A Case Study On Protein World
As I live right at the beating heart of the Northern Powerhouse (Urmston), ad placement on the London Underground has zero impact on my life.
So how the hell have I heard of Protein World? It’s based in London and to the best of my knowledge advertises solely on the city’s transport network. (Note that the closest I come to protein shakes is the frisson I experience when I get to point out exceptions to the “I before E” rule.)
I know about the company for the same reason as everyone else: it’s had unprecedented global publicity thanks to social media users sharing their objections to its advertising – and then newspapers covering the objections. People have been defacing their ads (and tweeting pictures of their handiwork) and posing in front of the ads in their beachwear to prove that they are, indeed, beach ready.
The third wave of publicity came in the form of people opposing the protests, so we ended up with a full-on ding-dong. In the yellow corner are Protein World’s supporters, who say that fitness is an admirable goal to aspire to. In the blue corner are those who say that there’s no such thing as beach-body readiness, and that suggesting there is is an attempt to make people feel ashamed about their bodies.
I’m not sure why this particular campaign caught on so wildly – the promotion of the so-called “beach body” seems to be a staple of the magazine rack – look at this Google image search, for example, which shows that the “beach body” is definitely a thing. The campaign could easily have been aimed at any number of possible advertisers.
Protein World just got lucky.
Yep, as Jonny’s about to point out, the anti-Protein World campaign has had a positive effect on its online visibility. The company made no attempt to apologise or acknowledge the protestations and adopted a bullish stance, which probably isn’t the route most companies would have taken. Supporters and objectors dug their heels in, but the final winner might end up being decided by the ASA after some of the weight loss claims Protein World makes about its products were called into question.
If you were a rival of Protein World, would you be rubbing your hands with glee or seething with jealously? Over to Jonny.
“It is often said that there is no such thing as bad publicity; in fact it’s a terribly overused phrase. Perhaps in terms of PR it’s important to achieve the level of brand awareness that comes with any campaign, whether it’s positively received or not. In terms of online marketing, specifically SEO, bad publicity can be bad. Take the climbing fella who won last year’s Apprentice; he started off with a bit of a poor reputation due to his lack of experience, and perhaps some jealousy of his success from some in the industry. In a recent interview he discussed how the long delay in the launch of his company website (for which he was lambasted even more) was due to a number of denial of service attacks, essentially attempts to take down his website, or negative SEO.
Protein World’s latest campaign has certainly received a lot more negative exposure than this, which is why we were perhaps surprised to see the impact it’s had on their recent SEO performance. Take the following graph from Searchmetrics, which looks at the site’s visibility in search. Whilst they have enjoyed good progress since the start of the year, the last week saw them shoot up 84%.
The site is ranking for 50% more keywords, the value of the additional organic traffic they’re receiving is up 2,600% and coincidentally they’ve had an increase in mobile visibility (following the Google mobile friendly update last week). This isn’t strictly down to just increased awareness of the brand, or a desire to find them in the search results, it could be more citations or links which have helped them shoot up in terms of ranking.
However, despite these positive numbers they’ve only actually had a 12% increase in new referring domains over the past week; considering that represents 12 new domains (up from 97) it’s not quite the widespread coverage the other stats would suggest. This brings an interesting point in itself. Every online news outlet has covered the story in some capacity and it’s all over social media, yet the new links acquired are nothing to shout about. There are a couple of links from people.com and today.com, but other than the Huffington Post, no other media have linked to the site in their coverage. Has there been a conscious effort from the media and commenters not to link through the company? It certainly seems like one way to express displeasure in this digital age; a public blank. What we haven’t seen though (yet) is any ‘negative SEO’ as mentioned earlier.
It seems odd too that the company hasn’t taken the opportunity to put out some PPC ads to protect their brand space and key SERPs. A few competitors look to have slipped into this space in their absence, perhaps on a broad match rather than any bidding on competitor terms – we’ve covered both of these topics recently in articles on brand bidding and competitor bidding.
Either way, the fact that the value of their monthly organic traffic has shot up to £8,000 (a 2,600% increase) suggests that the money they might have spent running PPC campaigns to generate traffic was better spent on a few billboards on the London Underground.”
Jonny Pennington, Marketing Team Leader
We don’t know how much of the traffic has led to sales, and it’s too early to say whether this whole affair has been good or bad PR for the company. But as the Katie Hopkinses and the Owen Joneses of the world know, saying things that outrage your opponents online is a pretty good way to build your brand. (Hopkins predictably weighed in on the subject, as she does whenever a subject comes up that’s within her sphere of omniscience.)
Google doesn’t distinguish between favourable links and critical ones – they’re all good for the one being pointed linked to, and the proprietors of online newspapers were among the first to notice this. No matter how much those who understand online marketing try to warn people away from throwing fuel on their opponents’ fires, people can’t help going online to express their opposition. If no one publicly opposed Hopkins’s ostensible opinions, would she fade away? Or would she and her supporters just assume she was speaking for the masses?
I’m not suggesting that this whole affair was a campaign orchestrated by Protein World’s PR team. It all seemed too unschooled (especially the bit where the boss of Protein World compared the poster daubers to terrorists and redefined “on-message“). I guess PW will be treating it as a windfall and despite the support and its initial muscular assertiveness, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something approaching a retraction and maybe even a gesture towards addressing the body-shaming accusations.
Even if Protein World does get a windfall, it doesn’t mean the campaign against body-shaming in general won’t have gained some ground. Fitness, supplement and fashion retailers will no doubt be going over the campaigns they have in the pipeline to identify their own blind spots and question assumptions they might have held about the public’s attitude to body image. Society just changed a bit.
Twitter and blog index image (“Feeling objectified yet?”) courtesy of