How to use your brand’s detractors to your advantage

By Isabel Douglas | 29 Nov 2018

Writer’s block is every creative’s worst nightmare. It isn’t just a symptom of authors, copywriters, and poets; artists, designers, and even content strategists know how brutal it can feel when the creative well runs dry. It sucks. And it’s a tough rut to get out of.

You’d think that writing for a brand would provide something of a bulwark against this — there’s already a voice, an audience, and a natural interest sphere to nudge you in the right direction.

But there are also plenty of restrictions roping your creativity in. After some time working for a client, you’ll find that all of the most straightforward ideas have been done, forcing you to think a little leftfield. Then, of course, there’s making sure what you propose rings true with the brand’s character (or their desired character) and won’t feel discordant to the rest of your content.

Worst of all, however, is the fear of inciting criticism

Regardless of how conscientiously created a piece of content is, there’s always the risk that people will find something to laugh at. Hotel chain talking about the luxury of their suites? You’d better bet someone will be commenting underneath that piece about their negative experience with the brand. Oil company talking about sustainability? Yeah, that’s pretty hypocritical.

So, how do you get your message across without coming off as salesy and insincere?

Shell’s message of sustainability fails to come off because it’s quite clearly not dealing with critics’ actual concerns. In fact, by enlisting pop stars like Pixie Lott to promote its ‘green’ campaign, it’s ignoring one of marketing and advertising’s most sacrosanct principles: the customer is not a moron — they’re your wife.

In a truly uninspired attempt to change the conversation around its controversial reputation, it’s tried to wave something shiny in front of us and hope it would somehow make the world forget about its pathological dedication to burning as many fossil fuels as possible.

It’s a classic example of a creative block. Don’t want to deal with criticism by tackling the problem head on? Just avoid it altogether! The result? Even more criticism.

How to flip the story

I don’t have the solution to Shell’s branding, PR, or communication issues. It’s a complex situation and perhaps one that demonstrates how a fundamental disconnect between what you want to achieve and how you want to be perceived can undo even the best of marketing efforts.

But there are plenty of brands that are flipping negative opinions to their advantage. Take, for example, telecommunication company Three’s current marketing campaign. It asks tube travellers ‘What are you going to do, just stare at each other? Nope. Keep crushing those candies instead’ — directly dealing with the public conversation about phone addiction.

Equally innovative is how The Cybersmile Foundation’s recent campaign turned the comments of trolls into a (virtual) reality, using graphics to realise their ‘recommendations’ on the body of a blogger, with the results proving how clueless their criticisms were.

What’s this got to do with creative block?

Avoiding criticism is a cause of creative block. There won’t always be the opportunity to turn negativity on its head, but by avoiding exploring it altogether you’re just putting another obstacle in the way of your creative process.

To be able to keep your content fresh, you need to be constantly listening, constantly challenging and avoid fencing yourself in at all costs. Not every idea needs to make its way to the client, but the better you’ve examined every aspect of a brand — good and bad — the better your creative output is likely to be.