Controversy Sells

February 13, 2017

In a connected age, there’s a strategy proven to capture attention and get people talking.


“I have no intention of running for president.”

That’s what Donald Trump said in Time Magazine back in 1987.

Now, a controversial statement.

But that’s not such a bad thing.

The Trump University opened in 2005.

Much of the students that enrolled would do so initially via a series of free seminars and webinars. By definition, it wasn’t a University.

Set up to teach real-estate secrets, students would pay as much as $35,000 to join.

Yet, they wouldn’t even get a glimpse of Trump – he had nothing to do with the scheme.

Alongside the university, the Trump Institute opened which also had nothing to do with him.

It contained dubious material (notice a pattern?) that was packaged and sold off the back of his time on the American Apprentice TV show.

He simply licenced his name to position himself and make more money. To put his name out there.

More recently, on the run-up to the election, and probably using much of the same material, he released his book: Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.

Using donor campaign money, he spent upwards of $55,000 buying this book back – then profiting from the sales.

These instances are part of a string of dubious occurrences that have been happening since the 1970s.

Controversial marketing, and therefore unorthodox marketing, and therefore what Trump is doing, doesn’t happen by chance.

It follows four key ingredients: intelligence, surprise, relationships, and propaganda.

Many of the stories discussed on this blog over the years like The Blair Witch Project and are great examples.

Where a different type of promotion worked seriously well even if it didn’t appeal to everyone.

A style adopted by many small and cult brands. Guerrilla brands.

Which may not be bullet proof. But that’s okay.

If it’s how we want our brands to be perceived – if we’ve already established who our customers are – so be it. We don’t need to be relevant to those outside our target market.

To do it successfully is to affect people on an emotional level.

And to do that you need to create an argument where people can absolutely agree or disagree with something.

And to do that you can either target people’s beliefs and philosophies, people’s actions and behaviours, or people’s feeling of belonging.

Trump knew that his policies and radical ideas would appeal to some Americans.

In the states where it really mattered.

The last year of social media has consisted of pretty much just Donald Trump.

The inauguration of Trump as US President generated 15 million engagements.

Engagement peaked when Barak Obama and his wife met Donald Trump and his wife.

A moment famous for Michelle Obama’s awkward reaction towards whatever was inside the Tiffany box given to her as a gift.

To me, that just confirms what he’s all about.

He creates a stir. He gets people talking. His name has taken on a life of its own because of it.

In 1987, Trump’s estimated worth was believed to be $1 billion.

Now he’s the most powerful man in the world.

So it shows that controversy does sell.

Because you can’t get away from it. You don’t even want to.

A Shift In Mindset

December 22, 2016

Changing the way you approach marketing – and life – for the better.


What if I told you, you could transform everything just by focussing on one principle?

(No, this isn’t snake oil. This is the real thing.)

A shift in mindset that can transform your organisation’s marketing activities.

And the shift is seriously simple.

Previously a spy, Oskar Schindler was an industrial entrepreneur. He was also a member of the Nazi Party.

In 1939 he acquired a factory that produced materials and military equipment for the German army.

At a time where the Jewish people were massacred in death camps.

He decided to employ Jews to work in his factory and profit from the low cost of their services. But as he got to know his workers, he grew fond of them.

He cared about them and wanted to help them.

And he did everything he could, including paying off the SS and risking his life countless times to keep, and to employ more Jews at his factory.

The millions he earned was spent on bribing Nazi officials.

Until he had no money left.

At the end of the war, he managed to save 1,200 Jews. And the Jewish people supported Schindler, in tough financial times, throughout the rest of his life.

After his death, he was buried in the holy grounds of Mount Zion, Jerusalem.

The only member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way.

As marketers, we shouldn’t see helping and giving as part of a public relations or social responsibility manifesto. (Like most of us do.)

Too many of us focus on intelligent systems, automated processes and sophisticated analysis.

Everything is complex.

Everything is coordinated and integrated based on cold or big or small data. Working to place messages everywhere and trying to empower users.

But what marketers are actually doing is overwhelming them.

It shouldn’t be like this.

By talking compassionately to our customers we can begin to understand the problems they face.

To then find a solution that will fix this problem and make their lives better.

We need to look to make a difference rather than make a lot of money – like Oskar Schindler learnt during the holocaust.

Because giving generously without hope of reciprocation is rewarding.

By helping others you’re actually helping yourself lead a happier life. Not to mention a more successful career.

Successful start-ups are driven by entrepreneurs who are hell-bent on making a positive change. For some reason, after establishing themselves, that mindset shifts to wanting to make more money – then comes the trouble. Because the purpose of that business has changed.

The Bible is a book based on the truths of everyday life which Jews and Christians believe to be of divine inspiration.

A passage in the Gospel of Luke (6.38) perfectly captures how helping inspires:

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

If you want to be successful in marketing, practice the art of helping others. It should be part of our everyday lives, just as it should in our marketing plans. Really.

Share knowledge. Share resources. Share contacts. Share yourself and your services.


Everything will come together thereafter.

VR: The Conundrum

November 22, 2016

We’re constantly told that VR is great. But why aren’t we buying? 


Virtual reality is the talk of the technology and marketing communities. It’s something that promises out-of-this-world experiences.

Experiences where we can replace real world environments with ones created by software.

But is it what we really want, or is it all hype?

In 1716, economist and financier John Law set up the Banque Générale. It was the first bank in then debt-ridden France to issue paper notes.

A year later, he took over the Mississippi Company. A company granted monopoly status for the trade and development of France’s North American colonies along the Mississippi River.

Convincing the French public the area was rich in valuable natural resources, with great potential for profit, public demand for company shares increased sharply.

Mass hysteria broke out as the French people did all they could to get hold of shares in the scheme. Share prices jumped from 500 to 18,000 livres.

By 1719, John Law gained the rights to produce new coins and collect all French taxes. In effect, he controlled France’s foreign trade and its finances. Where he saw a big opportunity.

The bank printed more paper money which the public could use to buy more shares in the Mississippi Company.

At this point, the company had issued 625,000 shares in a stock market boom that spread across Europe.

The profits never materialised, though.

The complex linking of the company’s shares with the state’s finances ended in complete disaster in 1720 when the value of the shares plummeted to nothing.

Millionaires went bankrupt in a matter of months and The Mississippi Scheme led to one of the first ever stock market crashes.

A scheme which promised the world and delivered nothing of the sort.

Virtual reality will find itself in a similar position unless something changes.

It’s found itself in no man’s land between the initial hype and the immersive experiences it creates. In a conundrum.

Technology companies, the media, Mark Zuckerberg. We’re listening to these people tell us that VR is great, but I’m sceptical.

Because there are problems with the fundamentals of VR.

Yes, the immersive experiences are impressive at first. Everything is exciting.

But after a while the tech issues and loading times seem more obvious, the discomfort is there, and there’s still the motion sickness, of course.

Motion sickness, in particular, is a real issue. Because people will spend less time playing on their games. Which means less interest in games, and a smaller market a for VR game developers.

Sales of VR products are nowhere near high enough to tempt game developers to keep on developing more games at this rate. It isn’t financially viable to do so.

You can’t sell its features either, you need to demonstrate it. And there are too many demonstrations needed to hit the sales numbers needed for it to be sustainable. Similar new technology is probably needed to sell it – that we don’t have.

And to cap it all off, most games don’t even need VR to improve the gaming experience.

We were taught this a few years ago with the VFX-1, iGlasses and the Nintendo Virtual Boy. We’ve seen the same with motion controlled video games and 3D movies at home and in the cinema.

Yet, there are instances where VR does work.

Ford use VR to review their cars through the manufacturing process.

NASA train their astronauts and engineers for outer space missions through VR.

Bavaria’s State Criminal Office are even using VR to prosecute people who witnessed Nazi war crimes.

But these are outside the homes and outside the mainstream market. So, long term, is it a business product rather than a consumer one?

This is a big worry for VR.

Because these are markets where audiences are small and where the money for this type of product isn’t.

John Law fled France dressed as a woman after the Mississippi Scheme and the country took 80 years to recover, and could only do so by raising public taxes and starting again.

Tech companies and investors have jumped on the bandwagon and are gaining good PR coverage to convince us that PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift is great.

It’ll eventually get found out.

Just like the Mississippi Scheme, the hype will die down when people realise the current business model isn’t sustainable – when the money is all gone.

But it’s got further than any other tech fad of its kind.

There is potential. And we feel as though we should buy.

But are we really going to?

Data Unpredictability

August 23, 2016

What you get with data is just data. And data just isn’t enough.


“Data is taking over marketing.”

How many times have you read an article of a similar flavour?

Data, analytics and stats is part of everyday business. More and more data is produced which means more and more time is spent analysing it.

It won’t take over, though.

In 2002, Major League Baseball team Oakland Athletics introduced a new approach to recruiting players.

Instead of relying on scouts and managers, they adopted an approach focussed on data.

Data measuring in-game activity such as stolen bases, runs batted in and batting averages.

They were able to find undervalued players and free agents that others couldn’t. Players, according to the data, that could accumulate more points than their values suggest.

This is an approach considered highly successful; the Oakland Athletics went on a 20-game unbeaten streak that season.

Before this unbeaten run, though, they went on a losing streak similar.

What they didn’t consider at first were factors that you can’t measure or see on paper. Something had to change to turn this data-driven built team of rejects into a success.

And it wasn’t the data. It was their manager Billy Beane.

Our problem is that once we see data, we make snap judgements that this data represents something that we aren’t doing that we should be doing.

Then our marketing becomes spontaneous. And mostly unsuccessful because what data provides is a limited solution.

You get numerical descriptions rather than detailed narratives. Forgetting about the human. Forgetting about the market. In marketing, this is bad.

Unpredictability, in my opinion, is where opportunities lie. (Not so much in the data.)

An unpredictable idea.

Just as sports itself is unpredictable. It’s a little random. And it’s the same within marketing.

Without marketers and strategists to piece together the pieces – real creative people – data is just numbers and graphs and charts on a piece of paper.

A shoe manufacturer sent two salesmen to Africa.

Their task being a simple one: investigate the market and report back on potential avenues for growth.

The first salesman reported back, “There’s no potential here – nobody wears shoes.”

The second salesman reported back, “There’s massive potential here – nobody wears shoes.”

So was there potential?

Well, there isn’t an absolute answer. Neither was right. Just as neither was wrong.

Why would African people want shoes having never known them? Is there actually a need? Do they have money to pay for them? We don’t know.

All this tells us is that there’s some form of opportunity.

Because even with all the data and the research and the intelligence, you can never be sure if a market has potential.

You never really know if data is right. It can always be misinterpreted.

After the marketing budgets are spent, we just can’t understand why our campaigns failed. The data didn’t tell us that they would.

But the big problem is that it didn’t tell us our campaigns would succeed either.

Oakland Athletics was the first team in Baseball to use data to its advantage. An unpredictable idea, if you wish. But it could only do so by turning things around with people.

Even then, they didn’t win the World Series.

Because data always looks at the past, not the present. It’s a half-truth. No more.

They brought in older players prone to injury who needed support from coaches and physios. They needed someone to motivate players and develop the skills of others. They needed people who could lift other players lacking confidence.

They needed their unpredictable manager Billy Beane.

To create a “team” out of the data.

Otherwise it’s all just meaningless data.

Otherwise you just get a team of losers and failed campaigns.

So favour a creative approach rather than an analytical one. Because data doesn’t tell you what can happen or why something happened, only what has happened.

And we can’t afford to think like that.

The Disadvantage Advantage

July 25, 2016

The underdog organisation has two natural factors favouring its success, and they’re amazingly powerful. 


More than half of new business ventures don’t survive past five years.

Competition has never been so fierce.

Industries are full of rival organisations, all locked in battle for market share. For the mind of the customer.

It’s rare to see a market where numbers are few.

Which is seen as a disadvantage to established organisations as it is to the newly formed organisations otherwise perceived as the underdog.

But a disadvantage can produce a determination. An ability to turn an obstacle into an opportunity.

In 1940, the German battleship Bismarck was summoned to join the war. Its guns, armour and other characteristics far exceeded any other battleship.

Its most famous victory was its sinking of the Hood.

HMS Hood was the Royal Navy’s equivalent to Nazi Germany’s Bismarck, albeit not as powerful.

Decades of Royal Navy dominance on the world’s seas came to an end when its flagship was completely destroyed in seconds. The Hood’s companion ship the HMS Prince of Wales even had to turn back.

The Bismarck was invincible. Chased for months by the allied forces, it couldn’t be stopped. They couldn’t sink it.

Until a Fairey Swordfish – undetected by the Bismarck’s modern radar and automatic anti-aircraft guns – dropped a torpedo which crippled the ship. Only then was the Royal Navy able to sink her.

The Swordfish, made mostly of string and wood which didn’t have guns or a cockpit, flew undetected as it was travelling at too slow a speed.

Against the odds, a plane close to decommissioning was responsible for the sinking of the world’s most powerful battleship.

But it’s not a surprise.

Small companies with small teams and small marketing budgets have also taken on the big boys for years.

And have won.

But it’s not just about strategy. The underdog also has an advantage connected to the way we are wired as humans.

Because the disadvantaged resonate with others who’ve been in a similar position of disadvantage.

There’s a common feeling. An empathy.

In the way parents favour a vulnerable child over a stronger one, even if both are their own.

And it works the same for the brands who can bring this to their offering.

To pull it off does also require a strategy, though. A battle plan.

To position and communicate yourself in a manner that customers will really understand your purpose. Your identity. Your story.

Your energy, determination and passion (even flexibility), which will come naturally in such as position, makes this story known.

All these things combined are something which customers can see and appreciate. All the things associated with brand loyalty.

And on par with the established organisations who seem to have the upper hand.

Apple took on IBM and Microsoft from a garage.

Ernest Shackleton’s stranded Endurance crew survived in arctic conditions they should never have.

Leicester City Football Club won the league with 5,000/1 odds.

They had purpose.

Those with a purpose and a disadvantage have a great chance to succeed.

We love Apple products. We knighted Shackelton. We all supported Leicester City.

We love an underdog.

As an organisation, you therefore have a natural benefit to your situation if you’re the smaller alternative.

Decision-making, though, is key to survival. But you’ll make the right ones knowing their weight. Competition in this respect also makes us more creative and innovative.

You have focus.

The Bismarck, the world’s most feared battleship, was sunk by the hands of the “Stringbag.”

Fairey Swordfish planes sunk even more ships during the Second World War. Famously sinking and damaging battleships that belonged to the Italian Navy.

And history is full of such David and Goliath tales.

And they’re tales we all love.

Because most of us have come from underdog situations to where we are now.

They reflect the story of our lives.

That’s why the advantage is the disadvantage.

Changing The Online Ad Game

May 22, 2016

Online advertising is in desperate need of a shake-up. Here’s why, and here’s how.

Ad-blocking and a different perspective on digital and online advertising

This week, AdBlock Plus reached a record 100 million users.

What this tells us is that people hate ads – and if they’re able to block them, they will.

One free download, and like magic, your browsing experience is (enhanced) rid of the many forms of online advertising.

In 1963, John Kennedy Toole wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. But the book wouldn’t get published until 1980.

Publishers refused to publish it because it lacked meaning and wasn’t really about anything.

It didn’t follow conventional storytelling and novel-writing.

For years he tried editing to the book based on publisher recommendations to no avail. In 1969, he committed suicide.

When the book did get published, it won awards of the highest calibre.

I have this book, and it reminds me a little of the online advertising problem. It was recommended to me by Tucker Max, who reminds me a little of the solution.

Now let’s get something straight: I don’t condone ad-blocking. I know too well that bloggers, journalists and content writers are the ones affected by them.

But online ads are problematic. They disrupt; they’re pushy.

At times, they hinder browsing experiences. And at most, they’re completely irrelevant.

They appear in an environment where customers are looking to interact with stuff. Where people don’t generally stay around for long.

We know this because our customers engage with interactive features on websites. We browse ourselves in this way.

The problem then lies in the fact that ads – for the most part – do not stimulate interaction of any kind.

And even if they do, customers won’t interact with it because they know it’s advertising.

Two years ago I listed 5 of my greatest TV ads of all time.

This personal list consisted of Sony, John West, Guinness, Coca-Cola and Cadbury.

Though, it’s a strange list. It’s a list of ads that weren’t built like ads.

I liked the “Balls” ad but never bought a Sony Bravia. I liked the “Surfer” ad, but have never in my life bought a pint of Guinness. And as for Cadbury, the “Gorilla” ad was great. Yet I much prefer Galaxy as a chocolate even though I hate the Audrey Hepburn Galaxy ad.

See, a strange list of “greatest” ads.

But these are ads that broke the rules.

Ads and other forms of disruption marketing should be there to aid the rest of your marketing messages. Your overall strategy.

But if done properly, they can be the trigger for that buying decision (or a buying decision of some sort).

A lot of advertising doesn’t work that way. Because clients of advertising agencies want direct results.

It’s the same in digital and with online ads.

Another problem with most ads is they appeal to people like customers. They should be appealing to people like people.

Which is why online advertising is a shambles.

John Kennedy Toole wrote a novel like no one had seen before. In the early days, it wasn’t even considered worthy of being a novel.

He produced something that was truly unique that when reached its audience, made a big impact.

It was a gamechanger in popular literature.

Advertising, and marketing for that respect, need creative thinkers like this. Ones that create trouble.

Like Tucker Max.

Troublemakers can combat things like ad-blocking.

Troublemakers can give you the edge over the competition. They can change the game.

No matter where ads are placed online, eventually, people will find ways of ridding their browsing experiences of them. This includes native ads.

So think differently about online advertising. Your “ads” may get consumed in ways you thought weren’t possible – just like those TV ads. Shake things up.

And if you read A Confederacy of Dunces, you’ll know what I mean.

Then there won’t be a need for ad-blockers.

Periscope Isn’t All It Seems

March 23, 2016

Periscope is a powerful thing – but its use may damage your brand. 

Periscope isn't all it seems

In January, 20,000 people tuned in to watch a puddle.

(By the way, this actually happened.)

Swarms of people rushed online to see swarms of other people trying to get across a piece of road covered by water. It really is as crazy as it sounds.

It all went down on Periscope – a live video streaming app, that like so many video services is gaining a lot of attention.

Probably more so because of this puddle incident.

Because when Periscope, and likewise Meerkat, came out in 2015 they didn’t make as much a splash.

But Red Bull, Spotify, Mountain Dew and Adidas are or have all used Periscope. So maybe we should take notice.

Facebook certainly have as they now favour live videos to saved ones on timelines with their new service called “Live.”

As marketers, we’re always looking for ways to release new products or show behind the scenes footage or support our customers or improve transparency.

Periscope and similar platforms seem like a good way to do it.

Recently, Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique’s periscope on their team plane demonstrated the potential Periscope has to bring fans and customers closer to a brand.

If I was Barcelona’s board, though, I’d be concerned.

Because there are outright implications, too – ones that need consideration before firing up the app.

If your brand isn’t ready for live streaming, you could end up in a spot of bother by trying it. It is actually live, after all. The complication here, of course, is that if you don’t dip your toe in the water, cooler-younger competitors will do so and will overtake you.

Which means a lot of brands will test Periscope which will then lead to the Periscope market getting saturated.

As what Periscope really is, is another marketing channel to add to the mix – a powerful one at that.

My question is: do we need another?

Just as something has gone “viral” doesn’t mean that brands should allocate an annual marketing budget to it.

We see things go viral often. What we don’t see is things going viral in the same way a second time.

And that can be traced back to some of marketing’s most viral campaigns such as the Blair Witch Project and Red Bull Stratos.


Because at the time of it happening, you’re immersed in the campaign. You believe it. You think you’re on to something special.

You believe you’ve discovered something that no one else has (even though it has spread around the world by then).

But in reality, it isn’t exactly like that.

Days after the puddle incident, a marketing agency came out and claimed responsibility for the incident.

Days after the Blair Witch project hit the cinemas it was obvious that it was all staged.

Which doesn’t fill me with confidence with for the future of Periscope and the agency in question when it comes to live streaming.

Viral campaigns aren’t sustainable; saturated markets aren’t environments where things can go viral, neither.

As the second Blair Witch movie taught us – which by the way, did you know exists?

You Are What You Think You Are

December 14, 2015 – 2 Comments

When it comes to positive thinking, the secret lies deep within.


Positive attitude. It’s something that’s spoken about often.

Positivity is associated with satisfaction (happiness). Negativity is associated with disappointment (sadness). I know which I’d rather.

But that’s easier said than done.

After all, the unexpected does happen. Life more often than we like goes differently to how we want it to. But that’s life.

Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD.

He ruled like many before him did. But he was different to his predecessors. He’s considered as one of the few good Emperors to have ruled Ancient Rome.

As well as a military general, he was a philosopher.

He’s better known for his intellectual work than his work on the battlefield.

He once said: “You have the power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

Now, don’t forget he ruled during a turbulent time in the Roman Empire. Outside threats were no doubt at the forefront of his mind.

But during this time of fighting rival nations and tribes, he would find peace – a state of psychological stability and composure expected from a leader of a nation – through nature.

Nature would guide him. It would inspire him.

We see nature as trees, oceans, mountains and creatures. We are also part of this group. Life itself.

What nature really is, though, is something that doesn’t have rules. It doesn’t see threats. And it lives on regardless like it has done in many forms on Earth for over 3.5 billion years.

It’s better to not try and understand it.

Because that would be unnatural – we’ll probably never understand life on Earth to the full.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how did life begin? or what is the meaning of life?

If you’ve found the answers from scientific theories or religion, you have cheated.

That’s where I think most people go wrong. Trying to understand everything, and more importantly, trying to understand others. Caring too much about how others judge us and what we do.

You are what you think you are.

Of course, if you work in marketing you’re always trying to please others. To convince people to like you so they buy from you.

But does it have to be like that?

Maybe when we deal with others, we should stop caring.

From an early age, we’ve been told by our parents and our teachers to control our thoughts and behaviours. A role which our bosses are now taking up. But they shouldn’t because they belong to us. Not to them.

We should let things run on instinct away from these external pressures and rules and let things go.

Just like nature.

Marcus Aurelius also said: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” I think he’s right.

If we start letting nature take its course (like it was always destined to) then we may start seeing things different. We may change our attitudes towards stuff.

We may even like it. We may gain a more positive outlook.

Take a stream, for instance.

A stream flows continuously. If it comes up against a stone, it will find a way to go around it. It won’t think to stop. It will never think.

It has a crazy vision to get to the ocean.

And it’ll do everything it takes to keep flowing; to stay alive. To get to that ocean.

It’s not perfect. But it’s always moving forward. Always making progress no matter what it may come up against on its way. It doesn’t care.

That’s what nature is.

That’s a positive attitude.

And it comes from deep within. All you have to do is find it.