Why Your Brand Should Piss Someone Off

If you want some people to love you, you’ve got to accept that others may hate you. So let 'em. Better than having a weak brand.

The better you are at creating a strong, clear brand position, the more likely you are to find a group of people who really don’t like you. As Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Years ago, the And1 website used to feature an extreme example of this point. Addressing the meaning behind its name, the basketball apparel company announced: “If you don’t know what it means, we don’t want you wearing our shoes.”

It’s like life: the only way to have everyone like you is to avoid taking a controversial stance on anything. If you are willing to be anything to anybody—to surrender your identity and your individuality—no one will have strong feelings about you either way. You won’t stand out to anyone and you won’t offend anyone. You simply won’t matter. Is that the fate you want?

In business, a dull existence means a weak brand. If you want some people to love you, you’ve got to accept that others may hate you. With your company clamoring for new customers and more business, it takes a certain amount of nerve to deliberately ignore people that many within your organization might consider prospects.

Nike's most controversial Olympic ad campaign, during the Atlanta games in 1996, stated "You don't win silver, you lose gold." Polarizing? You bet. Clear positioning? Hell yes! Nike is unabashedly a culture built around winning, and if you can’t take the heat you have no business in that arena. Maybe it wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say. Perhaps Nike would like a do-over on that campaign. Probably not.

Can you find fault with this kind of corporate culture? Definitely. Is this a culture for everyone? Definitely not. Do you know exactly where this company and brand stand? Most emphatically yes.

Las Vegas is a case study in how not to do it, followed by an even better case study in how to get it right. Years ago the Las Vegas brain trust went into denial. It decided that Las Vegas had grown up and was ready for its debut as a family entertainment center. The people behind the new campaign were moderately successful in this endeavor—there certainly is lots of entertainment there for kids—but ultimately realized that the profit margins were to be found in adult activities. They were right to see the potential of great hotels, themed experiences and high dining, but they were wrong to think that this heralded a change in the Vegas brand.

Fast-forward a few years to a new campaign: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It’s a riff from an old line, but it absolutely nailed the essence of the Las Vegas brand. Vegas is for adults. It is now a remarkably more sophisticated product than it was, but its brand position remains the same.

Vegas is clearly not for everybody.

Nike is clearly not for everybody.

Apple. Mercedes. Virgin. Red Bull. Fox News. W Hotels. Snooki and Kim Kardashian. Every strong and focused brand, just like every strong and focused person, creates this love/hate dynamic to some degree.

Be true to who and what you are. Constantly evolve and improve the quality of your product. Be true to your brand and let the product work for you. If you find yourself outraged by the way Las Vegas markets itself (as you might well be) that’s OK, because you are not the target audience. If you write a letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Sun to express your outrage, that’s even better, because you are reinforcing the brand values of Las Vegas among its real audience. You are supposed to be outraged.

Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) is an example of a retailer that lost its way. EMS started out as a genuinely hardcore outdoor retailer for genuinely hardcore outdoor types. But in an attempt to drive revenue, the 37-year-old company repositioned itself as a mainstream outdoors retailer, stocking its shelves with lots of soft, fleecy and approachable stuff. Well, no surprise: the new me-too retailing didn’t drive revenue. Enter, in 2003, new CEO Jim Manzer, who described EMS at the time as a “Gap with climbing ropes.”

Manzer understood positioning (though he probably never used that word) and he definitely understood the need to be different. In the years since taking over EMS, Manzer has taken the company back to its original position, beginning with restoring the hard-core outdoor culture within the company and creating a much more authentic (and therefore unique) retail experience. Soccer moms in SUVs no longer shop at Eastern Mountain Sports; they’re intimidated by the high-end goods and the serious-minded sales staff. But dedicated mountaineering types are back, and they feel right at home.

EMS makes me think of a new business pitch we once made to Eddie Bauer when I ran Cole & Weber. The meeting spun out of control when I began arguing with the then-head of marketing. The rest of my pitch team was appalled. We had just made (I thought) a very strong case for the unique and therefore truly differentiating characteristics of the Eddie Bauer brand. I was informed politely that I didn’t really get retail, and that success could only be found in becoming more like Gap (and a couple of other, similar retailers). I responded that America already had a Gap and didn’t need another one. In my mind I won the argument, but we most definitely lost the pitch. (Apparently, arguing with a potential client is not an approved new-business approach.)

And though I lost the battle, Eddie Bauer ultimately lost the war. Arguing may not work in new-business pitches, but “me-too” doesn’t work in marketing.

Let’s say that you’re a so-called "mass marketer." You’re probably reading this and thinking “what a bunch of BS,” or “this doesn’t apply to me,” or both. If you sell a product that every single person in the world buys and have a 100% market share, then pissing someone off does indeed mean a lost sale. If you’re a little shy of world domination, it would behoove you to define your audience and why they should love you—secure in the knowledge that some will feel left out.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the narrower you target, the broader you may catch. This is because brands that target narrow generally stand for something, while brands that target too broadly generally don’t.

Polarization is good. Traveling the middle road, as broad and tempting as it may be, is always and unequivocally bad. Like people, brands are defined by the company they keep. But they’re also defined by the company they don’t keep.


Austin McGhie is president of the Strategy Group at Sterling Brands and author of Brand is a Four Letter Word, from which this piece is adapted.

[Image: Flickr user John Ryan]

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29 Comments

  • Preston Clark

    I think it's important to put this message of "pissing someone off" in context. I don't think your brand strategy should be to piss of group A. On the contrary, it should be to target group A-- at the probable exclusion of B, C and D. It's an important distinction because your motivation as a business owner shouldn't be who can I piss off today-- which this article passively suggests by leading with the negative result of a positive action. That being said, I really hope someone disagrees with me. Bring it! 

  • Veneta

    Great read! I am tired of brand managers and marketing directors trying not to offend anyone ever. Who needs a target that is so easily offended anyway?  In an era of brand clutter, being edgy and bold and spirited is the only way up and if this pisses some people off along the way, then so be it.

  • Ronin_Jim

    You're almost correct but also massively wrong. Brands should certainly create a strong identity, but that doesn't mean you have to piss people off. Think of people you know who have strong personalities, sure some of them piss people off, but some are able to gain the respect of even the people who don't agree with them. Why? Because they express themselves in a way that allows others to understand their worldview. Many of the companies you've listed do precisely that.

  • ThumbnailBrand

    YES! YES! YES! 

    Sorry. You inspired a bit of a "When Harry Met Sally" moment...

  • Ronald Paredes

    Even though I'm not catholic I have to disagree with you, it is actually a very good analogy. Maybe is truth that Jesus is not the reason why the church is still around, but like it or not all those atrocities committed by the church representatives during all this years is no so different to what many companies and brands have to do to establish themselves as leaders.
    For a brand to dominate the market must destroy and abolish other brands cultures, manipulate the masses with their messages and use all the possible ways (all ethical in an ideal world) to dominate on the consumer mind.

  • Koncept3

    The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. Indifference is ultimately the reason any brand fails. 

  • Jessicarbrown3

    This blog post was fire!! I am extremely inspired by it. Fear paralizes. Thanks for the nudge.

  • Kade

    So how does this apply in the B2B world, especially when that second B is terrified of being even a little bit edgy. I'm referring to hospitals, which are afraid of lawsuits and tend to keep it real neutral.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    well done, you proved your point to me....I have absolutely zero respect for, or need of, Sterling Brands now or into the future and I will tell everyone I can to studiously avoid your  brand...empirically then I have to agree that you are right people do respond negatively to brands that have not 'use value' for them...

    my frustration here is that there is no way to criticize what you have written 'because you are not even WRONG!'

    you are not even in the ballpark of being 'right' with this advice you tender here so there is no way that I can unpack what you say and show you where you are wrong...all I can say to those reading these comments is that the digital economy has moved the whole discussion of brands to another ballpark to what is being trotted out here ...

    again, all I can say is congratulations you have proved your point - no one I know can or will respect Sterling Brands for here on in...

    cheers, richard.

  • Rob Soliz

    If you are trying to change the world, expect some vitriol to be spat your way.

  • msinsheimer

    You can't be distinct to your target audience unless you differentiate yourself in a meaningful way.  If you can't do this, there's no way to develop a competitive advantage.  When people all run the same way, you should consider going the other way.  This is what we're trying to do at flashpurchase.com.  We are trying to create win-win commerce in what we are hoping is a revolutionary and compelling way.

  • Steven Mason

    I tell my clients something even stronger:  If no one hates you, then no one loves you either.

    It's not about accepting that some may hate you; it's about making sure that your message is such a compelling razor that you embrace the hate, knowing that the love will come, too. They're just two ends of the Bell Curve.

  • Jeremy

    I have a hard time trying to relate this to my brand. I just launched jaywire.org a couple days ago, I'm not sure stating, "well if you don't like Jaywire then Eff You!" I think having existing brand equity and being a major player is where this article finds success... I don't know how to incorporate this into my startup though. I don't want to go around telling insinuating to people that if they use oodle, or craigslist then they're dumb, or we don't want them.  Thoughts?

  • BeyondReach

    I recently wrote a blog post titled "Why Your Consumers Don't Hear You" which says exactly what you are saying. I think that people confuse their "Target Consumer" with their "Source Of Volume". The Target Consumer should be your point of aspiration that defines how you speak, look and act. Your Source of Volume is literally the people who, in purchasing your product, will drive the majority of your business. In speaking to a tight Target Consumer you can & should have a broad Source of Volume, because it is the views and attitudes of the target that the broader source identify with, even if that source is not 100% representative of the Target's ideals. However in trying to speak to all you speak to none. Harvey Weinstein said it best with, "The only thing middle of the road gets you is hit by a car."

  • Nick Guarracino

    My old boss,  a very smart marketing guy (@psgordon58), used to begin every pitch to potential new clients, by saying "Our work isnt for everyone". It was a clever way to hook new business by capitalizing on the basic human desire to be considered "exclusive". To be part of something that isnt mainstream, but just for "us". Its what makes religions successful, its a driving factor in most purchases and its an all-around smart business tactic. Pissing people off is taking it to the extreme, but is the same basic principle