FAIL: Groupon Picks Boring Over Polarizing

February 11, 2011
By Lisa Barone in Branding

A lot has been written about the ads Groupon ran during the Super Bowl, including an interesting social media CPR synopsis by Fast Company. If you’ve somehow been living under a rock, here’s what you missed this week in Social Media Melodramas. Groupon was looking to increase brand awareness at the biggest dance of the year and went to Crispin Porter + Bogusky for help. What they got for their $3 million ad spend was a handful of mock celebrity endorsement ads that poked fun at Tibet, endangered whales and those poor depleting rainforests, while also aiming to raise money for the same causes. But when that last part wasn’t highlighted well, the company found itself torn apart in the court of public opinion for trying to cash in on others tragedies. After riding the wave for the past few days, the ads were pulled and Groupon apologized. Aw.

Here’s a snippet of the statement released by Groupon CEO Andrew Mason on why the ads were yanked.

We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted. We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads […] We will run something less polarizing instead. We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through. I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads.

Okay, so here’s the thing.

Groupon is an emerging startup known for being both quirky and supporters of social activism. In theory, the ads created were smart because they highlighted both components and showed off the Groupon personality. Well done there. And well done to Groupon for trying to be edgy and recruiting the viral marketing geniuses at CP + B. Did the ads flop when users missed the activism call to action? Some might say they did. But for all the drama, $500,000 will still be netted for the causes and Groupon has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue (and blog) all week long.

All those “outraged” people – do they matter? Will they remember why they were so mad in a week? Can any of them pick out Tibet on a map or name a country that even has a rainforest? My money’s on no. They’re faux offended. But that’s a different issue for a different post.

What really irked me about Andrew’s apology was that he’s not yanking the commercials because, in hindsight, he agrees they were offensive. He doesn’t appear to think that at all. Groupon’s pulling the ads because they polarized people. And that’s a sucky reason for doing anything.

Groupon is a fast-growing startup. The smartest thing they can do is polarize people. To create a segment of the population that is SO pissed off at them they can’t even stand it and to create another segment who thinks the ads were ingeniously hilarious. Because that’s how you grow a community and a fan base. It’s also how you get people talking about you, increase the eyes on your brand and show more people what you have to offer. And if you think there weren’t any people who loved the ads, you’re wrong. Plenty of people found those ads to smart and funny, they’re just not blogging about it because no one is going to blog about how hilarious they found that anti-save the whales commercial were.

No, I mean, besides me.

If Groupon wants to apologize for offending people, fine. But they should stand behind what they created. Maybe it wasn’t perfect and maybe it ruffled some feathers, but if you believe in them, you stand by them. That’s how you show people what you’re about. You’re about being quirky, irrelevant, and laughing at yourself and the seriousness of life. I don’t know about you, but that’s a brand mission statement I can get behind. You don’t become a brand people love by sitting in the middle of the road. Spend too much there and you’re going to get run over. And that’s typically what we see with brands.

Being polarizing is what makes your brand interesting and connects it to others.

For as many people who despised Michael Jackson, he’s also revered. For as many people who think Snooki is an abomination on the human race, she’s a New York Times best-selling author with a huge platform. For as many who are puzzled by Lady Gaga, others can’t get enough. The story isn’t found in the averages, it’s found in the outliers.

Don’t be afraid to be polarizing to prove a point, to move a conversation, or to get people to notice you – as long as it’s authentic. As long as you actually believe what you’re preaching and what you’re putting out. I think Groupon believed in those ads and they should have stood by them. The reason most ads and companies fail is because they’re unable to leave any kind of impression, good or bad. They’re safe, they’re boring and they’re forgettable. Last weekend Groupon took a stand and they became memorable. They polarized their audience. And good for them. Too bad they went back on it.

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