The rise of cringe marketing

Ads many perceive as cringeworthy may well be a very effective strategy to turn around a troubled brand says Scott Heron.

JC Penney is a large retailer that is up against the wall. Publishing weekly store closures and poor sales numbers, they typically are associated with news that makes you cringe. They need to shake things up, so now it seems their marketing strategy is designed to make you cringe too.

As most brands are using the content marketing strategy to drive positivity, loyalty and drive sales, troubled US store JC Penney seems to be embarking on a very different strategy and approach, and it looks like it may be paying dividends using the same measurement scales.

JC Penney mitensAt the Superbowl, they created a perceived Twitter fail through tweets that were riddled with spelling mistakes making it seem like their account had been hacked by a drunk employee. A few moments later it became clear that it wasn’t a hack at all, but claimed the crazy writing was a result of clumsy tweeting wearing JC Penney Sochi mittens (#tweetingwithmittens). News reported this as a Twitter miss as it was generally a bit cheesy. In the words of one Business Insider it was “a bit lame”.

The Super Bowl ended, and little credit was given for the fact that JC Penney had just created the Twitter event of the Super Bowl. The Tweet had been re-tweeted over 40,000 times in a matter of hours. To put this in perspective, last year’s runaway Twitter success was Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark” which received 16,000 retweets.

A few weeks on and the Sochi Olympics has arrived, and JC Penney is at it again.

In a backdrop where P&G offers a heartwarming TV spot called ‘Thank You Mom’, JC Penney offers a hiphop track with gyrating hips sung to the tune of Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ to show their support of Olympian Ted Ligety (#GoLigety). Again, we are cringing. Again, they are getting attention.

Go Ligety:

In this case, the metrics for success are harder to decipher – it is harder to share the TV commercial you saw than to retweet that tweet. There are 35,000 views on YouTube, and lots of conversation – hardly a runaway success so far.

JC Penney may be embarking on a strategy akin to doing a cannonball in a swimming pool of synchronised swimmers. Don’t worry too much about form, but make sure you are different, and make sure you make a splash. Like any cannonball, some will create larger impact than others.

Live events such as the Super Bowl and Olympics are massive conversation moments where people are commenting in real time. Being talked about, and being shared is a measure of success – even if in parody or jest.

Instead of creating marketing that is useful, maybe a contrarian style of making marketing that is cringeworthy, and conversation led, will provide the differentiation needed to jar people into buying from JC Penney again.

Whether the strategy wins or loses, it is bold, and does stand out – two characteristics that typically matter in effective advertising.

Scott Heron is chief digital officer at CumminsRoss.


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