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It’s the most preached and least practiced adage in marketing: do the opposite of what everyone else does.
Most campaigns are laughably derivative. As an ad agency employee, it was the most frustrating aspect of copywriting:
We want something different.
We want something different.
But make it look like our competitor.
Also, make the logo bigger.
Risk aversion is real. Marketers are the ultimate copycats.
Additionally, when a campaign goes wrong, most companies model their reactions off of other PR disaster reactions.
But sometimes, a company offends and not only refuses to apologize but also throws it back at critics.
Why Everyone Got Upset
Protein World is a protein shake fitness company. Their primary audience is women.
They commissioned $250K of placement ads throughout London subways.
This led to body shaming backlash on Twitter. It also translated to lots of vandalizing.
The main critique: Protein World was guilt-tripping women for the sake of commercialism. They claimed the ad implies a body deviating from the one depicted is not beach-ready.
This led to dogpiling which is Twitter's official term for the Twitter Mob, defined as a mass user mobilizing and drawing in more people to criticize a target.
The Unusual Reaction — That Worked
Typically, when a company screws up or is perceived to, they hire an expensive PR firm. Then they issue a big glossy statement like, “We appreciate all bodies for the way they look. All bodies are beach body ready.”
Protein World had a different idea.
At face value, the replies came off as crass and damaging. In fact, as I researched this article, I fully expected I’d be more critical of their brand.
But they made a few solid points along the way, albeit with juvenile defiance.
Their point being: our culture is inundated with magazines saying this same thing, in grocery stores that allow them on shelves, on TV yet we keep the station on, yet you attack us because we put the ads up?
Additionally, their head of marketing, Richard Stevely, asserted the ad was based on direct feedback from female customers. Their most commonly cited desire was to work on their beach body.
Twitter kept piling on. And Protein world’s CEO, Arjun Seth, didn’t back down. He said the people complaining and destroying the ads were a “minority” and “they’re terrorists, you can quote me on that.”
Crude as Protein World was, they won this exchange by most accounts. Their $250K campaign generated $1.5 million in immediate sales.
It wasn’t just the exposure on Twitter and the associated blogs. It was the polarization of the customer base. Those who hated excessive political correctness flocked to buy the protein drink. Those who hated the ad, well, they weren’t customers in the first place, and they did their movement no favors by vandalizing.
The mass reporting from Twitter led to a temporary ban, pending assessment by Britains Advertising Standards Authority, who went on record saying:
“We considered the claim ‘Are you beach body ready?’ prompted readers to think about whether they were in the shape they wanted to before the summer and did not consider the accompanying image implied a different body shape to that shown was not good enough or was inferior.
We concluded that the headline and image were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.”
Protein World then put the ad up in another famous location.
That is Renee, the model in the ads. Notably, she stated she’d felt body-shamed by the activists in this process.
Protein World didn’t do everything right. There’s a very real case against the media’s unfair body expectations for women.
There’s also danger in brushing off anything controversial as a symptom of political correctness.
In fact, I’ve written before that controversial ads tend to age very poorly. Put more plainly, mildly offensive ads tend to be extremely offensive in hindsight.
That said, and despite their ugly tone, Protein World tapped into something.
Modern brands have made a business of being everything to everyone. The business of appeasement has become a trade of necessity, at the expense of having a bold voice.
Despite my own distaste for Protein World’s immature, impulsive tone, I admired their tenacity to hit back at cyber shamers, who are a source of fear for modern content creators.
And let’s face it, it was a run-of-the-mill weight loss ad. You see them everywhere — beautiful women with idealized bodies.
Protein World’s audience is fitness-oriented. The campaign, though a bit unsubtle, made sense for who they were showing it to.
From a business perspective, there’s nothing an advertising client wants more than ROI. And this campaign surely delivered on that promise, to the tune of +300%.
But Can a Brand Really Use This Approach?
Protein World is less a model to follow, and more a case study to extrapolate greater wisdom and inquiry.
- Does bowing and reacting to outrage feed into the negativity bias against your brand?
- Does fighting back magnetize brand loyalists?
- Even after extracting your own bias, was their outrage logical and justified?
Perhaps the appeal of Protein World’s fighting was less about what they said, and more about their willingness to say it. I do question the wisdom of a Trump-esque Twitter approach for a big brand. In the short term, it might give gains. But is it sustainable?
That invites the question, what is Protein World advertising now, five years later?
This is their most recent ad.
It seems some organizational reflection brought new conclusions.
It’s probably for the better. A scorched earth tactic is effective in defeating your enemy in the immediate, but you’ll be left standing on the land you destroyed.