CAUTION: This article is not about politics. We repeat, this article has nothing to do with the 2016 presidential election.

Hostile branding isn’t exactly what you think it is.

In fact, another phrase that we prefer, which might help you understand the concept, is aggressive differentiation: a strong effort to promote a specific idea that generates a specific type of person to interact with a product or service. This approach crosses over into so many areas of business, design, and public spaces, that you might not even be aware that a form of hostile branding has been used to influence you.

That’s right: you’ve been had, and every brander knows it!

Let’s consider an easy example: Dick’s Last Resort. This restaurant chain is known for their staff who dish it out on customers with all sorts of jokes and rude behavior. You’ve probably been to one for a good round of insults, to have menus thrown on the table, or to be given a dunce cap to wear. It’s expected. This is the perception the brand wants to create. Consumers know this, and that’s what stands out about Dick. They are insulting, almost a mockery of bad service, and people love it.

But that’s easy. You probably thought of that brand before we even named it.

What about a brand that plays hard to get and doesn’t tell you? We aren’t talking about subliminal marketing (which is illegal in some places), but aggressively using known consumer behavior to shape the company’s perception and build a brand. In other words, knowing how you will behave and getting you to respond accordingly.

Lululemon. Did that one come to mind? If not, take a look at this post from Branding Strategy Insider. Lululemon deliberately creates scarcity in a way that forces customers to purchase items at full-price. What do they do? They make a few beautiful items that they know will be popular, and then they simply don’t make enough of them. Terrible, right? In using scarcity, the company creates a barrier to mass consumption that, in turn, creates overly enthusiastic customers.

Yes, this is risky. It will not work for every brand.

We don’t customarily think of alienation and polarization as a tactic (well, except in politics, but we promised not to discuss that!) to connect with consumers. But it can work in branding consumer goods, and here are 3 theories why:

  1. Cult-like appeal: these brands help consumers feel different.
  2. Less is more: these brands remove features and have identified what consumers will give up.
  3. Perceived authenticity: a company that doesn’t compromise must be authentic.

These three ideas cumulate in a simple goal: to be seen as something to someone, but not everything to everyone. Think of it as alienation that attracts specific reactions and specific fans.

The concept extends into design and architecture, as well. It’s the uneven park bench that doesn’t allow sleeping or grinding with a skateboard. Or, the pink lighting that deters youth from congregating. Design that intentionally exerts some form of control over specific demographics (read: consumers) to eliminate those consumers from the space… or the business… or the brand. It isn’t always successful as the sound of a Harley from 100 paces away striking fear in the hearts of the meek… Take a look at some “bad design” ideas in this article such as when poorly constructed doors make daily life a tug of war.

What can we learn about hostile branding from these cases?

1. If you are signaling an audience to do something, make sure it is the right signal, for the right action!

2. If your product or service creates a counter-intuitive response, it will frustrate consumers. Frustrated consumers are not loyal consumers. Alienation that annoys (unlike alienation that attracts) is not a successful result of hostile branding.

  • For Example: a website that doesn’t scroll as expected is likely to frustrate your consumers to the point of leaving.

3. If you engage in hostile branding, you are taking a risk, a risk that consumers recognize the the intention, coercion, or manipulation and decide to opt out of the relationship due to inauthenticity on your brand’s part.

  •  As we’ve learned with millennials in a recent post, savvy consumers already distrust brands. This means that subversive hostile branding efforts may backfire.

4. This shouldn’t be the only tool in your brand building.

Non-negotiability in one part of your brand doesn’t mean it should be the whole message of the brand. Remain aware of how your stance is perceived by consumers and whether it creates an inconsistency that competes against your desired perception. Whole Foods created a perception of healthy, sustainable foods with a non-GMO policy, but critics point out that the company ignores the full science of GMOs to exclude foods that may be healthy, critical, and life-saving for malnourished regions of the world.

Hostile branding may sound like a bold, fun move. It can be, but like any branding attempt, it must be appropriate and fitting for your needs and the perception you want to create.

If this article was useful, please do us a favor and share it with others and/or submit a comment below.

Ready To Transform Your Brand?