Backhanded Branding
Backhanded Branding

3 Ways to Get Ahead by Dragging Your Name Through the Mud

While spending a weekend in Helsinki years ago, I happened upon the downtown office of KILROY, a Danish travel agency. It was a mess: The walls and windows of the space had apparently been defaced overnight by vandals. Spray-painted all over the lobby was a series of angry and obscene messages, chief of which was “F*ck KILROY!” The effect was so jarring that it took me a minute to notice that the paint was fake: The whole thing was a marketing stunt, a joke about how much the agency’s competitors hated its rates and services. The actual punchline struck me as a bit cheesy, but seeing a brand profanely attack itself had an intriguing and memorable effect.

Too much discourse about branding revolves around the idea of positive or negative impact on a brand’s image, as if there is only one way for a brand to be “good” in the eyes of the public. But the brands that inspire the most devotion aren’t blandly benevolent; they have personalities, with the same kind of rough edges that real people do. Sometimes lending your brand a distinct personality calls for alienating potential consumers, or calling attention to your own flaws, or leaning in to negative perceptions of your brand. Refining your image by publicly trashing your brand is a real possibility, and here we’ll look at three ways in which you can make it work.

These people hate it! This strategy is similar to the KILROY example, but with the distinction that you’re not saying your competitors hate you for being so good—you’re actually claiming that your brand is poison to some consumers. Take Marmite, which made its famously divisive taste a point of pride. This approach has the effect of providing people who do enjoy Marmite with a sense of exclusive group membership, and it tantalizes unfamiliar consumers who might try the spread out of curiosity alone.

The Alamo Drafthouse movie theater chain wants you to know that it takes its ban on talking and texting seriously, so it took an irate customer voicemail and transformed it into a viral ad. While the young woman on the phone is complaining about the terrible customer service she feels she received, the theater’s core audience is being promised an experience free of such inconsiderate moviegoers. By showcasing its hostility toward “bad” customers, the brand makes itself more appealing to those who regard themselves as the “good” kind.

The sincere self-own. One of the riskiest plays that you can make is hitting “reset” on your brand’s image, which to be effective requires disowning everything that came before. This is different from apologizing for a company’s actions that have harmed the brand or promising to improve on specific aspects of the customer experience. What we are talking about is telling the world that yes, what your brand offers has been fundamentally bad.

Domino’s is such a towering example in this category that there’s not much point in hunting for others. (Although the General Motors “Reinvention” campaign is in the ballpark.) When Domino’s decided to overhaul their pizza recipes, the chain didn’t promise customers an improved version of the product they loved. Instead, it shone a spotlight on just how bad people thought their pizza was to begin with.



The “Pizza Turnaround” video relayed some of the harshest criticisms leveled by customers—crust with the texture of cardboard, sauce that tasted like ketchup—in order to show that Domino’s was embracing reality and was actually serious about doing whatever it took to give customers a good pizza. Now the company is positioned as a leader in the pizza delivery world, with a strong brand image and good future prospects. There’s a cathartic effect in airing all of the negative publicity that your brand has received as part of an honest effort to start over.

Embracing your trashy side. Some of the weirdest and most subversive ad campaigns in recent memory have come from brands trying to show consumers that they don’t take themselves too seriously. The comedic duo Tim and Eric delivered bizarre and hilarious campaigns for Old Spice and Totino’s that don’t convey any sense of dignity or quality about the brands. It’s possible that these efforts were all about chasing viral clicks under the assumption that all publicity is good publicity, but they come across as actual mission statements. “Our brand isn’t the fanciest thing out there,” they seem to say, “but we’re fun and anyway we’re in on the joke.”

The Chef Boyardee campaign with Lil Yachty and Donny Osmond is another good example of this approach. It helps that no adult considers brands like Chef Boyardee or Totino’s to be fine dining—embracing your brand’s trashy side works best when your brand is indeed kind of trashy. The big limitation to this approach is that it doesn’t work all that well for premium products. The surreal “Purple Boys” shorts that Tim and Eric created for luxury mattress brand Purple are head-scratchers: What type of brand image are they trying to cultivate, and how many diehard fans of this comedy spend money on cutting-edge mattresses?

To sum up, trashing your brand isn’t an approach that should be taken lightly, or without a clear idea of how you want your brand image to change. But portraying your brand in a seemingly negative light is an effective way to inspire the intrigue that will make consumers remember it. Building a brand image that feels authentic, or dangerous, or exclusive can be key to building a loyal consumer base, and that can be worth alienating some people along the way.

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