Something subtle, yet powerful is happening in the ultra fast-moving, consumer-savvy world of internet-era marketing. In fact, it’s an idea so new, none of the marketing gurus I approached while writing this piece had even really thought about it.
It’s the joyous concept of turning furious Social Justice Warriors to your advantage – and harnessing their rage to make you piles of beautiful dosh.
It runs like this. Consumer A is offended by a product, a company or an advertisement for something they find misogynistic/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/racist/sizeist/whatever.
Consumer A – an Offendotron who would probably never even buy the product in question – rallies like-minded SJWs via an established, global network of Twitter outrage groups. Next, somebody inexorably starts a shaming Change.org petition, loudly calling for the product to be banned.
But here’s the rub: when you accuse a product of being homophobic, or promoting violence against women, or whatever’s on today’s rap sheet, you are basically accusing Consumer B – the product’s core customers – of thinking in the same way. And Consumer B starts to get indignant about it. So Consumer B leaps to the brand’s defence and rallies all other Consumer Bs out there – and two tribes go to a capitalistic war.
What follows is a user-generated marketing forest fire, often short-lived, intense and bloody.
Meanwhile, thousands of Consumer Cs – the majority of punters who’ve never even heard of the product before the protest erupted – are drawn in to the whirlwind, where they takes sides and retweet the offending product/artwork, variously condemning or supporting it, yet all the while generating fresh marketing content, and eyeballs, for the host company.
Deliciously, what all of these people have in common – even sworn, embittered enemies of the brands – is that they have all inadvertently become swept into becoming part of the brand’s marketing machine.
How the company behaves during the firestorm is vital: do they firefight, or fan the flames? Do they go all-in, check or fold? In basic terms we all understand: does a company SOGOTP (s**t or get off the potty)?
Vitally, how they weather the storm can make or break their reputation. And get this: those who stand up to the baying Offendotrons are winning.
The world has been served something of an accidental master class in this strategy over the last ten days due to the furore created by an advert by, of all things, a protein supplement from a British nutrition supplements company called Protein World.
Until last Tuesday, most people were unaware of the 18-month old brand. Yet the company soon found itself on the receiving end of a 40,000 Change.org petition against its “Is your body beach ready?” advertisements, many of which were vandalised on the London Underground network, where they appeared. The ads were variously called “body shaming” and that they “purported violence against women” and on Saturday one SJW posted the company’s address and seemed to encourage the offices to be smashed up by “angry feminists with hammers”.
But then an astonishing thing happened: the company not only stood up to the SJWs, but got on the front foot and mercilessly baited them on Twitter, in the process creating the now-infamous hashtag #growupharriet
The company’s customers – surprisingly they are 84 per cent female, proving this wasn’t your standard man v feminist toe-to-toe – became feverish brand champions.
This was assisted by the brand’s defenders who scurrilously sabotaged the protester’s hashtag #everybodysready that attempted to show that any women, of any body shape, could be ready for the beach simply by putting on a bikini, which is of course an entirely valid point – just not to Protein World’s customers who are fitness freaks.
Some of those tweets – like an image aping the original ad that features a beached blue whale with the tagline “Are you feminist body ready?” – were deliberately intended to be cruel, as is often the way in Twitter storms. Breitbart cannot condone this infantile humour, but in the heat of battle, these can and do get ugly.
— █▌S̷c̕r͟umpmo̶͍͓nkey (@Scrumpmonkey) April 25, 2015
And, boy, they voted with their purses. To date, the furore has turned Protein World’s £250,000 ad campaign into a monster that has added 20,000 customers and driven revenue in excess of £1 million – in the last four days alone.
And this is all because the company took a stand against their critics who wanted to shut them down.
Says Head of Global Marketing Richard Staveley: “We’ve taken a stand. Everybody thinks it’s wonderful that somebody has stood up to this bullshit. What’s the point in pulling a campaign when you know you’re in the right?
“It’s getting bigger by the day. We thought it was dying down, but the last 24 hours it has gone totally berserk. It’s something else, I could never have anticipated today with all the media; TV, radio, online. It’s gone off the scale”.
Furthermore, the brand’s Facebook and Twitter followings have jumped by 5,000 and 20,000 since the start of the campaign and 131 media clips have been seen by an estimated 113,340,716 – and counting – people.
By the time I broke the company’s sales figures on Monday evening, an appreciative, loyal audience was ready to carry Protein World bosses though the streets.
There is precedent for this “taking a stance” marketing elsewhere.
In the USA, chicken takeaway joint Chick-Fil-A became the focus of controversy following a series of public comments made in June 2012 by CEO Dan T Cathy. He appeared to criticize gay marriage, saying, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.”
Protestors were soon calling Chick-Fil-A a “hateful anti-Gay/Lesbian corporation” and the LA branch experienced protests every day for six months. To this day, proposed Chick-A-Fil franchises are routinely opposed on University campuses by vocal LGBT groups.
But in spite of – or perhaps even because of – these protests, the brand’s popularity and sales have boomed.
First, a national Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day organised by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to counter the LGBT boycott attracted more than 600,000 Facebook likes.
More than that, sales soared following the controversy and in 2012 were up by 12 per cent to $4.6 billion. Now, Chick-Fil-A has overtaken KFC as America’s biggest chicken outlet.
In another, smaller British incident, Liverpool council tried to shut down gentleman’s barber BarberBarber because its owner – the fabulously f**k-you Johnny the BaBa – banned women from his premises.
For this he received death threats and had 31 soiled tampons shoved through his letterbox. But his punters rallied around him.
When I reported on this last November, Johnny’s story was picked up around the world, and the shop (and its sister in Manchester) now turns over £1 million/year, with more branches to open soon.
“People disagree with me on this issue, but I’m sticking to my guns,” says Johnny, real name Johnny Shanahan, 36. “I suppose we will get criticised for this ‘til the day we retire, but we won’t change.
“Men’s barber’s shops belong to men. But 99 per cent of women think it’s a great idea – it’s just one per cent of Left-wing idiots. Most of these women seem to spend all their time trying to emasculate men.
“The moment we stood up to the bullshit we were full. Some people are happy to wait three hours for a haircut. We’ve got people come from London to Manchester for haircuts. And it’s all because I made a stand”.
The approach of Protein World, Chick-Fill-A and BarberBarber goes way beyond the old “controversy sells” retro marketing of The Sex Pistols or Loaded magazine, which I used to edit, when the best free PR we ever got was when the publication was debated in the House Of Commons for “bringing the nation into disrepute” and sales boomed overnight.
The moral of the story seems to be: if you stand by your guns, your punters will stand by your side and fight alongside you, and stick with you – and possibly for life. In a day when so few companies stand for something – and resist the censorious diatribe of the SJWs – those who take a stand can win, and win big.
More than that, by harnessing the very SJWs who despise you and making them win for you, you get to enjoy a truly righteous victory where they are even paying for the celebratory champagne. And that, my friends, is quite literally priceless.