Is Being Hated Ever Good For Your Brand?

| By Randy Jones

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

We live in a world where Oscar Wilde’s aphorism has become a personal philosophy for a lot of people. These are folks who – through social media, online videos, reality television and every other way they can think of – clamor to be famous for no other reason than to be famous. They just want to be talked about, and most don’t really care if what’s being said is good or bad.

REU_web_767x767But is it the same for brands? Is just being talked about enough, or should a brand actually try to use its marketing and advertising to create positive feelings about their product or service? There are those who say any recognition is good, and that cutting through the clutter to get a reaction, even a bad one, is a success. Others say bad is bad, and negative perceptions should be avoided at all costs.

Let’s look at two case studies, one on each side of the argument.

“Singing rodents sell sandwiches”

In 2004 Quiznos launched a TV campaign featuring “Spongmonkeys” – creatures described as “animated mouse carcasses” or “disturbing looking mice/rat/human hybrids” – who sang very unmelodic songs while floating on the screen in front of Quiznos food.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “That doesn’t sound like a very good idea.” And you’d be right – the campaign was pulled after only a few months and has become one of those examples that’s always cited when people write about bad advertising, like this article from Fast Company.

But here’s the thing: at the time a lot of smart people (and not just people at Quiznos) thought it was good, effective advertising. Advertising Age gave the campaign 3.5 out of 4 stars. “Singing rodents sell sandwiches in the latest Quiznos commercials,” their reviewer said. “Stop-action animated dead vermin. To sell sandwiches. And they’re going to work. That is correct: going to work. In fact…they constitute good advertising.” The reviewer goes on to explain why he thinks the ads will work: the images and music jump out at you; the jingle is catchy and clearly states the product benefits; and the campaign, he said, was “so weird, unexpected and reckless that…it will be deemed as cool by the 14- to 24-year-old boys and men who represent 116% of Quiznos audience.” All very logical.

So what happened? Well, the campaign did generate a lot of buzz and get people talking. That buzz, however, did not translate into more sales. Just the opposite – Quiznos sales went down, and soon the singing rodents were gone. In this case, having an ad campaign that got talked about wasn’t enough, because what people were saying was bad, and it hurt the brand.

“I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it”

Our next campaign is one that is still ongoing because, despite a lot of negative reaction, it has produced positive results. It’s KFC’s Colonel Sanders reboot, first with Darrell Hammond playing the Colonel, then Norm McDonald, and most recently Jim Gaffigan. (To see some examples, visit KFC’s YouTube page.)

When the campaign launched in early 2015, it was not well received. A Business Insider article from May of that year quoted Greg Creed, CEO of KFC parent company Yum! Brands, as saying, “So far the response has been about 80% positive, 20% hate it.” But Creed then went on to say, “And I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it, because now they at least have an opinion. They’re actually talking about KFC, and you can market to love and hate; you cannot market to indifference.” According to Creed, KFC had “lost relevance” in the US, as evidenced by that fact that 60% of millennials had never eaten there.

Some critics, however, did not see a 20% negative as a positive. A writer at took Creed to task for those comments, saying that, “being hated doesn’t automatically make you relevant. It just makes you hated. Relevance equates to sales, but indifference and hate both breed people who would rather go eat at Chick-fil-A.” He also took on our industry (marketing and advertising), saying, “I suppose in some twisted ad-agency world being pleased with a campaign because it generates 20 percent negatives means you need to work harder to get that number up to, say, half. But the real world would say it’s time to rethink the mission.” And he predicted failure: “KFC has little room for error to continue down failing paths. The consequences are that, if it isn’t honest about the true disdain much of the public has for this campaign, sales will fall, customers will go elsewhere, franchisees will fail and people will lose jobs. That’s no laughing matter, even for people with a sense of humor so twisted they think Norm MacDonald or Darrell Hammond are funny and have millennial appeal.” (He really didn’t like these ads.)

But now, a year later, it seems the campaign has worked. According to a Business Insider article from April of this year, “analysts and company executives have credited the marketing campaign with helping to boost sales in the US. The chain’s same-store sales grew 3% in fiscal 2015, after plunging more than 15% two years earlier. ‘The brand’s reinvigoration with Saturday Night Live alums playing the role of founder Colonel Sanders has brought some buzz back to the concept,’ Nomura analyst Mark Kalinowski wrote in a recent note.”

So in this case, getting people talking garnered positive results, even when a large number of those people were saying negative things. Why did it work with KFC and not Quiznos? Maybe the KFC ads are just more appealing – a faux Colonel Sanders isn’t quite as off-putting as animated rodents. Maybe the Quiznos campaign was ahead of its time – the world has changed a lot since 2004, after all. Or maybe it’s just one of those things no one can explain – it just works for some reason.

Could you take being hated?

I don’t see us at Reuben Rink ever telling a client, “We know a lot of people are going to hate this campaign, but we think you should run it anyway.” I’m also not sure any of our clients would be comfortable running a campaign if we told them that. Would you? Would you be willing to risk ridicule or negative backlash if it got a lot of people talking about your company? Can pure awareness and buzz trump making a positive impression? We’d love to get your feedback, so tell us what you think in the comments below.


If you’d like to talk about creating a campaign that will draw attention to your brand and not be hated, get in touch!  Explore the difference sound strategy makes in advertising and marketing.