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Managing Controversy: How grads with an MBA in Marketing can use it in a positive way

November 05, 2018

Turning a risk into an advantage

Professional MBA students sitting in front of a computer
Controversy can be an effective way of garnering attention through eliciting strong emotional responses.

Controversy can be an incredibly effective way of garnering attention – both good and bad. By tapping into divisive, sensitive or taboo issues, marketers can elicit a strong emotional response from the public, driving huge levels of engagement across social media platforms as passionate audiences click, share and respond to content.

On the other hand, avoiding controversy seems like an obvious goal for any sensible marketing department. Controversy is, by its nature, polarizing, so even if a business is reaching thousands of potential new customers, it could also be alienating an equal or greater number. Particularly for businesses with large and diverse customer bases, it can be very difficult to walk this tightrope.

Fortunately, graduates with an MBA in Marketing have all of the necessary tools and knowledge to use controversy to their advantage. Here’s how they do it.

Effective campaigns need to be the right kind of controversial

Studies have shown that while low-level controversy increases engagement, higher levels of controversy actually inhibit it. Marketers hoping to harness the power of controversy need to be aiming for a sweet spot in the middle: controversial enough to get an emotional response and provoke discussion, but not controversial enough to turn audiences away.

As graduates with an MBA in Marketing know, there are different types of controversy, as well. Spurring debate on an important issue while presenting evidence from both sides can be a highly effective way of generating audience engagement without turning people away. In contrast, being controversial solely for the sake of generating outrage will often come across to audiences as a publicity stunt.

People with an MBA in Marketing are talking in a café
Using controversy to spur debate can be an effective way of engaging audiences.

Know the difference between effective controversy and a publicity stunt

There can sometimes be a fine line between starting a debate and pulling a publicity stunt. While the former can be effective, the latter will almost always turn audiences away. One way to understand the difference is this: a publicity stunt uses controversy to take attention away from more important issues, while starting a debate turns attention towards those issues.

To be effective, controversy should be authentic and in-line with a company’s values. MBA graduates know that good marketing means maintaining consistency, so even controversial campaigns should align with the broader image being presented. Likewise, it should connect with the actual products or services a company sells. If companies use provocative marketing that is disconnected from their identity or products, consumers will read it as a publicity stunt and disengage.

Picture of a smartphone held by a professional MBA student
Modern audiences are savvy enough to know a publicity stunt when they see one.

Graduates with an MBA in marketing always know their audience

One of the keys to successfully managing controversy is to know your audience and be able to predict how they’ll react. This is where a professional MBA can be particularly useful, as it takes a nuanced understanding of market segmentation and customer analytics.

Studies have shown, for example, that younger age groups are most likely to show support for brands that align with their values, while older age groups are most likely to denounce or withhold support for those that don’t. Taking a controversial stance that is popular with younger people but unpopular with older people might be effective for a company with younger customers, but disastrous for a company that depends on older age groups. MBA graduates use a variety of marketing skills to identify their audience and craft accurate predictions about how they’ll respond to controversy.

Are you interested in earning your MBA in Marketing and Sales?

Contact WU Executive Academy for more information about our programs.

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