Kirstie Maryott shares how polarization can be good for brands, arguing that the greatest enemy is indifference.

This article is part of the January 2021 US Spotlight series, “Marketing in a polarized nation.” Read more

Everywhere you look, the world is talking about polarization. In politics and in culture, tribalism rules. In the most basic and profound ways, we could not be further apart. You don’t need me to tell you that – it’s something we’re all living.

And it’s scaring a lot of marketers.

As a strategist, here are three real questions I have been asked in the last year:

  • “How do we take a stand without alienating potential customers?”
  • “How can we appeal to a broad audience and still have a clear purpose?”
  • “How do we grow into the most-loved consumer brand? – Do we need two strategies?”

This is hard to navigate. Audiences are fragmented. Divisions are deep. Polarization is scary stuff. For brands, picking “one side” could mean blocking the other out completely.

But, what if we didn’t see polarization as such a threat?

What if having haters became a worthy goal?

For me, the most exciting and interesting brands are decidedly polarizing.

An example:

The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is fascinating, precisely because it is a polarizing brand.

Either you love it and think Mixed Martial Arts should be an Olympic sport.

OR, you hate it and think humans fighting each other in an octagon-shaped cage should be illegal.

You’re either for the bravado, the violence, the drama.

Or you’re repelled by it.

There are lovers and haters. Very few in between. The UFC is truly cilantro.

And that’s probably its greatest strength.

(^yes, you can mark me as a fan).

The truth is the biggest enemy brands face in today’s polarized world is not the other side – the enemy of all brands is indifference.

Don’t fear being hated. Fear being invisible. Fear being something people don’t have an opinion, or a thought about, at all. Fear being something that can be easily replaced.

When people are burning their Nikes because the brand stands with Colin Kaepernick, I am pumped up.

When people are boycotting Delta flights for canceling a discount with the National Rifle Association, I'm buying more stock.

When a brand as big and mass-market as McDonald’s makes it clear that it values Black lives, I, too, feel like a part of its community. (Like Nike, a W+K client.)

I’m frankly most excited when work from this agency takes a polarizing topic head-on. This Tiger Woods ad from a decade ago comes to mind: featuring the voice of Tiger’s late father effectively scolding him for the infidelity scandal that derailed his golf career, this ad stopped me in my tracks. Could Tiger just come back? Was he even sorry? Was he a bad guy? Did he deserve the benefit of the doubt? Did he deserve the chance to be a hero again? Everyone had an opinion on this one. In fact, this is the ad that got me interested in a career in branding. It was bigger than golf. It was a flashpoint in culture, and people took clear sides.

These examples matter because they are anything but invisible. They’re powerful. They elicit an emotional response that, in a polarized world, people will either be drawn to...or be willing to walk away from. Juicy.

Sure, you may find that the majority of consumers prefer your brand over any other in the category. Or that a staggering amount of people love your product…but the truth is that 70% of people who “love” Pepsi also say they “love” Coke. An emotional connection matters because it can make your brand irreplaceable.

So yes: the truth is that we are living in a polarized time.

But here’s my argument for why that’s a good thing for marketers:

Polarization – in politics and beyond – gives us passion groups. Gives us friction. Friction creates cultural heat. Cultural heat creates buzz. And when you can tap into that, suddenly your brand isn’t invisible. When it’s clear what a brand stands for, and what they stand against, things get interesting.

A wise W+K planner, David Terry, once said: “the best way to navigate the world as a marketer is to take friction out of the business, but keep friction in the brand. That’s your greatest opportunity.”

So, if you’re worried that your brand is becoming “too polarizing,” I’d likely tell you that you just might be onto something.