Fame or infamy? For brands it's a question of commitment

Ads by brands such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Equinox have made the start of the year surprisingly provocative. While being at the centre of a Twitter storm is a sure-fire way to get noticed, Piers Guilar, executive strategy director (EMEA), Fitch asks whether it benefits brands to take the offensive.

Two brands that recently found themselves at the heart of consumer backlashes responded in very different way. Gourmet Burger Kitchen goaded vegetarians with a poster campaign then rapidly back-pedalled, removing the offending ads and saying sorry.

However, there were no such apologies from US fitness brand Equinox earlier this month, after challenging audiences to get back in the saddle with photographs of a breastfeeding fashion model and an orgy.

Commit to something: Lydia Hearst breastfeeding twins in a restaurant

‘Commit to something’ was the name of Equinox’s 2016 campaign, and the creative shows the brand’s own commitment to a strategy of shocking ads. Sure enough, images of Lydia Hearst breastfeeding twins in a restaurant led comments about the campaign and adjectives like ‘shocking’, ‘controversial’, and ‘provocative’ weren’t far behind.

Risqué pay dividends 

The philosophy at the heart of this approach is that no PR is bad PR. Even if potential customers are outraged the thinking is sound; for decades, brands have pursued risqué approaches and have gained rapid fame amongst their audiences.

Perhaps most notorious is Benetton – since the ‘80s its campaigns have targeted race relations, AIDS, wars and famous political or religious opponents, portrayed as kissing one another in the brand’s 2011 UNHATE campaign. Of course, official condemnations from the Vatican and The White House only added fuel to the fire that Benetton sought to stoke around its brand.

The UNHATE campaign produced strong, yet mixed reactions

Today, marketers are looking to gain traction on social media as well as in the mainstream media, but when they’re up against the likes of Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift aiming to ‘break the internet’, a move towards more personally shocking content to ‘cut through’ sounds logical.

Enter 2015’s Protein World posters, led with a bikini-clad model and the tagline: ‘Are you beach body ready?’. Hot off the back of evolving cultural discussions around body image and gender roles, coupled with audiences’ hyper-awareness of how companies should be seen to behave, these posters were the most complained about advert of the year. The tagline, imagery and the brand’s combative social media strategy (contrast this with GBK’s swift apology and poster removal) drew sharp criticism from commentators of all kinds as well as spawning responses by multiple brands.

No flash in the pan

Assuming the "No PR is bad PR" philosophy still holds true, Protein World had achieved a remarkable feat in allowing its critics and rival marketers to give their campaign extra mileage. There’s no doubt that shock tactics get the reach, and they are a fast track route to infamy, but the difference between upsetting the news agenda and creating a famous brand is a matter of commitment.

Protein World's critics gave their campaign extra mileage

What Benetton has achieved with its branding is the result of sustained creativity and cultural relevance for over 30 years.

That kind of reputation has come from shocking creative, but at its heart is a message of togetherness or unity that is brutally honest. It’s something that people can subscribe to, even if their first reaction to the creative isn’t a positive one.

This wasn’t always the case: at first, Equinox’s campaigns resembled the flash-in-the-pan outrage generation that Protein World triggered. The difference is that in the years following that controversy, the brand has adopted taglines and concepts that contribute to a deeper brand image than the shock value generated by its (still racy) creative.

‘Equinox made me do it’ ad from 2014 evoked the idea of a new lease of life given by a healthy, fit body, skewing towards the cheeky and playful to maintain an edge for the campaign.

Equinox's 2014 campaign

This year, provocative photography supports a strong and universal message of commitment. Equinox has evolved shock tactics into a brand strategy that is set to keep making waves while differentiating the brand – the question remains as to whether the likes of Protein World can pull off a similar transition, or will remain content with fifteen minutes of infamy.