The case for controversial case studies

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Jessie Tracy

13. 11. 2012 | 4 min read

The case for controversial case studies

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What do we learn from case studies?
For many marketers, customer case studies allow your customers to sing your praises for you, proving that you do what you say you do and you do it well. And they’re critical for success as we’re accustomed to getting peer validation before engaging in professional (or personal, for that matter) relationships.

Case study is also used as a term for best practice examples, highlighting a successful approach, tool, process, thingumabob.

For instance many people looking to validate infographics will show the Napoleonic March graphic that was published in 1869 which demonstrates that displaying information visually is not a new concept and worth a marketing embrace. (Ryan’s post on infographics is super sweet – as a complete non sequitur – so check it out if you haven’t yet when you finish reading this post.)

It’s this meaning of case study that I want to explore a bit further as we’re all friends here and I think a little controversial discussion would be interesting.


What if the case study subject isn’t something you want to promote?
I read this article on the BBC online magazine about the history of James Buchanan Duke, a man that may not be familiar by name but you absolutely know his work. In short, he invented the pre-rolled cigarette.

What made this article interesting wasn’t his machinery development, the rational for introduction of chemicals to the tobacco and the early rarity of lung cancer that made sufferers morbidly popular in medical schools. It was interesting (to me, a marketer) because it was a case study on marketing best practice.

He linked cigarettes to activities, people and brands that established such a strong positive association that, 123 years later, we are still struggling to break these ties. Beauty contests, horse racing, glossy magazines, collectable cards…it’s almost a sponsorship, advertising and promotional introductory pack that could work for a consumer brand today.  He introduced his cigarettes to international markets, established its portrayal as the easy, cool and sexy alternative to pipes and cigars and created one of the earliest true megamillion global brands.


So I ask you, hero or villain?
This case study screams success: we can learn many lessons on partnering with compatible brands, establishing a persona of the customer (allowing us to cater to their needs and media habits) and creating enough promotional variation to interest new customers without alienating the current ones. These are just the takeaways that I’ve pulled together from reading the article once. If I did some research I could probably create a set of 10 case studies/best practice guidelines that are gleaned from this one marketer’s approach.

My question is still what is the value of a case study? If we can disassociate the product from the brand, the marketer from what he’s marketing we are more comfortable with the lesson. I think in the Politically Correct Era (with capital letters, which I am under no circumstances saying is a bad thing) we have a hard time crossing this line and seeing the wood for the trees. Can we say this man is a visionary for his ideas without worrying about health groups and charities ripping us apart? Are we able to disassociate the practice from the product and say he was a pioneer and established multinational globalisation trends 100 years before globalisation was a buzzword?

As well as validating my own views (who doesn’t like doing that?) I want to make a case for the controversial case study. If we don’t learn from truly successful brands (despite their perceived and in several cases intrinsic evilness) the story isn’t as strong. In this view we look to company examples that have the right virtues and then hope the practices are aligned to our expectations. That can’t be right.

I am not advocating that we promote case studies that go against our brand values or in some other way support causes that disrupt our sense of right and wrong. But at your desk read about what Buck Duke was up to and see if there’s a strategy there that could work for your campaigns. You’re not likely a reader of this blog if you are a tobacco baron and I think we can suspend our disbelief long enough to identify some practices that work for B2B.

Once we’ve had lessons in the Dark Arts we should absolutely go back to fighting for the underdog, standing up for what is right, defending the meek and mild and championing the innocent. It doesn’t hurt to know what is going on in the dark side as it seems to get the job done pretty darn effectively.

I’d love to hear about any other contentious case studies that you’ve come across in your careers/lives/daily walk on planet earth. Get in touch and leave some comments. Let’s see what controversy we can find.


Published in:

  • b2b-marketing

  • branding

  • content

  • marketing

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  1. Doug Kessler

    November 16th, 2012

    Nice one.

    “What B2B Marketers Can Learn About Social Media From Adolf Hitler” might not have the intended effect.

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