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Should B2B Brands Address Controversial Topics?

2020 taught us many things about ourselves.

One of the most profound lessons we learned was that our societies aren’t afraid of discussing controversial topics anymore. The rise of controversial public conversations shouldn't come as a surprise.

We've become accustomed to expressing our opinions on social media and owning our points of view despite criticism, which can be intense in the anonymous online world.

The boundaries between the online and offline worlds have blurred and consumer behaviour has changed with it.

Research shows that consumers are increasingly making purchases based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, and environmental impact. B2C companies have realized this and it's no surprise that the past decade has brought a wave of socially conscious advertising.

The question is, should B2B companies dip their toes in controversy and risk having it backfire, or ignore it entirely and risk coming across as tone-deaf to their audience?

Emotional Swirls And Trust

Addressing controversy is itself a controversial topic within marketing teams. The debates about the tone to adopt, the message that needs to be delivered, etc can be endless. Perhaps it's best to take a step back and see if we can answer the "controversy" question intuitively.

Let's say you're browsing articles online and are presented with two headlines:

The first headline is pretty vanilla. For example "The Benefits of Discipline".

The second headline is about the same topic but is constructed in more controversial terms. For example "How to Stop Sucking at Life and Start Winning".

There's no doubt which of these headlines you're more likely to click. The second headline, despite being negative, evokes emotion and whether you feel good or bad, you're more likely to click on it.

Research conducted by the marketing department at the University of Pennsylvania indicates that people uniformly find controversial topics interesting. We find them interesting because ignoring the emotional punch that controversial topics provide is hard. We're more likely to want to engage with these topics and the content around them. From a marketing perspective, it seems as if addressing controversy is the way forward.

However, the UPenn paper points out another interesting fact.

Controversial topics also make us uncomfortable. As a result, despite wanting to engage more with such content, we're less likely to do so because of the fear of blowback. We can understand this intuitively. What if you say something inappropriate and make a fool of yourself?

Examining our behaviour in our personal lives is instructive. When do you express your opinions about controversial topics and whom do you discuss them with?

For most people, it comes down to trust.

We share uncomfortable opinions in environments that make us feel safe and with people we trust. Translating this to marketing terms, your audience is more likely to engage with controversial content if they trust you.

Why This Worked..And Not That

Examining campaigns that addressed controversial topics illustrates the importance of consumer trust in a brand.

An example of a campaign that worked was Nike's "Believe in Something" ad. Featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Nike addressed a range of hot button issues successfully. The campaign generated around $40 million in free advertising for Nike and the company's stock price hit an all-time high shortly thereafter.

Gillette's "We Believe: The Best Men Can Be" ad spot wasn't quite as successful.

The campaign sought to address issues of toxic masculinity at the height of the #metoo movement and consumer reaction was mixed. While the video went viral, the effect on sales was mixed. Engagement amongst women and younger audiences was high, but neither of these segments is Gillette's core audience.

So what was the difference between these campaigns?

Audiences were equally likely to react emotionally to the social justice causes that the campaigns addressed. So how can we explain the divergent reactions?

Melissa Zehner, Senior Director, Content Marketing at online lending marketplace Lendio, offers a possible explanation. When asked about choosing whether to address or evade controversial topics, Zehner mentions that if the topic fits with a company's mission, and if it aligns with their audience's needs, then the topic should probably be addressed.

Nike, as a major sponsor of black athletes and with its grassroots involvement in athletics in underprivileged communities, had to take a stand.

It's hard to imagine how the company could have continued to sponsor the likes of Lebron James and Russell Wilson while continuing to remain silent on issues that plagued minority communities in America.

Gillette doesn't command the same degree of trust as Nike does. While it's a well-respected company, it doesn't have the same degree of emotional connection with its audience that Nike does.

As a result, its attempt to address a controversial topic came across as preachy and missed the mark.

Do You Know Your Audience?

Trust is at the heart of the answer to whether you should tackle a controversial topic.

Zehner correctly mentions that if a hot button issue affects your industry, you're going to look silly if you stand on the sidelines and ignore it. However, your response to the issue must be tailored to the degree of trust you've built with your audience.

Measuring brand trust isn't straightforward but many metrics will clue you in on how your audience feels about you.

Social media shares and engagement is an obvious place to begin. Are your followers sharing your content and commenting on your posts? What is the tone of their comments? For example, if they're routinely questioning your tone of voice or message, it's safe to say that your high engagement numbers don't mean much.

Anonymous surveys of your audience and measuring the quality of your inbound links are other methods of getting a feel for how trusted you are.

Surveying influencers in your industry for their impressions of your company is also a great way to gauge the trust you've built with your audience.

A great way of determining brand trust is to gaze inward, instead of outward. How accurate are your personas? How well does your existing content match your audience's needs? A mismatch in the persona building process indicates you don't know your audience as well as you need to.

It's hard to see how you could build trust from such a foundation.

What To Do If You Haven't Built Enough Trust

Let's say you've examined your audience's reactions to your content and have faced up to the fact that they probably don't trust you enough for you to sound credible about an issue. Does this mean you should avoid the topic? Not quite. Staying silent might backfire just as bad as saying something wrong about the topic.

The first step to take here is to view the issue as an opportunity for you to build trust with your audience.

Hot button topics provide you with a great way to emotionally resonate with your audience in ways that regular marketing doesn't. However, your tone needs to be right.

The best way to build trust is to present a human face to your brand and, according to Zehner, to back your statements up with action.

Actions are what your audience will ultimately evaluate you by.

Pepsico offered a great example of how the right actions can override marketing missteps. Almost everyone viewed the disastrous ad featuring Kendall Jenner that was aimed at addressing the BLM movement and its friction with the police. The ad was a perfect example of using a brand ambassador who was completely inappropriate for a social justice cause.

However, Pepsi has since rectified its approach to social causes and sponsors competitions and programs that are aimed at supporting black and minority entrepreneurs through the various brands under its umbrella.

It humanizes its efforts by letting real people take the spotlight, instead of thrusting a can of Pepsi into every conversation. The results are stark. Pepsi is still viewed as edgier than Coca Cola and boasts higher revenue numbers than its long time rival.

While Coca Cola has been beset by accusations of resource exploitation in India and Swaziland, Pepsi has managed to maintain trust with its audience. The Jenner advert has become a humorous misstep rather than an almost brand-defining faux pas, as is the case with Gillette. Pepsi's actions have been rewarded by its audience.

Trust can be built or rebuilt as the Pepsi example shows.

It comes down to viewing hot button issues as opportunities. Be honest about your connection with your audience and spotlight real people and the cause, not yourself.

As a B2B company, spotlighting your actions are even more important. You're probably not going to score a primetime ad slot on television or create a viral social media campaign.

Highlighting the actions you've taken to support social justice causes, and using your content to spotlight the people and businesses affected by them, is the best way to present yourself credibly.

Opportunities In Crisis

Controversial issues are tough to tackle and there's no playbook that brands can copy.

However, being honest about the degree of trust you have with your audience will help you navigate these topics with ease.

Use these moments as opportunities to build trust with your audience and you'll enhance your standing in your industry.

Before You Go

As a featured writer, I would be extremely grateful if you would share my article with your connections or social media network.

Category: Business

About the author

Vivek Shankar (Featured Writer)

Vivek Shankar (Featured Writer)

Vivek is a B2B fintech and technology content writer. When he isn't helping his clients achieve their content marketing goals, he can be found geeking out over a new piece of tech.

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