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In an unusual ad in The New York Times, outdoor clothing company Pantagonia once challenged readers to "don't buy this jacket." On the Cleanest Line, Patagonia's blog, the company explained the move, saying that it was time for the brand "to address the issue of consumerism and do it head on." The company believed that it would be hypocritical for it to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy. While the company was in the business of making and selling products, it felt that the provocative ad aligned with its values—and it was betting that the risk would earn customer trust.

This Patagonia print ad is one example of provocative marketing. As some examples we mention below show, the term "provocative" can be relative and subjective in marketing context, but one thing that these ads typically share in common is that they shock or make their audience pause.

In a world where consumers see thousands of sales messages per day, bold ads can help companies cut through the clutter. But what do you need to do to make this type of advertising effective? There are 5 "permissions" or factors that marketers need to consider:

  1. Target demographic

Some demographics are a lot more receptive to provocative advertising. Young adults might be more amenable to sexual ads that older audiences may find offensive. You should consider psychographics as well: if you're talking to an audience that watches the Comedy Central regularly, you have more leeway in using edgy humor.

It comes down to knowing your audience. Knowing their core values, the media they consume and the type of ads they find compelling will help you make tasteful decisions.

  1. Category

Certain categories—fashion, for instance—lend themselves naturally to provocative ads. But if your category sells to families, you might be better off taking the safe route. That's why you don't see brands in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) category using sexual imagery in their ads too often.

That said, some organizations in more conservative industries have had success using provocative ads. Non-profits typically deal with family affairs, but some organizations have experimented with ads that have shocked audiences. Cancer-awareness campaigns on social media, for instance, have become edgier and more risque. This approach may not work for your company, but it does illustrate that there are always exceptions to rules. Shock tactics in more conservative categories could work, provided their core message is based on values deeply held by the target audience.

  1. Brand

Certain companies develop provocative branding over time. For example, in media and entertainment, CW audiences would expect a show like Vampire Diaries from the network, whereas the same show wouldn't work for CBS. American Apparel is known for suggestive ads, while American Eagle projects a more wholesome image.

Companies need an outside-in perspective when it comes to their brands. Customer perception, not your advertising messages, defines your brand. I suggest developing perceptual maps that help define your brands based on what customers are saying. Talking to your customers and listening to the voice of the market will help reveal a better picture of where your brand stands compared to your competition. With a clearer understanding of how people perceive your brand, you can determine how much you can really push the envelope in your advertising.

  1. Market share

Brands that are chasing market leaders tend to be more provocative in their marketing because they have less to lose. That's why companies such as Carl's Jr. are more prone to featuring celebrities like Paris Hilton in their ads. Newcomers need to take some risks if they want people to pay attention.

That said, some established brands are flipping the notion of "provocative" on its head. These brands are producing marketing campaigns that are unexpected and atypical.

In The Six Commandments for Surviving the Customer Revolution, we talk about McDonald's Restaurants' Our Food, Your Questions campaign. The 2013 marketing campaign abandoned the fast-food restaurant's slick ads, favoring an approach that has since been called the best example of content marketing ever. McDonald's invited customers to send in their questions about its brand and its food. But what was surprising was that the company answered all these questions regardless of how ridiculous they seem. Instead of buying TV spots, the fast-food chain posted video and article responses to a dedicated site.

McDonald's example demonstrates that you can teach old dogs some new tricks. But doing so requires customer insight. In McDonald's case, comprehensive research into the various misconceptions about the company and its food inspired the Our Food, Your Questions campaign.
  1. Themes

If you're going to be provocative, remember that some kinds of provocation are riskier than others. It's not unusual to see sexually provocative ads during the Super Bowl, but brands are less likely to poke fun at race given how that topic is a "third rail" in our society. Taking a provocative stance on social issues is becoming more common in marketing (in fact, the Patagonia ad mentioned in the beginning of this post is an example of one that advocates for environmental protection), but most brands avoid tackling partisan politics.

People's stance on many topics is changing, and issues that were once considered controversial are becoming mainstream. (Conversely, some ad campaigns that seem like they may now be safely mainstream find themselves provoking unanticipated controversy, like the Cheerios multiracial family TV commercial.) It's important for brands to get close to the customer voice and to talk to their community of customers to understand how these societal changes can impact their messaging.

Being bold in advertising requires knowing your customers and conducting a lot of work in brand health. To be provocative but not offensive, you need a clear picture of how customers view your brand, your competitors and your industry.

Rigorous ad testing will also help ensure that your ads are effective. Ads are meant to drive sales and brand awareness, but if you have a very provocative spot like the Veet "Don't Risk Dudeness" ad, there is always some risk that people will remember your ad but not your product or your brand.

As we discuss in The Six Commandments for Surviving the Customer Revolution, being bold in the age of the customer means displaying confidence in your brand, your products and in your customers. In the end, you may not need provocative ads to demonstrate confidence - but if your brand chooses that route, you better make sure you understand your customers well.

Photo credit: Gratisography

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