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Brands can't be liked by everyone, embrace your haters


By Olivia Downing, Associate creative director

August 30, 2023 | 10 min read

Olivia Downing, associate creative director of Uniform, believes that having haters can *sometimes* be a good thing.


“Can hate be good? Can hate be great? Can hate be something we don’t hate?” - Honda ‘Hate Something, Change Something.’

Likeability. Whether green thumbs on LinkedIn or hearts on Instagram, ‘gaining likes’ is much more than a KPI. On an anthropological level, this is pretty understandable.

To be liked means to be included in our communities, find a suitable mate, and not be thrown to the wolves/wooly mammoths. But why is it so important in advertising?

The crippling neuroses of being liked is arguably worse in this industry than anywhere else. After years of having work probed and dissected by research groups, surveys and interviews, the takeaway is that having someone like your brand is not good enough. Now, the end goal is to be a brand everyone likes. And therein lies two big problems.

One - thanks to the internet and innumerable platforms to voice opinions, it’s easier than ever to be hurtfully vocal, even canceling brands we hate. And two - being a brand everyone likes is an impossible (and frankly, pretty boring) task. The consequence is advertising that tries to do everything for everyone and ends up being as distinctive and enjoyable as a stale Ryvita.

With this in mind, I’ll explore how our collective reticence to explore anything provocative in case it upsets people is not just creating boring work; it’s actively damaging our industry. This is an ode to why a little bit of hate might actually be good - not just in terms of good advertising, but as a helpful tool to prevent the spread of misinformation and to keep our jobs as advertisers in the long term.

There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad press. While this might not always be true (particularly for Spanish football presidents), there are ways to deal with the bad press that subvert the original sentiment: convincing us we actually like the very thing we thought we hated.

There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad press. While this might not always be true (particularly for Spanish football presidents), there are ways to deal with the bad press that subvert the original sentiment: convincing us we actually like the very thing we thought we hated. The earliest example of hatred flipped to pure entertainment that comes to mind is Jimmy Kimmel’s now much-loved segment, Mean Tweets. But of course, this is not limited to La La Land alone.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an influx of ‘Hatevertising’ - brands using their worst critics to gain traction and even sway opinion. Whether it’s flaunting your critics on a football field, over multiple hater websites, or even releasing a greatest hates album - it works just as well for a cultural moment as it does for an entire country. Put simply, those who truly understand how the public psyche really works are having the last laugh. To be a memorable brand, you have to stand for something. And standing for anything means that inevitably, there will be some people who won’t like you. These brands are happy to own this: losing the people who would never want them anyway, so they gain more loyalty from those who do. When it comes to putting their worst reviews to their best creative use, they’ve been there and got the T-shirt.

Of course, hating oat milk or overrated IPA is one thing. But what about real hate? How can creativity play a part in dissolving some of the most distasteful and harmful aspects of our society? One of my favorite campaigns that did this blisteringly well is ‘Like What You Hate’ by Vice. After Brexit and Trump, it became clear that algorithms were shrinking our world view ౼ only showing us stories, posts and sites that tickled our respective taste buds, leaving out opinions more difficult to swallow. This campaign exposed us to diverse pages, politics and perspectives, but it forced us to see another side of the story so that if or when we decided to hate something, we had all the (real) information to do so.

Ostriches, swans and red-capped manakins. No, you haven’t accidentally clicked on The Drum’s twitcher section. The behavior of these birds can be used to describe how brands deal with hate. For example, under threat, an ostrich will stick its head in the sand, much like major oil corporations, corrupted media, or previously well-loved social platforms. They don’t respond to anything and would love for the haters to leave them alone. Sadly, an absence of any response only serves to fuel the criticism, making them look out of touch with their audience.

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On the other hand, you’ve got the swan. These brands elegantly glide through the grief others give them. They don’t retaliate, not because they don’t care, but because they don’t have to. Often, they’ll be standing for something important, and so backlash only serves to remind them that they’re achieving their purpose. This is why their brand loyalty will remain, whether you burn a swan’s trainers.

And then, there’s the red-capped manakin (seriously, look it up). This type of brand will respond to threats in a way that’s so left-field, so startlingly mad, you really can’t help but like them. It takes a strong brand to acknowledge its foes. It takes a delightfully insane one to use this as their springboard for nearly all their campaigns. But it’s precisely this that endears people to them, so in this instance, a little insanity (or hypnosis) can go a long way.

As a bald guy in a ruff once said, "There’s much to do with hate, but more with love."

We fear hate, particularly when it comes to advertising. However, if used correctly, it only encourages those who love us to love us even more. In an age of concerned, lengthy posts about AI taking creative jobs, we are in danger of beige-mystifying our work to please everyone and stay on the payroll. My thinking has always been that it is far better for business to be polarizing than forgettable - an approach that only a human, not an app, could suggest. As we’ve seen in the examples, the best brands lean into this: happy to lose those who would have never liked them in the first place, to expand their audience, show their self-effacing side, and gain more positive association than ever. So here’s to the haters.

Keep leaving those daft comments, bad reviews, and cancel threats because it’s often from the hate that springs the creativity we absolutely love.

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