Hold On!

Hold Up

Please select a minimum of three sectors in the menu above.

Got It
  • Does it pay to rub people up the wrong way?
  • Does it pay to rub people up the wrong way?
    Bailey Weaver (2010) ©
REPORT

Is there an art to pissing people off?

According to the world of online dating, coming across as an arse to some can make others love you more. If having haters makes those who like you like you all the more, does the same psychology apply to our relationships with brands? And does it actually pay for a brand to rub part of its audience up the wrong way?

Location Global

Scope
“Don’t message me if: Bacon is important to you… You think world peace is an actual goal of some sort… You use sex as currency in a relationship … You believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how inane …  Four out of five of your photos are of you at weddings … You read Vice.” [1] And the list goes on. This isn’t a joke; it’s taken from an actual profile on OKCupid.

Drawing on claims made by the site’s co-founder, Christian Rudder, in his book Dataclysm, the chances are, for each person who considers this man to be an objectionable prick, someone else will be falling over themselves to drop him a line. Because apparently, “having haters somehow induces everyone else to want you more. People not liking you somehow brings you more attention, entirely on its own.”  [2]

So if we can say this about the unscrupulous world of online dating, can we apply similar precepts when thinking about our relationships with brands?

Being objectionable can make people like you more Being objectionable can make people like you more
Ed Yourdon (2013) ©

Hate at first sight
In Dataclysm, Rudder analyses years of data from OKCupid to proffer insights into, as the book’s subtitle states, ‘who we are when we think no one’s looking’. Writing in relation to attractiveness ratings, he somewhat counterintuitively concludes that, “To be universally liked is to be relatively ignored. To be disliked by someone is to be loved all the more by others.” [2]

It comes down to something called ‘variance’ - “a measure of how widely data is scattered around a central value.” [2] In other words, if 3 is the average, the combination of 1 and 5 has a greater variance than 2 and 4. Rudder found that “A very low-rated woman (20th percentile) with high variance in her votes gets hit on about as much as a typical woman in the 70th percentile.” Overall, “being highly polarising will in fact get you about 70% more messages.”

The equivalent of variance in marketing-speak is ‘brand dispersion’, and similar to the online dating paradigm, in lists of ‘most hated’ and ‘most popular’ brands, the same names crop up: Google, McDonald’s, Apple, FaceBook etc. Perhaps there’s an element of statistical inevitability at play, given the ubiquity and scale of such brands, but for Associate Professor of Marketing Michael Wiles, brand dispersion is primarily attributable to a tension between “how brands deliver on value proposition” and “the values that people hold dear.”

The equivalent of variance in marketing-speak is ‘brand dispersion’, and similar to the online dating paradigm, in lists of ‘most hated’ and ‘most popular’ brands, the same names crop up: Google, McDonald’s, Apple, FaceBook etc

Take Facebook. It’s a service that connects you with your friends, and it does this very well. Yet, when it comes to matters of privacy, Facebook is highly problematic - morally spurious, even. “These values are at odds, and fulfilling one comes at the expense of another,” explains Wiles. “If you value privacy, you’re a hater; if you value connecting with your friends, you’re a lover.” [3]

For Chris Malone, co-author of The Human Brand, the way we perceive and interact with brands - and ultimately whether we love or hate them - is determined by two categories of perception:  warmth and competence. Terms coined by social psychologists, they denote “the processes we go through when subconsciously and instantaneously trying to ascertain and judge the intentions and abilities of others.” [4] As humans, our skill at reading people according to the warmth and perception framework has been evolving ever since the ‘the original game of Survivor.’ [4] Only now, we invoke this instinctive, primal deftness when we’re trying to suss out brands.

These notions of warmth and competence historicise Wiles’ theory: “How brands deliver on value proposition” is synonymous with competence; “the values that people hold dear” relates to warmth and our impressions of others’ intentions towards us. If, to recall our previous example, privacy is important to you, then warmth would be the last emotion evoked by Google or Facebook.

“Warmth and competence perceptions trigger predictable patterns of emotion,” explains Malone. “Particularly in the case of brands we dislike, theses emotions can be really strong.” [4] Whereas positive impressions of a brand’s intentions and competence only develop over time - and through regular reinforcement - if a company demonstrates ill-will and incompetence, (such as with the BP oil spill), we become very angry very quickly.  It’s a case of ‘hate at first sight’. [4]

‘Hate at first sight’ has powerful psychological traction ‘Hate at first sight’ has powerful psychological traction
Mark Kidsley (2013) ©

Belonging
Knowing that you fall into a brand’s love or hate contingency can be very seductive - even if hate is the more rousing emotion. “All the evidence we’ve seen suggests that our brains perceive, respond and interact with brands as if they were tribes,” says Malone. “My interactions with the tribe inform my expectations, beliefs and loyalties… In terms of loving and hating, the degree to which a brand demonstrates it is aligned with, or against, your principles will make them more attractive to you.”
[4]

So, polarisation can be a matter of principle. Take Chick-Fil-A, a large, US, chicken shop chain known for its religious and conservative leanings. In 2012, the CEO made some controversial comments about gay marriage, and it was revealed that the company helped fund an anti-gay organisation. On the one hand there were pickets and boycotts; on the other, it secured more regulars because of the CEO’s stance. In the same year as the scandal, their sales increased by 12%. [6]

Whereas positive impressions of a brand’s intentions and competence only develop over time - and through regular reinforcement - if a company demonstrates ill-will and incompetence, (such as with the BP oil spill), we become very angry very quickly

The basic premise of social identity theory states that identifying with a group helps us to define our own identity, as well as experience a sense of belonging. As such, we relate to ‘in-groups’, we disavow ‘out-groups’, and simultaneously exaggerate the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Ultimately, “the degree to which we’re disliked by one group makes us more attractive to another.” [4It’s simply part of what it means to be human, a powerful force of social cohesion.

You either love it or you hate it; either way you won’t forget it You either love it or you hate it; either way you won’t forget it
chotda (2008) ©

Are you in or out?
In the same way that Marmite’s leveraging of ‘love it or hate it’ is so successful that ‘marmite’ has become a neologism for anything divisive, in 2011 Miracle Whip built an entire campaign around the tagline ‘We’re not for everyone. Are you Miracle Whip?’ A slew of famous faces came out to rally for and against the product, with Pauly D from Jersey Shore saying he’d break up with a girl if she liked Miracle Whip. During the campaign, sales increased by 14% and there was a staggering 631% increase in social media postings - presumably from people passionately defending and denigrating the wannabe mayonnaise. [5]

And then there’s Lululemon. After complaints about transparency and piling on Lululemon yoga pants, and a product recall, the company’s founder Chip Wilson declared that not all women’s bodies ‘worked’ in their leggings. Lululemon has been tipped as a brand that won’t survive 2015. Yet it’s still here…..

The basic premise of social identity theory states that identifying with a group helps us to define our own identity, as well as experience a sense of belonging. As such, we relate to ‘in-groups’, we disavow ‘out-groups’

Malone explains how “Lululemon built this tremendous loyalty without competing on price or without a lot of advertising. It was very much about getting into communities, building relationships with yoga instructors and getting people into stores for yoga classes. After the controversy, they continued to grow, just not as fast: 5% instead of 40%. In one respect, it’s a clear example of how the CEO’s comments were a negative demonstration of intention and warmth - and it had a harmful, measurable impact. Yet on the other hand, it evidenced the loyalty of their core customers.” [4]

To many, the imputation that some women are too fat for yoga is odious; but to those whose ass looks great in any asana, you’re part of an elite club. Being in this exclusive gangis a form of bonding between you and your fellow hot, skinny yoginis; the mark of membership is, of course, the sporting of Lululemon head to toe.

In 2012, Grey Poupon mustard played with this very concept of exclusivity. They encouraged people to apply to their ‘Society Of Good Taste’, then applicants’ FaceBook pages were vetted for ‘good taste’ credentials. And even more brazenly, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries infamously proclaimed, “we go after cool kids, we go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and lots of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes] and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” [7]

Exclusivity: controversially successful Exclusivity: controversially successful
Lululemon (2015) ©

Insights and opportunities
By all accounts - and in many different respects - being polarising puts you in a fortuitous position. The more repellant you are, the more magnetic you become. And this reciprocity results in an intensification of the love and the hate because, as humans, our desire to identify with a group that shares our values is instinctive and compelling.

As far as brands are concerned, making unequivocal statements about who you are, what you stand for or against is, opines Malone, ‘humanising’ - it makes it easier for us to know where we stand, and that’s something we like. [4]

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Wiles et al suggest that manufacturing polarisation can be a good thing. ‘Driving a wedge in the market’ by targeting a specific demographic or being provocative are two ways that a brand can effectively win over one group by alienating another. [5] McCoy’s ‘Man Crisps’ and Yorkie’s ‘It’s Not For Girls’ immediately spring to mind.

By all accounts - and in many different respects - being polarising puts you in a fortuitous position. The more repellant you are, the more magnetic you become

Yet, warns Malone, “it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to conduct an opinion poll about in the way a politician might. Saying and doing what you think people want you to won’t work. We see through the pandering and patronising as we’re judging [brands] the way we would an individual: do they have integrity? are they being consistent? do they stand for something? etc.”

If you have an inherently divisive brand, then, say Wiles et al, it’s possible to capitalise on this quality equally by placating or poking the haters; essentially by amplifying a polarising attribute. For example, General Mills started its own blog and partnered with the Celiac Disease Foundation to assuage critics’ concerns about obesity. RyanAir winds up its detractors by making scandalous proposals such as charging for going to the loo. Miracle Whip was able to galvanise the ‘middle-of-the-road consumers’ to try the faux mayo by dialling up - and owning up to - its divisive nature. People wanted to know what the fuss was about. [5]

Or, you can take the humorous approach. [3] Spirit Airlines did a phenomenal job of saying ‘up yours’ to its vociferous slanderers withhatethousandmiles.com. By publicly acknowledging its disgruntled flyers, subtly mocking their comments, and not apologising, they sent out a clear message: “This is who we are. Take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.” [9] [4]

There is an art to pissing people off; but it must come from a place of unwavering principle, or from knowing that your product has such a strong identity, flavour, style or aesthetic that some people are guaranteed to absolutely love it; that you can afford to say ‘f**k the rest’. From getting laid to convincing people to try condiments, it seems the winning formula = “lots of yes, lots of no but very little meh.” [2]

Emmajo Read is a copywriter and writer based in London. She currently contributes to Protein and DJ Magazine, has a sociology degree, and a Masters in cultural and critical studies.

Related Behaviours:
Death of the Middle: Polarising opinions, behaviours and choice.
Brand Me: Managing your personal image and reputation.

Sources
1. ‘This guy’s insane “Don’t message me if…” list on OKCupid probably rules you out. He’s that good.’, Happy Place (July 2014)
2. Dataclysm: who we are when we think no one’s looking, Christian Rudder (2014)
3. Interview with Associate Professor Michael Wiles conducted by the author
4. Interview with Chris Malone conducted by the author.
5. ‘Make the most of a polarizing brand’, Harvard Business Review (November 2013)
6.'Chick-Fil-A sales soar in 2012 despite bad PR’, Huffington Post (November 2013)
7. ‘Has Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO really made a ‘Big fat marketing mistake’, The Guardian (May 2013)
8. ‘10 brands that will disappear in 2015’, 24/7 Wall St (July 2014)
9. ‘Spirit Airlines: embracing the hate’, GlobalNewsWire Video (July 2014)

Author
Emmajo Read