The advertising storm-chaser is here to stay

It's better for brands to be infamous than completely forgotten.

There’s something going on out there. A new breed of advertising storm-chasers have shed their risk aversion and seem to be wilfully inviting backlash, trading the safe harbour of unremarkable strategies and vanilla copy for choppier waters. The Marketing Society’s Excellence Awards have just been relaunched as the Brave Awards. Whichever way you look at it, it seems brave is the new excellent.

Nike, Gillette and Greggs all knew what they were doing when they decided to support Colin Kaepernick, take a stand against toxic masculinity and introduce that vegan sausage roll. Each is too deliberate a marketer to invite opprobrium by accident; each knew there would be haters; each walked towards the gunfire anyway.

Building your brand by stoking controversy is not without precedent, of course. Olivier Toscani’s Benetton posters tested the public’s notions of advertising decency for almost 20 years. His various images of Aids victims, death-row inmates and – squeamish readers, look away now – a newborn baby enjoyed a half-life in "earned media" long before the term itself was coined. Renzo Rosso’s Diesel and Trevor Beattie’s FCUK trod the same path equally knowingly.

But, these days, it’s not just iconoclastic fashion brands that are chasing the storm – and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

Our saturated media landscape and distracted consumer behaviour would appear to militate against the orthodox deployment of media money to drive commercial reach. Attention has displaced awareness as the new advertising currency. We reward (indeed, award) the fireworks, not the fires. And in opinionated times, attention is won more readily by people and ideas that divide rather than unite; by playing to today’s bifurcated audiences; by "provoking Piers".

Attention, of course, is craved not just in its own right but as the stepladder to brand fame – always presumed and now proven to be the advertiser’s friend. (Les Binet and Peter Field’s analysis of the IPA’s Databank demonstrates clearly that campaigns with the objective "make this brand a household name" outperform others on every business metric, not least pricing power and profit.) 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the trend towards "attention by polarising" echoes the changing nature of fame more generally, as evidenced in the Financial Times' recent summation of Donald Trump’s modus operandi:

'Initially, fame was linked to deeds, actions. Nowadays, if you’re discussed, you’re famous. Much of what presidents do isn’t very interesting – so Trump doesn’t bother. He does things to get people talking about him. Threats and rows get him attention… he’d rather be infamous than forgotten.'

Closer to home, meanwhile, and less problematically for the world’s future, Bros have stumbled upon and profited from the same truth: that a little light infamy is one answer to: "When will I be famous?"

Strong brands can be amazingly durable. Winning forgiveness for occasional failure is one reason to build them, after all. They can even power through apparently debilitating scandal; witness Volkswagen’s sales since Dieselgate. So it’s perfectly possible that the brand attention whipped up by the storm-chaser outweighs any immediate reputational downside. "Alright lads, here’s the plan," as The Guardian’s First Dog on the Moon comic strip put it recently. "Firstly, a boycott… Then we’ll really punish this multinational corporation by saying their name on the internet millions of times. They’ll be sorry!" 

There has been no shortage of opinion about each of my examples and whether they’ll sell more or fewer trainers, razors and sausage rolls, and plenty of bad research has been used to prop up both positions.  However the dust settles on each, I suspect we’ll see more brands walking in Trump’s shoes. Better infamous than forgotten, after all. The storm-chaser is here to stay.

Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London 

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