Cruising the Fine Line Between Edgy and Unacceptable



by Sarah Warlick, content director

Marketing isn’t always black and white. Judgment calls are part of the job when it comes to deciding what works for your audience.

One of the challenges in marketing – whether you’re trying to sell shoes, services or Swiss chalets – is finding the sweet spot in your communications. The goal is to stand out by attracting attention, which is then leveraged into new sales or clients. Attracting that attention sometimes requires being just a little outrageous, but going too far will repel the very audience you hope to draw in. It’s a tricky business.

Lucie Amundsen of Locally Laid Egg Company is one who understands the difficulties in navigating that fine line and can share first-hand experience of what it’s like. In fact, she did just that in her blog post last week, in which she shares a letter written to the company by a consumer who was deeply offended by the company’s name. He thought it was trashy and overly laden with sexual innuendos, no doubt finding additional support for his opinion in the rest of the company’s marketing which includes statements like “Local chicks are better.”

In play here are two established principles:

He who smelt it, dealt it. Is the branding so offensive as to earn legitimate hostility? The letter writer certainly perceives it to cross the lines of public decency and is exercising his right to take his business elsewhere. But of course, not everyone will find such marketing offensive. The egg-buying public for the most part is appreciative of the company’s value proposition of providing fresh eggs from sustainably, healthily raised chickens that are local to the markets in which they are sold. In the comments on Amundsen’s post there is a very strong predominance of support for the company and its marketing. As one commenter points out, it would be awfully limiting to avoid all words that can possibly be interpreted to have a sexual meaning, especially when it comes to poultry (think chicks, breasts, skin, legs, tender, moist, cocks, fresh-laid, etc.). The offended customer may simply be a victim of his own tendency to read into or see overly risqué or otherwise inappropriate connotations wherever he looks.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. No matter how carefully you tread, someone is likely to be turned off by seeking and finding a lack of religious or cultural sensitivity, sexism, bigotry of one kind or another, historical inaccuracy, innuendo or something else at which to be offended. It’s pretty much unavoidable. In this instance, the letter writer clearly falls into the category of “cranky old man.” But what’s important to note here is that this doesn’t really matter. Calling people names as a way to dismiss their objections overlooks the critical point that many of your best clients and those whom you would like to become clients can accurately be described as “oversensitive,” “hypercritical” and “cranky.” We’re people. We’re like that. Never underestimate the human capacity for finding offense, but bear in mind that “boring” is itself a significant offense when it comes to marketing.

The name is indeed a mildly suggestive double entendre but it is also an accurate and informative moniker that illustrates the brand’s main differentiator. How should a marketer approach gray areas like these?

The answer lies in accepting both of the above principles as facts that marketers and brands simply have to live with. Pushing the envelope is part and parcel of effective marketing. Perhaps less so in certain, more traditionally conservative industries that include professional services, but even there it is a truth to be acknowledged. You might lose a few in the process of reaching and gaining many. And that’s okay.

Be creative and aggressive in creating marketing strategies – it’s the only way to achieve greatness! But just as important, run those ideas through multiple levels of vetting and be open to the critics who appear during the vetting process. Adjust and pull back if you get more than one or two responses of “That’s too far!”

An intimate knowledge of your target market is extremely helpful here, because ultimately, you need to find a perfect blend of shocking (“Hey, look!”) and reassuring (“You can trust us”). There may be missteps, but it will work out so long as you’re sincere and you’re listening hard to your audience. If you’re having fun, chances are good your audience will too, and that’s one of the most powerful marketing outcomes you can hope for.

5 comments on “Cruising the Fine Line Between Edgy and Unacceptable

  1. Tony Rushin on

    Great post! It is a fine line but it’s important to stand out. The real powerful – and edgy – marketing tends to be those who are being themselves anyway. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” People like to work with ‘real people’. We’ve found that we might as well be authentic when we write our tips and articles, be it corny, cheeky or silly: if people like us through our marketing, they’ll probably like us when they’re clients. And if they don’t, they wouldn’t be happy clients anyway.

  2. Richard Stokes on

    Bonnie – I love this post. We live in such an overly sensitive and politically correct world today that I think we all tend to second guess what it is we are actually saying for fear of offending someone, somewhere. Great perspective, thanks for posting.


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