KFC, Goth Kids, Sexy Mothers, and Edge Marketing

A media outlet like Vulture or Gothamist would rather have a reader be annoyed than get yawns and give up audience share to edgier media outlets. They want their stuff shared, and it tends to get shared precisely because it has that vibe of “finally, someone f-ing said it!” For every crank that comes back with, “you have offended me” there are 500 fans saying “hell yeah!” So when do we say things the way we would over a whiskey and a cigar vs. use muted language? When do we risk some audience to gain more or a different one?

These choices aren’t only about tone or choice of words. They’re also about whether we underscore an idea or bury it under a bushel of shyness. Say ‘global capability’ is a market differentiator for our brand. But if we underscore it, we fear we may alienate smaller, local and regional prospective clients who might feel made unworthy. Yet, if we do bury the language and only sneak it in matter-of-factly now and again, we also might lose opportunities to competitors who are willing to put GLOBAL CAPACITY in bold relief, because they’re sure it’s key to their long-term, overall profitability. They want the big ticket buyers, even if they lose some of the small shoppers who show up more often. Granted, these are not easy decisions, which is precisely why we should think about them.

Marketing isn’t a Zero Sum Game–We Gotta Lose Some People to Win Others

In some ways, marketing is a chess game, and some organizations won’t ever sacrifice a pawn. Their messages never offend anyone. But the consequence is they’re bland, and they don’t attract raving fans either. Others will gladly trade several pawns for a bishop and a knight. They want amplifiers, not merely readers. It’s a cultural choice. The decision isn’t ‘does our brand every say “WTF?” It’s deeper – what does our brand prioritize? Who does it need to reach? What is it willing to cut loose of to get there?

In a world of continual ‘messages’, most conservatism is actually driven by the hypothetical–the fear of losing someone, who may or may not be critical to our future. Hypotheticals aren’t real, of course. A fear is a fear precisely because it’s something that hasn’t happened, and may never happen.

Yet in that world of continual messaging, all ordinary messages tend to blend together and get lost, because the end-user blocks them out. Imagine a party–lots of little pods, different conversations–and someone says “the Yankees and Dodgers have had their share of problems lately, around perception”. That’s very gentle. The party goes on. But on the other side of the room, someone says “People HATE the Yankees, and a lot hate the DODGERS, too.” The music stops, there’s a lull in conversation. Is there a riot? No, but THAT statement definitely got heard. Both mean the same thing; one is a grabber.

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Tact Isn’t Just Being Nice–It’s Knowing What Gets Heard

You might be thinking, a tactful person would never say something like that. The LA Times did (LA is home to the Dodgers, of course). So did Sports Illustrated and the Wall Street Journal. And why not? Faced with a choice of letting every other online news venue scoop the headlines and garner audience share and attention or saingy something crystal clear in bold language, what would you choose? Don’t think anyone gets pissed off? The LA Times WISHES it had the volume and passion of comments pro and con pouring into Uproxx over essentially the same headline.

Sure, that’s fine for a media outlet, you say. But a company can’t afford to do that! The Atlanta Hawks’ “Swipe Right” campaign was an obvious play off of dating app Tinder. Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” campaign was about people with unknowingly opposite political views working together to produce a product. In THIS polarized climate, that’s got edge. And it’s working.

KFC is making a huge dent with Millennials by consciously poking fun at the staid conventions of marketing content and campaigns. They recently tied Mother’s Day to a romance novel. Yeah, your mom is getting some. Love, that is. Likewise, in a nod to counter-culture, they had Colonel Sanders come out of retirement to embrace “goth kids” – suggesting we get them a “hot piece” as he gestures toward one in a miniskirt.

There are, of course, horrid examples that go against common sense. Delta pulled ads after complaints by the Catholic League for ads featuring a naked woman with a manger between her legs. That’s manger, not manager. Come on, now! Airlines are in a tough bind right now, and need to do a better job as an industry of first understanding and then clearly conveying what they stand for. But that requires locating a deeper brand story and brand narrative. Get in touch, people. But meanwhile, maybe no more sexy crèche scenes. KFC too–they deleted a piece that was up for an hour showing a man and woman on a sofa–man with blurry crotch and woman reaching into it. Yeah, too far KFC. But at least you’re experimenting. Dead for brands like KFC is not trying anything new, simply because someone may hate us. Is it working? Is there a discussion? You bet there is, and this is just one example.

The Ideal Edge Campaign Will Not Be Our First Shot

We all want the Fearless Girl campaign–a viral smash on what could be taken the wrong way: “run like a girl!” but which ends up being inspiring and positive. But we don’t get that without experimenting. So MadPipe’s advice is 1) Aim for aspirational. If there’s no aspirational content, maybe you’re being edgy just to be edgy–that’s a recipe for failure. 2) Experiment–not every campaign will succeed–we get there by trying stuff. When asked, “How did it feel to fail 1000 times on the way to the lightbulb?” Edison replied, “I didn’t. The lightbulb was an invention with 1000 steps.” But 3) Focus-group the HELL out of your edge marketing. Seriously. Don’t release it into the wild on a holiday evening and then go on vacation. We’ve all done it. We’ve all had a dozen people hear the idea the day before and say “sounds good” while checking their iPhones for AirBNB reservations. But it’s better to hold and test than to deploy without testing. Try it on a subset of the audience, and hold the results until you’ve had a chance to review. If the audience takes the action you want, relax!

Of course, any time there’s a new trend, we run around asking if it’s OK. Are we spending too much time in email? Yeah, but we’re not getting rid of it. Just TRY and take it away from us. Are we drinking too much coffee–is it bad for us? Too much is, a lot isn’t. Either way, get your hands off my latte. And with edge marketing, the headlines are “Does it Go Too Far?” and “Are We Disgusted Yet?” Yes, sometimes – but we’re not going to stop, are we? We love people breaking rank. We’re listening. We’re tired of the same old stuff they run between commentators on CNN – “Do you want to get your carpet cleaner?” “Are you looking for a better way to access your savings account?” In the words of the immortal Samuel L. Jackson, “Mother- please!”

When You Make a Mistake–Retract or Not?

Now, the issue of retractions–for or against? Against–generally. You blew it. You said “poop” when you wish you’d said “feces”. Fine, but don’t send out a retraction to 3000 people with a big red circle around your mistake, because you *fear* they might be mad. You’ll have gotten one or two “WTFs” out of it. Remember the pawns analogy. It’s normal, even and especially when you’re right. What percentage did that versus followed your call-to-action? Look at real numbers, not hypotheticals. By all means, pull the campaign if you’re uncomfortable, but don’t apologize-ever unless you’ve got damned good cause supported by the numbers.

The reason edge marketing works is that people WANT something that doesn’t sound like you’re part of the establishment. To channel our inner-Heineken with a political example: the spate of recent apologies among Progressives should illustrate the point. Republicans don’t apologize unless the numbers show they absolutely need to. Consequently, more Americans perceive them as having the strength of their convictions. Progressives say “I’m sorry” if anyone feels offended. Take a cue from Heineken–let what we’re all really thinking and saying actually hang out there, even if there are nicer words for it. Then hold your ground, and keep your worries under the radar like NPR. What NPR does instead of post a lot of apologies is BALANCE edgier commentary with all kinds of other positive commentary that helps keep things in perspective. But don’t for a minute forget that people tune into NPR not just for Prairie Home Companion but also for Cokie Roberts.

Is Edge Marketing Even Right for Your Brand?

How do you know if so-called “edge marketing” is right for your company or org? First, let’s stop thinking of it as a technique. It WILL fail that way. It only works when someone says authentically what a lot of people are already thinking. Second, it isn’t just about “edgy”; it’s about deciding when to trade a portion of our audience for another. The question comes down to whether our brand is more adventurous or conservative–meaning are we more eager to pick up passionate audience share or more concerned with not offending the existing audience, even if it grows less aggressively? That’s obviously a question for the brand leaders, but thinking about it is essential.

If you want help solving this for your company, or with campaign development, reach out to MadPipe.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides leadership in marketing, educational programs, and organizational transformation for brands that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, writes a Forbes column, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, and Success Magazine.

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About once/month, Corporate Storyteller and Digital Ecologist® Daniel DiGriz weaves together interesting stories around organizational transformation, education, and marketing.

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