Marketing A Controversial Product: Challenges & Lessons I’ve Learned About Changing Public Perception

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Marketing Controversial Product

I’ve always been a fan of marketing campaigns that involve controversy. Stirring the pot of public perception has always been an effective (albeit, unorthodox) way to increase awareness of a new brand or product. The energy in working on a campaign like this is incredible, and the publicity that comes with it can be game changing for any business.

But it also opens you up to a lot of hate. The kind of hate that could have you calling it quits if you don’t have the thick skin necessary to survive this kind of marketing.  No matter how well your campaign does, there’s always going to be people against it. And as I’ve learned, those people can be very loud—especially on the internet.

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If you want to market a controversial product, you have to prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. Lucky for you, it’s a ride I’ve taken many times, and in this article, I’m sharing all of the challenges and lessons I learned along the way.

Let’s Start With The Challenges

Marketing in even its most vanilla forms comes with unique obstacles and challenges. But when you’re marketing a controversial product, those challenges take on a behemoth level of intensity.

Challenge #1: Reframing The Status Quo

As humans, we’re biologically wired to be wary of anything unfamiliar. So when you’re introducing anything new to an audience, whether that be a product or idea, there’s inherently going to be skepticism about it. 

So your first challenge will be getting people to see past their assumptions about how something should be and getting them onboard with a new way of thinking. And this challenge is won solely by demonstrating your product’s value.

Challenge #2: Product Education

Again, people don’t like things they don’t understand. If your product confuses or corrupts their concrete belief about something, it’s going to take some serious education to get them on your side.

Luckily, the internet is your never ending classroom. Focus all of your initial marketing efforts on education and answering whatever questions your new group of haters has. For instance, on our website we created a series of blog posts discussing topics that are typically not safe for the dinner table.

Challenge #3: Getting Banned

People do one of two things when they don’t like something they see online. They either comment something ugly or nasty or flag it for spam. Because of this, controversial products are at a huge risk of being banned from paid digital platforms.

While you can sneak your way around this through some gentler marketing tactics, it’s best to prepare yourself for the reality that your product might be banned and develop a strong backup plan.

Lessons Learned

As with every marketing campaign, there are lessons I’ve learned along the way when it comes to marketing an internet-breaking kind of product. Read on to prevent yourself from making my costly mistakes.

Lesson #1: Find Your Friends

Yes, there are people who will die on their swords for how much they loathe your product. But there will be just as many people who will like it too. And while haters have their place (in terms of looking for ways you could improve your product education, copywriting, etc.,), it’s best to find your group of people and lean on them like there’s no tomorrow.

The bigger a network of supporters you can build, the more strength you’ll have to stand strong in the presence of naysayers.

Lesson #2: Don’t Lose Yourself

As I said earlier, marketing a controversial product is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there and be willing to face an onslaught of hatred from people who don’t share your opinion. There’s no in-between here.

You have to love your product and believe in what you’re doing so much that you can look past all the naysayers and haters—even when it’s tempting to fold.

Lesson #3: Remember That You’re Not For Everyone

The days of marketing to audiences the same way fishermen use those giant nets to catch massive amounts of fish is long gone. In today’s world of crowded subways and long bathroom lines, people crave to be seen. They want personalization and uniqueness. They want to work with companies who seem to be talking directly to them.

So in that realm of thinking, you want people to not like your product. You want to be a safe haven for your specific type of customer; not just any old Joe Schmo.

For example, at Awkward Essentials our goal was to create this type of safe haven for our clients. Our team decided to launch a Facebook Group called AWK Talk. In this community, many of our members join because they enjoy our brand and want to continue those uncomfortable discussions with other like minded individuals. 

Whatever You Do, Don’t Quit

There will be days when you want to (trust me), but  if you’re going to be a true marketer, you have to tough it out.

No matter how you slice it, the internet will always be the Wild West of products and services that can both be loved and hated. But if you want your creation to be the next big thing, you better be ready to stand up and defend it.

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General FAQs

How is advertising controversial?

Controversial advertising doesn’t aim to polarize an audience. It’s an attention-grabbing technique for stating an opinion, and brands use it to spark productive conversations about certain moral values.

What is controversial marketing?

Controversial marketing, also known as shock advertising, is a tactic whereby a brand intentionally offends or surprises audience by violating the norms of norms of social and personal values and morals.

Is controversy a good marketing strategy?

Using controversy as a marketing strategy is quite risky too because if it uses any sensitive topic in a way that hurts the sentiments of people, it may generate negative publicity and can affect the reputation of the company. And this method cannot work as a long term strategy.

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Frances Tang

Frances is the founder/Captain Awkward/CEO of Awkward Essentials, a company that makes products that address the unspoken parts of hygiene. She is also the inventor of the dripstick — an after sex cleanup sponge. Frances Tang never intended to build a company around a post-sex cleanup tool, but the Awkward Essentials founder saw a need — and an opportunity — for an entrepreneur willing to go there. Now, Frances is leading a revolution for female founders, showing that fearlessness is a founder’s most important value.

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