For some small business owners, their biggest marketing issue is getting people to pay attention to them. But for others, the issue is a bit more complicated than that. They’ve got plenty of attention–it’s just not the kind they’d like to have.
This might not seem like an important issue for most businesses, but all business owners could learn a lesson about handling controversy properly. After all, you never know when you’ll be the subject of a bit of it yourself.
The interesting thing about controversy is that it isn’t inherently bad for business. As Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School, said: “Controversy is a double-edged sword. While a little garners attention, too much can hurt, and it may not be the type of attention most people or brands want.”
In fact, there are certain kinds of businesses that benefit from being perceived as edgy and provocative. The real issue is what to do when that controversy starts to do more harm than good. How do you manage people’s negative perception?
To get some perspective, we’re going to dive into a few examples of managing a negative image. Each of these businesses/brands has some level of controversy built into it, from the mild to the severe. By examining how they’ve managed to overcome the controversy, we’ll understand how to overcome the negativity and turn that weakness into a strength.
Adult Stores and Adult Clubs
When we talk about “controversial” industries, it’s no surprise that adult stores and strip clubs are right at the top of this list. You don’t have to search too long to find people who despise these kinds of businesses. The average person is more likely to enter an adult store as a joke than anything else. Strip clubs are typically seen as a place for degenerates and bachelor/bachelorette parties, with very little in between.
So, how did the industry as a whole deal with these issues? Well, it’s important to remember that adult stores and strip clubs, being the industries they are, will always have some level of controversy to them. All they care about is ensuring that the negativity doesn’t get in the way of their business.
The first step of this is reassuring people of the legitimacy of this industry. The idea that the sex industry is shifty and unreputable to work in/for was one of the first issues that needed to tackled. And nowhere was that misconception more problematic than in their online reviews. Fenway Strippers in Boston, MA doesn’t have much in the realm of online reviews, but what it does have is far from flattering:
Make no mistake: a review like this can do some massive damage when it comes to your online reputation. Allowing this to be their only review to date means that anyone that stumbles onto their business will receive one consistent message: stay away.
While there are a few other tactics that can definitely be a part of their marketing strategy, customer reviews can often do something the business owner can’t: offer an unbiased, outsider perspective. Take a look at this review of Good Vibrations, in San Francisco, CA:
A glowing recommendation that reflects the realities of your business is one of your strongest tools when it comes to changing people’s perception of your business. After all, the average person unfortunately thinks that adult stores are sketchy places to be avoided. Being reassured by their peers is exactly what they need to take these businesses seriously.
A great online review can legitimize these businesses via word-of-mouth in a way nothing else can. The moral of the story? There will be times when people don’t understand your business and how it works. The beauty of this is that these are golden opportunities to educate people about the realities of your industry. Embrace every misconception as a chance to open people’s eyes.
Riding elephants. Taking pictures with tigers. Watching dolphin shows. To the typical tourist, these are just some of the amazing experiences they can take part of while traveling to an exotic location. Of course, more and more people have started to realize that some of these businesses exploit and harm the animals who are their focal point, causing lifelong suffering and misery all for the sake of providing “a good show”.
Animal abuse is horrible and should be prevented and punished at every opportunity. But there are plenty of businesses that take great care of their animals and do a great service by educating the public about them. However, there’s no guarantee they won’t get lumped in with their inhumane and abusive counterparts in the public perception, and avoided.
At times like these, nothing is going to be more beneficial for your business than a customer review. Social media can open the door to a conversation about how well your animals are being taken care of, but there’s nothing like the opinion of an outsider to sway the public your way.
For starters, the best animal attractions manage to present such a fantastic experience for their customers that people can’t help but rave about their time there. For example, here’s a review of the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, CA:
Of course, this approach only truly works when the business is aware of the potential stigma of having an animal attraction and combats it at every turn. Ignoring the specter of controversy isn’t your best bet here. Again, the San Diego Zoo does a fantastic job handling this situation. Instead of trying to hide, they confront this issue and give people a chance to discuss this publicly:
There’s something refreshing and reassuring about a company that doesn’t shy away from controversy. By leaning into this, they’ve managed to create a space where people want to share their experiences. When your customers are willing to defend you and your business practices, you know that you’ve proven yourself as a respectable business.
Particularly in the Unites States, there are few topics as heavily debated as guns. The gun industry has had to deal with massive backlash from a variety of different topics (terrorist attacks, gang violence, etc.).
Clearly, the firearm industry is in a strange situation. Let’s face it: selling the idea of a weapon to the average person isn’t exactly easy to do. And unfortunately for the firearm industry, most of the time people see their products on TV, it’s followed by some tragedy.
But unlike the adult and animal industries, the firearms industry in the U.S. has a strong and vocal market. And interestingly enough, a quick survey of reviews of gun shops suggests that they largely haven’t become a forum for political debate–or else review site publishers have screened out political reviews. Even for Firearms, Support & Storage in the most gun-unfriendly state of New Jersey, customer reviews remain a forum for those who have already made up their mind on the debate over gun ownership to find out about the business’s service and selection:
Customer reviews matter in an industry like this because they provide a largely apolitical forum focused on what’s important to the safety of the consumer and the success of the business: professionalism.
Celebrities and Political Figures
We saved the best for last. Considering how polarizing some celebrities can be, it’s a miracle that they can have a powerful, respectable brand at all.
Let’s talk about Donald Trump. Regardless of what you think about him personally, there’s no denying that Trump did a phenomenal job marketing his brand throughout election season. He managed to channel his celebrity status into a platform that resonated with people. He tuned into the frequency of his audience and stayed locked in.
Of course, there’s just one minor issue: his personal brand is far from universally lauded and may negatively impact his business. Here’s a review of Trump Tower in New York once his election campaign was under way:
But Trump is far from the first celebrity to have a negative image in the media. Martha Stewart was sentenced to prison a decade ago, and yet her empire has recovered gracefully. Whether it’s household goods or tv shows with Snoop Dogg (that’s real, by the way–it’s getting a second season), her businesses are thriving despite her highly publicized incarceration. Just take a look at the reviews for the Martha Stewart Cafe in New York:
So, what’s the difference between the Donald Trump brand and the Martha Stewart brand? Well, other than the inherently emotionally charged nature of politics, Stewart may simply provide better services and products. When you look at the reviews for Trump Tower, they’re generally saying that the place is ‘nice enough’ given the Trump name. When you read the reviews for Martha Stewart, you’d never know that there was any controversy about her brand.
Stewart, in fact, was able to overcome the controversy by executing in such a way that you couldn’t deny her ability. Whether it’s a talk show, a cooking show or a cafe, the Martha Stewart brand managed to overcome the controversy by being irrefutably excellent. So it seems that while there are plenty of techniques that you can use to outsmart controversy, sometimes it’s best to just outperform it.