In Defense of the Contrarian Story
Perspectives > Blog Post

In Defense of the Contrarian Story

January 28, 2014

Rachel Bonsignore

In marketing, many brands often feel pressure to “fit in” - even while innovating. Whether it’s a new product or fresh positioning, there’s usually still a strong imperative to stay within strict parameters when it comes to the tone and messages being used. But to make a big splash, sometimes you have to ignore these confines and go against the grain. My first mentor in PR called this the “contrarian story” strategy. Pick a topic or perspective that seems to contradict what all your competitors are putting out there, and make news for being different – even if it doesn’t seem to support your mission at first glance.

In Defense of the Contrarian Story

In marketing, many brands often feel pressure to “fit in” even while innovating.  Whether it’s a new product or fresh positioning, there’s usually still a strong imperative to stay within strict parameters when it comes to the tone and messages being used.  But to make a big splash, sometimes you have to ignore these confines and go against the grain.

My first mentor in PR called this the “contrarian story” strategy.  Pick a topic or perspective that seems to contradict what all your competitors are putting out there, and make news for being different – even if it doesn’t seem to support your mission at first glance.

I was reminded of this approach a few weeks ago when Old Spice released a new survey finding that teenage boys are wearing too much body spray and need to learn to “scent responsibly.”  On the surface, this might seem like an ill-advised PR strategy.  Why would a company encourage customers to use far less of a signature product?  But what Old Spice smartly did was present this as an educational campaign with the aim of establishing trust and inspiring loyalty among confused teens.  And though some media outlets did make note of the irony, the campaign still received a great deal of mainstream media attention and had the newsworthy angles guaranteed to spark conversation – a home run for any marketer.

Perhaps there’s a larger trend here that merits more attention.  Another possible sign of the times is the cover story in Esquire magazine’s February issue.  It celebrates “weird men,” with a long list of today’s athletes, politicians, and performers who embrace their weirdness – everyone from Questlove to Vice President Joe Biden.  There’s also a manifesto on this trait, observing that “there’s something going on in our culture that’s allowing people to let their freak flags fly…there’s more room for different kinds of people now. It’s not like the fifties.”  And though the feature story is accompanied by results of a survey about what does and doesn’t make a “normal” man today, there’s an underlying message that individuality, doing things in different and unexpected ways, and creating a new or controversial path for yourself is now an admirable way to operate.  Or, to quote a much-overused t-shirt and bumper sticker slogan, “normal is boring.”

A recent article from The Atlantic seems to suggest that this shift in our culture is reflected in one of modern entertainment’s staples: the romantic comedy.  It argues that 2013 was a great year for movies that took the best things about traditional romantic comedies but refused to “sacrifice the realistic nuances and complexities of relationships.”  Movies like Enough Said and Before Midnight took a more holistic view of love, embracing the difficulties along with the joys, and fully acknowledging that sometimes things just don’t work out.  Hopefully it’s at least partly because today’s audiences have higher standards and won’t just accept a hastily thrown-together assortment of A-list actors with fabulous jobs, wardrobes and apartments – and very little genuine conflict or realistic problems.  More substance and relatable situations – what a novel idea!

With our popular culture now challenging stale archetypes and companies being willing to encourage crazy ideas like less product usage, there may be more places than ever for brands to create a unique voice today.

Rachel Bonsignore

Director, Communications and Media Practice

As Director in Kelton's Communications and Media Practice, Rachel is instrumental in all aspects of the engagement process, from creating and building relationships to conducting research and...

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