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Taking a Stand: Is Controversy Worth the Risk?

We have all seen the viral videos that seem to propel companies to overnight success.  And on occasion, we may feel that there are opportunities for us to replicate that within the bounds of our franchise programs.

But of course, today, we live in a world of sensitivity. If someone is too easily offended, they are called snowflakes. Seemingly overprotective parents are proclaimed helicopter parents who create said snowflakes. Movements created to protect the legitimately victimized get exploited to death until even they are stripped of their potency to bring awareness. There isn’t a topic in the media that can’t be construed as controversial, or a demographic today that isn’t sabotaged by a troll hiding somewhere behind a keyboard or a sign at a rally. And if you call someone out for a seemingly controversial statement, your judgement of their statement is likely to get you labeled as a hater of some kind.  Everyone is so sensitive, and many public discussions make people uncomfortable.

At one time, a good PR professional might have said that any press is good press. Is that true? Should marketers still flock toward a salacious headline, or create a controversy just to get people talking about their brand? Or are people tiring of tirades? Let’s talk about those controversial demographics, those who have seemed to polarize the political and social spectra. Can we talk about women in leadership roles without being labeled as for or against a woman’s role in society? Can we address equality without getting into a debate about restrooms and reparations? Perhaps we should stay away from these conversations for fear of being thrown into one opinionated, segregated mele. The fear is not without merit.

To Be or Not to Be?

In recent weeks, we have seen local government agencies denying building permits to companies based on their religious or political affiliations.  Chick-fil-A, for example, is certainly a great, although unconventional, franchisor, who is not being allowed to open in airports in Texas and New York, as well as a college campus in New Jersey because of what has been characterized as an “anti-gay stance” of their owners.  To be clear, at least to my knowledge, Chick-fil-A has never been accused of refusing to serve anyone who is gay or providing anyone in the gay community with services that differs in any way from the service of any other customer.  And the only way that anyone might even get an inkling of the religious beliefs of the owners, outside of the media, would be to note that the company closes its locations on Sundays and then go to its website, where they would read:

Our founder, Truett Cathy, made the decision to close on Sundays in 1946 when he opened his first restaurant in Hapeville, Georgia. Having worked seven days a week in restaurants open 24 hours, Truett saw the importance of closing on Sundays so that he and his employees could set aside one day to rest and worship if they choose - a practice we uphold today.

But when their COO made public comments in opposition to same sex marriage in 2012, the controversy began.   It was reported that one of their charities donated to an organization that was hostile to anti-gay organizations.  Shortly thereafter, the company released a statement saying that, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” Still, the charitable donations of a foundation established by the founder of the company continue to be scrutinized and, since some of those donations find their way to organizations that are labeled anti-gay, Chick-fil-A continues, rightly or wrongly, to be labeled as such by a portion of the population.

But bottom line, how has this impacted Chick-fil-A.  Today, we see the difficulties that they are having with site selection.  And there have been some organized boycotts.  But at the time of the initial controversy in 2012, sales rose 12 percent to $4.6 billion and by 2018, its revenue had grown to a staggering $10 billion.  Its average sales per unit has risen from $3.2 million in 2012 to about $4.4 million currently, making it the highest grossing restaurant in the U.S., and putting it $3.3 million above  KFC, its nearest rival in the chicken space.

On the other end of the spectrum are those brands that purposely market their franchise businesses to very specific minorities. Hamburger Mary’s website states that it is “an open-air bar and grille for open-minded people” and features drag shows as part of its nightly entertainment. They seek like-minded franchisees who want to operate a business “where everyone can eat, drink and be Mary.” By marketing themselves as inclusive, are they not excluding the “less open-minded?” The point is, either of these franchised brands is successful in their own demographic but may be considered controversial for openly sharing their belief systems as part of their brand.  Are they shooting themselves in the foot or does taking a stand on a controversial topic pay off?


Marketing guru Al Reis once famously postulated that, “the essence of positioning is sacrifice.”  So before implementing a shocking or controversial marketing campaign to land new franchisees (or customers), do your homework. You must investigate all angles of the campaign, have a real understanding of who is going to run toward your company because of it, and who is never going to run the other direction (or even protest) because they’re offended by it.

Controversy can create a buzz, but make sure it’s going to be worth it in the end. Nike, for example, did just that. Nike understood that their marketing ad featuring Colin Kaepernick could result in losing a major demographic of customers. They also understood that their larger demographic, Millennial and Gen-Z males, prefer a brand that takes a bold stand in alignment with their beliefs. Nike’s online sales grew by 31% after the initial ad ran, and their social media mentions peaked at over 450,000 in one day – and that was just on Twitter.  For Nike, stepping in it resulted in making real strides with their target market.

So if you are considering being forthright with a specific social or political belief in alignment with your brand, there are three ideologies to consider:

First, recognize who the primary and secondary reference groups are for your target demographic. This is true for consumers, but especially true for those pursuing something as life-altering as franchise ownership. The sales and franchise development professionals in our industry know this better than most; prospects are influenced by their friends, family, relatives and co-workers. Their secondary reference group consists of the organizations with whom they are affiliated: religious organizations, political parties, clubs they belong to, et al. Social factors and these references of influence play a major role in consumer behavior so make sure your prospects’ influencers are going accept your positioning as well.

Second, decide which societal role your prospect’s decision making is ruled by. Your target may be a female CFO, who is also a mom, wife and volunteer. Which role most influences her business decisions? That is the role to keep in mind when deciding whether to shock her with a more controversial PPC campaign on Facebook.

Third, consider your audiences generational leanings and tech savviness. Millennials are more apt to appreciate a strong stand on a controversial topic than a senior. Why is that? According to recent studies, the age of streaming-video-on-demand has given voice to the more opinionated. You won’t find a super-controversial ad every day on TV, but it’s most certainly possible on YouTube. How many seniors do you know who spend their day watching YouTube videos? The methods of media consumption play a huge role in what a prospect considers compelling for a brand. Follow the tech.

A Lot to Consider

If you have chosen to franchise your business, it is likely because franchising is the quickest, most efficient way to expand a brand. Controversial marketing can jump-start that growth by helping you to go viral. But while a viral campaign can turn your franchise into a rocket ship, it can also cause you to crash and burn.  So if you are looking to take advantage of something topical and potentially controversial, be sure to balance the advantages to a more neutral posture before jumping into the fray with both feet.

Mark Siebert Founder of the iFranchise Group
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