When is Polarisation good?

This is more a question-blog than anything else, so please comment with your perspective below. It is also up on Quora so check out what’s going on there.

Polarisation is when you say or do something that creates a reaction that splits people into two or more groups.

When launching a business or cause, a marketing tactic that is quite often great to use is shock tactics or guerilla marketing. But, the result of this sort of tactic often results in polarisation – your audience splits up into two or more groups.

So, when launching a business, what factors must be considered regarding scare tactics and polarisation – state of the market, education of the customer, timing, brand etc?

Let me know if you need more information…see you in the comments :D

3 Comments to “When is Polarisation good?”


the greatest risk in business is that you try to please everyone and in the process either fall well short of the mark by pleasing no-one or simply become a neurotic mess.

Brands that succeed in having what Tom Peters describe as ‘raving fans’ tend to polarise people. Those that love the Harley Davidson brand need to have an equally appalled cadre who find the thunder of a big ol’ pushrod V-Twin menacing and anti-social. Where would the brand’s meaning come from if it wasn’t for the illusion of rugged indivdualism and perceived ‘outlaw’ status? (never mind that real motorcyclists heap scorn on Harleys for their poor performance and style over substance).

Likewise with the Apple brand (sorry to trot out the two most over-used business cases), for those of us who have been loyal to Apple – even when they produced products of dubious merit – since the Mac launched in ’84 and before – the alternative was just to profoundly appalling. To use a PC was to live in the shadow of Sauron. It wasn’t enough to me a Mac fan it was crucial to despise Microsoft and its ugly, awkward products.

In many ways it is better not to have customers who are indifferent to your brand and its products. They will be swayed easily to change if you had to persuade them in the first place.
Catering to a bland aggregation of people based on a demographic so broad as to be meaningless will mean your products will most likely be grey and bland – like most products. Which means you will be running like a hamster on a wheel to eek out your share of the market – forced to compete on price.

What a soul destroying life that would be.

As far as ‘scare tactics’ go. Not a sustainable approach to marketing. I was once asked to make a scary ad about battery farming of chickens by an activist group. It occurred to me that most reasonable people like chicken and need affordable sources of protein to feed their families. Trying to make them feel bad about their choice of chicken would probably fail – we respond better to positive messages than negative ones – so I suggested the group focus their campaign on a reasonable request – send a message to poultry farmers by eating once less chicken meal a week. If a significant percentage of people were to adopt this practice it would make an equally significant impact on the economics of growing chickens for food. Money talks. Farming practices would soon change. Sadly the organisation just wanted a scary ad and we went our separate ways. Like I said – there are some customers you don’t really want – and even reasonable messages can polarise.

August 14, 2011 Reply

Hi David

Thanks for that very informative and insightful response. I appreciate the time it took to write it!

I agree, polarising helps create a niche where your customers can be very passionate – this is powerful in protecting market share and determining price.

The case, I am specifically referring to fits very closely with your battery farming example. It is around ethical products and fairtrade – not my own personal project, mind you. The promotional concept pitched to me is focused on telling people they are inconsiderate and immoral when NOT buying ethically produced t-shirts. The campaign is driven towards asking people to be walking billboards for the brand, but the message is blatantly accusatory and painful (for me) to put out there.

I think what this sort of marketing strategy does, certainly polarises. But, the impact might be a 99/1 split in the group. But, a convincing message which is bold, informative, and convincing would possibly change this to more 90/10 split or something more reasonable. This case just reminds me of the Bad Parent philosophy mentioned in this enlightening video by Theramin Trees – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Eam-z1bwrk.

August 17, 2011 Reply

[...] the advert creates a polarisation of the audience – stingey, serious kiwis vs fun-loving, humourous [...]

August 18, 2011 Reply

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