Sales & Marketing

2018 is the year taboo died. Here’s the postmortem

6 min read

27 December 2018

Five by Five's George Roberts discusses how 2018 was the year taboo died, and how businesses can use controversial tactics to further themselves in 2019.

Edible crickets in Sainsbury’s. Dating apps for the privately educatedBreast pumps on runways2018 has proven that controversy and taboo-tinkering can do wonders for businesses big and small, from startups to household names. But can (and should) a line be drawn?

The past 12 months have been crammed with launches erring on the wrong side of tasteful, and while it didn’t all go to plan, it’s shown that some businesses are willing to put it all on the line.

They’re not afraid to risk it. But you wouldn’t pull the pin on a grenade with nowhere to throw it, would you?

Launch in context of your business, or you’ll be tarred and feathered

In October, Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) came under fire for its #CurryWars campaign. The drive, as you’d ascertain from the irreverent hashtag, was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek launch for GBK’s new Ruby Murray Burger.

But doing this by way of white people telling independent curry house owners their food isn’t authentically Indian? That’s not exactly the tongue-in-cheek, ‘It’s just banter, mate’ tone the business was going after.

At best, it looks incredibly misguided. At worst, it looks racist.

Culturally, GBK does not have a monopoly on Indian food. It had no place launching a campaign like this. The business must’ve known there’d be some backlash, but not to the point where it ended up deleting all video evidence.

Beta testing and a better-laid strategy can limit damage if this happens during a launch. Anticipate everything and leave nothing to chance.

Launch in context of your customers, or they’ll call you out

Self-proclaimed ‘punk brewery’ Brewdog launched its BrewDog Network in September. Dubbed as ‘the first ever craft beer TV streaming network’, it looked like the business was going to make gains in territories other than FMCG.

After all, it’s BrewDog. The business is more than just booze – half of its name recognition comes from ridiculous PR stunts, like its brilliant #NotForGays beer, which condemned Russia’s anti-gay laws ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

However, BrewDog often suffers from mixed messaging, much to its fans’ frustration. For example, it launched an ale packaged inside taxidermied animals. Several years down the line, it proudly announced itself as vegan-friendly, before offering the aforementioned ales as rewards. Hmmm.

So this BrewDog Network launch. It had the potential to be a full realisation or a massive blunder. It went live with beer.porn.

That was the launch. beer.porn. It parodied a porn site. Funny, risqué… also played on interracial relationships.

It was going so well until that last point. BrewDog had, once again, pushed the envelope too far. 

Even with the brewery’s usual ‘wacky’ tone, this wasn’t in line with what customers expected or wanted. The controversy did more damage than good. Businesses need to research their actual audience and understand their boundaries, rather than, in BrewDog’s case, taking all their cues from a porn site.

This is never a good thing to do, unless you’re launching a porn site.

How to balance on the tightrope of controversy

Diesel launched its ‘Hate Couture’ campaign in September, with celebrities wearing clothes emblazoned with (mostly unprintable) insults in a drive to tackle online bullying. This makes a point. This takes something ugly, still considered taboo, and turns it into a statement – all while including its audience and empathising with them, not alienating them.

This is what businesses should be doing. Nothing’s shocking anymore, but things can still be considered crass, misguided and stupid. While it’s important to stand out, your launch strategy must hang on robust customer profiling.

We worked with insurance provider SunLife earlier this year, launching a drive to destigmatise funeral planning. 

Because we’re all going to die. But nobody wants to talk about it. Only 6% of UK folks have plans in place for when they go, compared to 70% of people in the Netherlands.

We opened up the conversation via SunLife, giving it a provocative edge through  ‘The F Word’ campaign, but never causing upset.

And that’s the point. It’s so simple, but so many businesses, regardless of size, fail to grasp it. You’re not out to offend people. Make them listen, get their attention, give them something to talk about.

Just make sure they’re talking about you in the present tense, rather than the past.

George Roberts is client service director at launch marketing agency Five by Five.