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Why fearless alienation can be a powerful brand strategy

By Omar El-Gammal

January 9, 2020 | 6 min read

The writer Russel Davies once announced that the best answer to the question ‘what is cool?’ was simply ‘Who gives a fuck?’

Nike wins an Emmy for Colin Kaepernick ‘Dream Crazy’ ad

Why fearless alienation can be a powerful brand strategy

It’s a great response because it’s true. But since when has truth ever been enough in this business? The definition’s real power is born from its fearlessness and a willingness to alienate. So, I’d like to advocate the tantalisingly powerful strategy of alienation. It’s time we stop overlooking it and consider it a genuine approach to brand building.

Great brands know how to provoke an emotional response, and plenty of brilliant work has come from resonating with your audience. Yet asking your creative teams to explore ways to alienate a group of people in order to resonate with another liberates an entirely different brand of potent work.

“However crazy your dreams are, they’re not crazy enough”

“Unless you’re a clown, flame-grilled is the only way a burger should be cooked”

“Some people really hate our fries – we think you should hear from them”

“No person and no country can ever truly be an island”

These are all provoking points of view, true to how those brands view the world they serve. Yet the real magic happens when you are willing to be brutally honest and accept that not everyone will like it. If anything, having an incredibly polarising point of view is proven to work.

First, let the haters go

For starters, there’s no reason to be afraid. As the ‘godfather of effectiveness’ Les Binet and Sarah Carter - a former Unilever marketer, now global planning partner at Adam & Eve DDB - have said, “it’s actually quite hard for brands to win friends and alienate people.” They struggle to think of a single campaign in the entirety of their careers that have genuinely managed to turn off existing buyers. Can you think of any?

In an era of endless personalisation where you can segment audiences until your face goes blue, take comfort in knowing that there are really only two segments that matter; people who might buy you in the future (whether again or for the first time), and people who never would have in the first place. Some call them rejecters – but let’s call them what they really are – haters.

Research from Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory, goes to show that thanks to the wonders of confirmation bias, whatever message you throw at them will be seen through the ugly lens of negativity. If they hate you, they will continue to hate you. The worst of them will look for any opportunity to troll you.

Conventional wisdom says avoid them - use your marketing dollars elsewhere to target someone more likely to take you home. But if knowing which customers you are building a brand for is helpful, knowing who you’re not for is bloody liberating. The trolls and haters could be your biggest asset – as long as you can get the rest of the market to love you more.

Where there’s hate, there can also be love

If you’re not quite ready to go to market with a potentially polarising brand point of view – forget brands. Try the dating scene.

According to Christian Rudder, founder of and years of aggregated data from people’s dating profiles, polarisation works remarkably well in getting you a date. When looking at the profile ratings of OKCupid users, the individuals who had a greater variance in their rating (a lot of 1* ratings and 5* ratings) would get the most affection online. To be specific, “being highly polarising will in fact get you about 70% more messages”. That’s more conversations, more dates, and yes more sex. Unsurprisingly, the people that do worst are the ones with little variance in their ratings – the ones that sit in that safe space in the middle.

So why should you go out and court indifference with campaigns that feel nothing more than agreeable?

A polarising brand point of view means you spark an intensity of emotions with high ‘variance’ – rather than the false comfort of the constantly mundane middle. To make this even more enticing, there’s endless evidence that shows the stronger the emotions, the easier it is for the brain to code these associations.

The power of the public

Having a polarising point of view, however, is not yet enough.

To truly adopt a strategy of alienation though, you need to target people who you know will blatantly disagree with you – target them publicly.

Forget carefully targeted media. You need the power of the masses. Put Kaepernick on a bloody billboard and shout it from the rooftops. Let them all see that you’re willing to stand by your belief and take the risk of being hated. Yes, the trolls will come. Let them. People who share your point of view will stand by it. When it’s public, the emotions become the medium. They also become intensified.

According to psychologists at the University of Houston, the group effect acts as a multiplier – people tend to think ads are less funny when watched alone. In groups of three or six, they rated the same ads 10% and 21% funnier than watching them alone. People who feel the love for what you’re saying will feel it even more if they can see others feel the same way – which counters all the trolling and hate.

Sadly, most brands aren’t willing to risk the polarisation. They would rather try and buy their authenticity. Marketers are projected to spend $15bn by 2022 on so-called “influencers” - a whole industry seeking validity from fake-followers and fake-clicks. Yet #Sponsored isn’t going to get you any more clout than another Snapchat filter. Authenticity is not bought, it is earned. A strategy of alienation is a great way to earn it.

So what are you waiting for? Be fearless. Bring on the haters and earn the love. If not, well, there’s always Instagram.

Omar El-Gammal is planning director at Wunderman Thompson London.


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