Isobel’s Jamie Williams: Morgan’s exit and KFC show how provocation can become a banana skin

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From Burger King to BrewDog, and Donald Trump to Piers Morgan, the desperate desire to be provocative and stay in the headlines, isn’t always the best idea.

The desire to shock is a common one for many brands. And for understandable reasons. If you’re raising awareness and building a following, then standing out, cutting through, generating fame, and being talked about are all brilliant things. Every smart marketer will tell you that, and they’d all like a piece of it for their brand.

But the media world is a cluttered place, and the extra lengths some brands, and personalities, go to, to stay in the headlines, can backfire, big time.

Monday was International Women’s Day. A relatively new occasion for brands to create bespoke content for and compete for press coverage and consumer engagement. Usually someone screws up and scores an own goal in the pursuit of earned media fame. And this year it was Burger King, with their provocative tweet – Women belong in the Kitchen.

It was of course, designed to shock, and they followed it up explaining that rather than transporting us back to the 1950’s, they were actually attempting to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs are women, and to help change things, Burger King are launching culinary scholarships. After an initial defiant defence, they deleted the tweet and apologised.

On the same day, three years ago, BrewDog launched their Pink IPA campaign, ‘beer for girls’. Similar to Burger King, their intentions were good, attempting to raise awareness of the gender pay gap and to raise money for related charities. But the desire to simply shock took over, and they drifted away from their previous strategy, and forgot about how the execution might be interpreted by consumers. After a hugely negatively response, BrewDog were also forced to pull the campaign and apologise.

That brings us to Piers Morgan, chief media provocateur and pot stirrer, who spent International Women’s Day mostly trashing Meghan Markle, as he has been doing for many months. Amongst other things, he claimed she was lying in her interview with Oprah Winfrey, claimed Meghan’s suggestions of racism within the British press were rubbish, and made light of the serious mental health issues that she raised. After a series of high-profile outbursts on whatever the debate of the day might be, upsetting numerous groups of society along the way, this was the final straw. ITV promptly announced Piers Morgan’s departure from Good Morning Britain.

Much like his ex-friend, and ex-Twitter follower, Donald Trump, Morgan’s brand is built on headline grabbing shock. He loves to be a divisive Marmite style character, but most of all, I think he just wants to be relevant and talked about (or trending, as he often boasts about on Twitter).

But the thing about Piers Morgan is that he’s rather clever, and I often think that perhaps he doesn’t really believe some of the things he actually says. They are just designed to get talked about. Like BrewDog, Burger King, and many other brands, staying in the headlines, and building a following is the name of the game for Piers Morgan. And when this becomes all that matters, things can unravel.

Also, like Trump, Morgan seems to come into his own when positioned as the man of the people, representing a movement. He’s gained plaudits from all sides of the social spectrum in his handling of Covid, and how he has held political leaders to account and campaigned on behalf of NHS workers.

But the constant desire to be the centre of the news, rather than report on it, has led to his downfall as a breakfast TV host (for now at least – I’m sure he’ll be back soon).

In a different way, Trump followed the same media mantra. From Muslim travel bans, to building walls and posting outrageously inappropriate tweets, Trump loved to divide, to disrupt and to shock. But most of all, he craved the limelight. He had to be centre stage. And when Covid hit, he couldn’t change tack, and went from disruption to disaster very quickly. It cost him the presidency.

There is a lesson here for all brands. We all want fame, we all want earned media, and we all want followers. But there needs to be a wider long-term strategy at play, there needs to be a solid foundation on which to build. And consumer reactions need to be thought through.

Genuine disruption is a wonderful aim for brands, and absolutely the correct one. Being provocative is often the perfect attitude to have as a brand. Because who likes boring? And who notices wallpaper? But doing it in a clever, on brand way, is key.

Provocation for provocations sake can be distinctly unclever, and leave brands, and people, looking foolish.

Jamie Williams is managing partner of Isobel.

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