Stephen Logan

Why Being an Online Marketing Renegade Still Works

21st Sep 2012 Brand 11 minutes to read

Paddy Power LogoIf you read this, or any other digital blog with commercial attachments, you’ll often see stories about building brands ethically; mostly using a variety of best practices and proven concepts. That’s why we’re here. We don’t want to rock the boat or risk damaging a client’s business; therefore we extol the virtues of tried and trusted methodologies, many of which we apply on a daily basis. But there is another way. There’s always another way.

The Internet provides businesses and individuals with unrivalled freedom. As long as you remain within the parameters of the law, you can pretty much do and see what you want. Consequently, there are no hard and fast rules about how you market your brand. Sure, there are guidelines and plenty of case studies; but if you’re determined enough, there really is no limit to what you can do.

Playing Safe vs Being Different

As an agency, with paying customers, it’s our duty to take the safe option. We can’t recommend that you kick up a stink with all and sundry to get a few links. If anyone decided that the best way to get to the top of search engines was to defame competitors and indulge in a spot of negative SEO on the basis of an apparent endorsement, we’d be up a rather unpleasant creek, sans paddle.

That’s why you’ll often see disclaimers, suggesting that while a negative campaign may have worked in a particular situation, it isn’t recommended as part of a long-term strategy. This is common sense of course. Coca-Cola is sold on the basis of taste and refreshment, not that it keeps dentists in business. But, despite all the warnings and visible distancing from the ugly side of marketing, it still exists and it still works.

You have to remember that not all customers buy into the same philosophies. What we might see as safe and effective, a minority of visitors will think is dull and lifeless. You can’t please everyone.

In many ways, this is the driving force behind being a genuine marketing renegade. If you assume that you will always turn-off some people, you may as well do it in style.

The inspiration for this post came from a recent discussion I had with my friend about his wedding in Las Vegas earlier this year. We did everything as part of the stag do, from firing machine guns, to having drinks on the terrace bar at the top of the Palms; pretty standard fare really. However, the one thing that really stood out was a trip to an innocuous chain bar in Excalibur as we waited for everyone to meet up – Dick’s Last Resort was its name.

It was unremarkable in every sense. There was pretty standard decoration, a range of tasteless American beers at unreasonably high prices. However, the one thing that differentiated Dick’s from everywhere else (and there are a lot of places), was the staff.

Wherever you go in America, waiting staff are attentive and polite. That’s their job; and as they work for tips, it would be foolish to do anything else. However, in this one bar, their policy is to be as surly as possible. We were told to fetch our own drinks, personally insulted, and were regularly subjected to pretty foul language – and that’s why we loved it.

That was their unique selling point. If you didn’t like their attitude, you could take a hike. If you don’t want them to make a hat and write something humiliating on it, find another bar.

Of course this isn’t to everybody’s taste; families or elderly groups are unlikely to venture in and partake in one of the bar’s drinking competitions. But why be just another bar on the strip, selling exactly the same drinks at around the same prices, when you can twist convention and be completely different. Dick’s is a great example of turning a negative into a positive. It may not be an entirely original idea, but it is effective in its own way.

Never Mind the B******s, Here’s the Truth

There are plenty of other examples of course, many of which have enjoyed much greater success. It works in all areas too; how many bad films, music artists and books have been sold off the back of a little controversy? If you stick your head above the parapet, you may well receive abuse and cause permanent, irreparable damage to your reputation. Equally, it may well be the making of you, your business, or your ideology.

As mentioned, we’re all different and have our own unique tastes. Therefore, as consumers, we tend to gravitate in various directions. That’s why the rough and ready Sex Pistols were able to outsell the safe and steady Rod Stewart back in 1977 – even if this wasn’t acknowledged in the charts. This is the perfect example of bad publicity making good commercial sense.

Here you had a musically-challenged band, albeit with a good sound and an apparently genuine dispassion for authority, who were marketed to the hilt. Without the controversy whipped up by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, who knows what they might have become – The Public Image Ltd possibly? They were positioned as the antithesis of the ageing rock scene and a section of the music-buying public bought into it, hook, line and sinker.

You can Become the Sex Pistols of Your Industry

There’s no need to shred your favourite pair of jeans or stick a safety pin through your nose; that’s the good news. If you want to break conventions, appear to break all the rules and risk polarising an audience, it’s actually remarkably simple. All you need is an ethos.

Look at Paddy Power. A few years ago they were just another bookmaker, taking money off punters and barely worth a second glance. Then some bright spark decided it would be a good idea to ruffle a few feathers.

Their advertising campaigns caused outrage, most notably the cat-kicking blind footballers (one of the most complained about adverts of all time). They caused a scene when Nicklas Bendtner dropped his shorts after scoring for Denmark at Euro 2012 to reveal the Paddy Power logo on his boxer shorts. Their Olympic billboard, promoting an alternative games in London, France, went viral. They even managed to encourage fans to campaign on behalf of the adverts when LOCOG threatened legal action, leading to a humiliating climb down – real brand power.

Their brand of ambush marketing is designed to create publicity, not just to increase visibility. In the cavalcade of bland, generic adverts, Paddy Power always stands out. That’s not accidental either; they take risks, which makes them impossible to ignore – no matter how hard you try. Comparing meerkats and warbling tenors are conventional; it’s a gimmick that’s designed to get lodged in the heads of unsuspecting consumers. Risking law suits and public outrage is a dangerous game to play, but one that is successful in building awareness and driving punters to your website – even if it is still a marketing gimmick.

Like the Sex Pistols, Paddy Power aren’t stupid. They are (seemingly) anti-establishment and the antithesis of everyone else in the same market. By creating this binary opposition, they have created a receptively rebellious audience and succeeded where others have failed. Perhaps the greatest compliment for either is found in the number of imitators spawned from their respective success.

Of course, the really clever thing about Paddy Power is that they are unlikely to lose existing customers as a result of their campaigns. It’s all about tapping into populist events and creating a bit of a buzz. Others try this kind of zeitgeist-inspired marketing, but most end up falling flat. Only a true renegade can pull it off properly.

It can backfire of course; just as in any walk of life, superficial efforts to appear edgy can easily make you look a little foolish. Equally, if your advertising oversteps the mark and becomes offensive, without holding a clear message, then no amount of backtracking or explanation will save your bacon.

However, this can be avoided simply by having a bold message that you believe in. If you’re trying to force a convention-defying, bad boy appearance, it just won’t work. If you’re not funny, don’t get up on stage and tell jokes; equally, if you’re being risqué without substance, bin the marketing campaign.

Building a Brand Around Controversy…and Clothes

Benetton have been defined by their unconventional approaches to marketing. Only last year the Italian designer was threatened with legal action by the Vatican following its “Unhate” campaign, which featured Pope Benedict XVI kissing an Egyptian Imam. It created outrage, it had a message and it was pulled – the standard for all of their marketing efforts.

This is a company that sells polo shirts and sweaters, but rarely features either in their campaigns. It’s about as unconventional as you can get, using political and societal messages to attract attention to global issues – including AIDS, religious intolerance, war and, in their most recent campaign, unemployment. Almost by some strange proxy-relationship, this also brings customers flooding into their stores.

If M&S were to attempt a similar style of shock campaign they would be ridiculed; it doesn’t fit in with their brand identity, nor will it resonate with their target audience. If Cliff Richard replaced Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols, it just wouldn’t work. No matter how edgy you tried to make them look, it’s still Cliff stood at the front. Understanding the audience you have and also the audience you’re looking to capture is essential.

The opposite is also true of course. If your company is famed for being slightly left field or deliberately seeks negative publicity, then it would be equally foolish to employ a safe marketing campaign. Whether it’s on Twitter or the television, maintaining consistency across all channels and upholding those core brand values is essential. Mixing convention with controversy won’t do; it’s one, the other or neither – never both.

As mentioned, it could easily blow up in your face. The Sex Pistols could have flopped, Paddy Power may have disgusted an entire nation with their mockery of blind footballers and Benetton might have given up after their “United Colours” campaign. The fact is, they all succeeded and the marketing, no matter how risqué, was the primary reason behind it.

Committing to an Ideology

Being a renegade works. People like to relate to brands, bands and people that don’t follow standard conventions. Almost by definition though, it can’t work every time. If you’re not first with an idea, then you’ll always be viewed as an imitator, which reflects badly. If your primary message is flawed, doesn’t resonate with the wider world or is just plain stupid, then you might get publicity – but not the good kind.

Some will laugh at swearing in campaigns, others will just think it’s vulgar – so you can’t please everyone. Personally speaking, it seems a little unnecessary, but that’s the way of things. The One Dollar Shave club campaign worked because of, or maybe despite the use of (bleeped) swearing and quirky humour. Again, I can take it or leave it, but 6.5 million hits on YouTube tells its own story really.

As you will no doubt have noticed, a lot of the examples I’ve used in this post originate in a pre-Internet age. This isn’t entirely accidental. There appears to be a common misconception that online marketing is fundamentally different to the days of yore. Brands and individuals have always sought ways in which to differentiate themselves from the competition. Were James Dean and Marlon Brando really the rebels they were painted as, or was that image manufactured by studios? Was it the music or the hip gyrations that sent teenage girls into raptures over Elvis ‘The Pelvis’ (and did Colonel Parker play down those sexual undertones)? How many programme makers and film producers deliberately riled censors and the Mary Whitehouses of this world?

If you can get enough people talking about your marketing campaigns, you will almost always sell more records, tickets and products. Whether it’s good or bad doesn’t always matter, just as long as you find the right audience. That principle has never really changed. Whether it’s on a wireless radio or YouTube, you have to make the most of the medium and the message. The Internet may have provided a catalyst for businesses of all sizes to make a bigger impact on a smaller budget, but marketing is always going to remain the same.

So the bottom line is that you can be as rude, abrasive, crude, foul-mouthed and controversial as you want in your online marketing. It’s all about image and perception at the end of the day, so if that’s how you want people to see your brand, good luck to you. Marketing is all about gimmicks just ask Malcolm McLaren or the good folks at One may want to sell records by sticking two fingers up at society while the other is giving away cuddly meerkats to sell insurance, but essentially the ultimate goal is the same for both.

So pick your side and have the courage of your convictions. It can be a bumpy ride if you break away from convention and take the renegade approach, but it may also pay dividends. As always though, if you know of any good examples or flatly disagree with this rambling diatribe, your comments are most welcome. Add your two cents below.


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