted, authentic brand. When we approached KFC however, their agency let us know that they were not keen as I may be too controversial and that they didn’t think we were a family brand. At least their brand custodians and advertising agency in the UK has some balls.

If you don’t take a risk, you won’t get the rewards – that’s how it works with the stock market, gambling at the casino and buying cryptocurrency. That rule also applies to business, and especially to brands. If you’re prepared to stand for nothing except the safe stuff, your message gets lost in the gobbledygook of adspeak: ENGAGING CUSTOMERS IN A MEANINGFUL, DYNAMIC CULTURAL EXCHANGE – whatever the hell that means.

Throughout my twenty year career, people have told me that they love how outspoken I am, that they think I’m brave to say what I think, and to start an online podcasting business instead of keep taking the easy money in terrestrial radio. When it comes to putting their money where my mouth is, they clam up like Cyril did in all Zuma’s cabinet meetings.

You can pay a soft-spoken, good-looking, unopinionated model to be your brand ambassador and get likes on Instagram, or you can really get people talking – make them think, laugh, even get angry – but you can’t have both. If you’re going to be safe, you’re missing the opportunity to lead, and doing that could actually end up hurting you more.

H&M, Dove Soap, MiWay and OUTsurance all tried to steer clear of anything controversial and became the subjects of controversy themselves, either by missing the obvious, catalysing social media negatively, or reacting badly to current affairs or the zeitgeist. I bet they’d rather have done something cheeky than ended up in the situations all of them did. You can’t predict where the next eruption will take place, but you can do what it takes to avoid being a victim of circumstance.

Those who stand for nothing will fall for everything, they say… whoever they are.

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