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Are you brave enough to criticise your clients?

Harnessing negative emotions in marketing communications could be the key to driving customers to act, but how do you call them out while keeping them engaged?

6 mins
Written by
alan. Team
Published on
July 5, 2024

It is often said that a sign of a good friend is someone who can tell you the hard truths. But is the same true of the relationship between company and business customer? Could taking a more direct approach with clients, when necessary, solidify a relationship? 

Fear and anxiety are the emotions that create a tipping point which push decision-makers to take action, according to our recent survey The Power of Provocation. In fact, 62% of respondents from the C-suite said they have to feel fear, or worse, for them to take action on a problem facing the business. 

But there is a fine line between sparking fear and causing outrage. 

With 88% of CEOs saying marketers need to take a bolder, more contrarian or more provocative approach, perhaps now is the time to consider a more controversial line in your marketing. B2B marketing is hampered with a reputation of being boring. It’s time to take a stance that will elicit strong emotions from your audience and drive action.

The question is how far can you push an audience before they turn from engaged and ready for action, to enraged and ready to step away? Here, we will explore the art of the insult, including when to do it, how to do it and what it looks like when it works.

The art of the insult 

One of the key considerations is whether the criticism or provocation is true. That will help find the line between constructive messaging that will spark action or outrage that has a detrimental impact. Making provocative claims in your marketing may spark outrage in your audience, but their ire can’t be directed at your brand if the point being made is a truth.

If a provocation is true, talk about it. If it’s not and there isn’t the substance to back up the claim then it probably shouldn’t be included because that’s when you are being spurious or just plain offensive,” says Benedict Buckland, chief creative officer at alan. 

“If you disrupt what someone thinks about something then they are going to be more inclined to change their behaviour and do something new.”

Provide next steps

In the same way that teasing a dog with a ball will generate excitement but never throwing it will lead to annoyance, it is the responsibility of the brand to throw the proverbial ball and provide a satisfying outcome to the provocation being made. 

Provocation for provocation’s sake is a dangerous game, agrees alan’s creative director Daniele Pulega. While it may be effective in grabbing attention, it could negatively impact an audience’s receptiveness to the brand message. 

“In that case you could have put the audience in a difficult spot," he says. “It wouldn’t have allowed them the mindset of openness to read the copy when we actually talk about our product if we provoked them very harshly from the start. It is about striking the balance.” 

Shock is a handy tool to grab attention, but to successfully use provocation in a marketing campaign it must also offer the audience the tools to solve the problem. 

Hey imposter!

alan. recently put this theory to the test with a campaign for sister company Raconteur titled ‘Hey imposter’. Launched at the same time as the company’s recent rebrand, it aimed to position the media company as the solution to the feelings of inadequacy that senior leaders experience in today’s business world.

The campaign hinged on the insight that as individuals enter the C-suite, demands are placed on them to make decisions across areas of the business beyond their own department. The resulting feeling of inadequacy is often somewhat paralyzing. 

“Suddenly - and especially when you step up to the C-suite - you don’t have that vertical protection anymore,” explains Buckland. “You are having to operate and have knowledge across all of these different disciplines you have no idea about. That stepping into the unknown is scary as hell.”

The Hey imposter! campaign gave credence to the audience’s feelings of anxiety and provided the tools needed to overcome the feeling of being an imposter. The jolt of addressing the audience as an ‘imposter’ is followed by empathetic copy explaining how a less siloed approach to decisions and understanding of the interconnectedness of modern business can help conquer these feelings and enable readers to become true modern business leaders.

Buckland believes this type of provocation is something B2B marketing in particular typically shies away from, instead prioritising a positive emotional state in their audience. But, he suggests, it can elicit a powerful feeling if it taps into a human truth.

“In this example, understanding that people feel a sense of anxiety because they feel like an imposter is a profound insight. Don’t just shy away from that, engage with it directly because that is a really powerful area for the audience,” he says.

This is where ‘the art of the insult’ comes into play.

How far is too far?

While the messaging may be direct, the addition of the word ‘Hey’ to the campaign title gave Raconteur the latitude to deliver a message that could be quite offensive in a softer way. 

Raconteur CEO Will Brookes welcomed the provocative approach, which has garnered a positive response for the company. He says: “I was pleasantly provoked. I thought it was bold and it might rub a couple of people up the wrong way.” 

He recognises that taking a provocative approach can be scary for B2B marketers, but he encourages them to stand strong and have confidence in their work. 

“At the start brands have good intentions, they are often prepared to ruffle feathers, but through the creative process they start to lose confidence,” he says. “My advice would be to remember the original strategy and how the messaging ladders up to that.”

Download our full report The Power of Provocation here or contact us on 020 3877 3800 or email contact@alan-agency.com to find out how we can help bring a provocative approach to your next campaign.

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