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Picking on the Public: A Wise PR Strategy?

Written by Jenni Hill: Content executive.
· 4 minute read

Bad reviews and negative comments are up there on the average small business owner’s list of worst nightmares. When someone criticises a service or product you’ve worked extremely hard to provide, it can be difficult not to take it personally.

But rather than closing their shutters and calling it a day, a trend seems to be emerging amongst businesses hell-bent on attracting criticism rather than avoiding it. Some are going out of their way to insult specific groups of people in the hope of hitting the headlines.

Earlier this month a cafe in Dublin was heavily criticised after announcing on Facebook that customers who wish to order gluten free food must bring a doctor’s note as proof that they have coeliac disease.

On the face of it, this may seem like a moment of poor judgement and an accidental PR nightmare but in reality, this isn’t White Moose Cafe’s first offence. In October last year it barred all vegans from the cafe and threatened to ‘shoot them dead at point blank range’ if they tried to enter.

Scrolling through White Moose Café‘s Facebook feed, every post is designed to spark controversy and evoke a reaction. Coeliacs, vegans, Christians, students, Brazilians – no one is safe from The White Moose Café‘s wrath.

Cafe owner Paul Stenson claims that since the gluten free controversy, his cafe has been featured in 43 news articles around the world and has appeared on 14 different radio and TV shows. He also claims to have gained 25,000 new Facebook followers and, most importantly, benefited from a 57% increase in sales.

Is picking on people a wise PR strategy?

So is it wise to base your entire PR strategy around getting people riled up? Sure, it’s resulted in some short term gains for The White Moose Café but it’s unclear whether this popularity will last.

There’s no point having thousands of Facebook fans if only a very small percentage of them buy from you. Social following doesn’t automatically lead to sales and although Stenson claims to have doubled his takings in recent days, there’s always a risk that he’ll be forced to pick on a new group of people once hysteria has died down again.

A year from now, when he’s insulted just about every possible group of people, will there even be anyone left to visit his café?

Besides, sparking a reaction on social media is all well and good but you’ve got to actually deliver a quality product or service once people have entered your door. Stenson spends so much time slagging people off on Facebook that he seems to have forgotten that no one has the slightest idea what food his cafe actually serves.

Last year, Leeds restaurant ‘Get Baked: The Joint’ went a little bit Facebook viral after its owner took to the social network to aggressively complain about a blogger who wrote a less than perfect review.  To be completely honest, the review wasn’t even that bad, but this didn’t stop Get Baked’s owner from throwing his toys out the pram and going on a series of long-winded social media rants. It was all just a little bit embarrassing. The restaurant closed down in April this year because of ‘key management failings’. Take from that what you will.

Sticking by your guns

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a marketing campaign which benefited from negative publicity is Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad from last year.

The ad shared a picture of fitness model Renee Somerfield wearing a bikini alongside the words ‘Are you beach body ready?’ and sparked outrage after people accused it of ‘body shaming’ women. 70,000 people signed a petition for the ad to be banned, the ASA received almost 400 complains and there was even a protest in London’s Hyde Park.

Although the advert alone caused quite a stir, Protein World’s unapologetic and combative stance in the days that followed added even more fuel to the fire. It didn’t hold back when responding to critics.

Although this response didn’t sit well with those against the initial ad, it helped to strengthen existing supporters’ love for the brand. By sticking by its guns, Protein World grabbed the attention of its ideal customers while deterring those it probably wasn’t too bothered about anyway.

Protein World’s marketing manager Richard Stavely said: “I think it’s fair to say we weren’t expecting this level of exposure…but it’s fantastic.”

He defended the campaign by pointing out that 84% of Protein World’s customer base were women at the time and that the company had done ‘meticulous research’ on what motivated them.

The fine line between a bad brand and a bland brand

When faced with such a severe backlash, businesses are often put under immense pressure to back down and admit they got it wrong. But you could argue that Protein World’s unwillingness to sit on the fence is exactly what made this campaign so successful. It’s unclear whether the Beach Body Ready ad was originally an innocent attempt to motivate women to buy protein shakes or a deliberate move to troll and anger people, but there’s no denying that their response paid off. 

In an article for Campaign Live, Georgina Denny writes: “Consumers’ expectations from brands in terms of moral, social, economic, and environmental responsibility is higher than ever before. If a brand messes up, consumers won’t be afraid to publicly name and shame.

“This means that brands are scared, so dilute their proposition, become bland and boring, and struggle to really stand for anything meaningful. There is a fear that anything could offend anyone, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Better to have a watered down message, than a provocative one.”

But, Georgina argues, indifference can make your campaign meaningless. She adds: “In order for a brand to mean something it must have a distinct point of view.”

Triggering a reaction

Going out of your way to cause offence is certainly a risky strategy and can of course spell PR suicide. To commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, American mattress company Miracle Mattress shared a video on Youtube offering all mattresses at a ‘twin’ price. Twin price…twin towers…geddit? Someone decided it would be a good idea for the woman presenting the video to throw her arms out, knocking two men standing behind her over and sending them flying into two mattress towers. Not only was it in extremely poor taste, it made absolutely no sense and wasn’t even funny. Sure, the video went viral, but the store’s owner has had to close the company indefinitely due to death threats.

Just because there are companies out there that have boosted awareness of their brand and increased sales after a controversial campaign doesn’t mean that your business is immune to a Miracle Mattress type of fate.

Before doing anything to offend people, consider whether a negative reaction is really your best option. Such an approach might see a short term boost in publicity and even sales but is it sustainable? Plenty of brands achieve long term success by empowering and helping people rather than shaming and insulting them.

Let’s take the This Girl Can campaign as an example. Since it began last year, it’s built a 93,000-strong following on Twitter, a fan base of 335,000 on Facebook, and has inspired 2.8 million women to exercise – without insulting a soul or causing an ounce of outrage.

Indifference and watered-down messages might be a recipe for disaster but that doesn’t mean you have to go to the extreme of dissing everyone in your path.

Paul Stenson may take pride in boosting sales by pissing people off but wouldn’t you rather be a brand that everybody loves rather than one everybody hates?