Like Protein World, all a law firm needs to do to become a household name is insult half the population

With a general election looming, the tragic drownings of immigrants in the Mediterranean, and the death toll from a 7.8-magnitude quake in Nepal still rising, who would have thought that, surprisingly, another big topic on the lips of the Great British public was whether an advertising campaign featuring a bikini-clad model is perpetuating an unrealistic body image among women.

Protein World’s advert for meal replacement supplements, which is currently taking centre stage on London Underground billboards with the tagline: ‘Are you beach body ready?’, has certainly got chins wagging and fingers furiously tapping out their disapproval across social media.

The protein powder company has undoubtedly put the ‘all press is good press’ maxim to work following the latest Twitter storm. If plastering the image of an 8ft high modern Aphrodite with a provocative message wasn’t bad enough, the company’s response to criticism has left some wondering if it has committed the brand equivalent of ritual suicide.

Whether it was Arjun Seth, Protein World’s chief executive, calling the company’s detractors ‘terrorists’for defacing posters, telling a woman with a history of mental health conditions that she was ‘crazy’, or the troll like behaviour of the firm’s faceless social media account manager for saying Doughty Street Chambers’ Harriet Johnson should ‘grow up’, there is little to love about the brand.

Yet despite this ‘PR disaster’, an otherwise little known supplements business – but for its endorsement by some questionable ‘reality TV stars’ – is now a household name. And you can bet your six-pack abs it is going to capitalise on that new-found brand awareness. You just can’t buy that kind of exposure. Or can you?

Writing in Marketing Magazine, Alex Smith, the planning director at marketing agency Sense, said Protein World has reaped £1m in direct sales after just a £250,000 media spend. Not bad for a few adverts, now strewn with graffiti, and a barrage of angry tweets.

By contrast, law firm Slater and Gordon (SG) launched a £1m television campaign in a bid to become ‘a household name’ in 2013, which was followed up by a brand new look and a further wave of advertising earlier this year.

As SJ reported in February, the Australian-goliath hopes its marketing outlay will produce similar results to that of QualitySolicitors (QS), which spent £15m in March 2013 in exchange for 5,000 business leads, a 15 per cent increase in brand awareness, and a rise in the number of inquiries from potential member firms.

But SG and QS are not alone. Last month, Irwin Mitchell revealed its latest marketing strategy. A snazzy new logo combined with fresh TV adverts and a targeted social media campaign aimed at taking on its Australian rival to become a household name.

However, if you were to ask the average commuter which brand they recognised: Slater and Gordon, Irwin Mitchell, or Protein World? My money would be on the ‘body shamers’.

This is, of course, partly because the controversial supplements business is still in the news cycle, but also, as Neil Rose wrote in the Guardian five years ago, because most law firms are largely indistinguishable from each other. Little has changed since then. Is it therefore time for firms to get a little more outrageous with their marketing campaigns?

Like any other business, firms would need to be cautious of general advertising law and regulation, but to also be alert to potentially falling foul of chapter 8 of the SRA code of conduct, not to mention those core principles of ‘acting with integrity’ and ‘behaving in a way that maintains the trust of the public in the provision of legal services’.

Protein World may well have to deal with an investigation from the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) after it received over 200 complaints from members of the public, not to mention the added media exposure of a ‘taking back the beach’ protest and an online petition, which has so far been signed by 50,000 people. You do get the feeling though that it doesn’t much care.

One thing firms can learn from this ‘beach body’ controversy is this: If you find yourself receiving support from rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins, then you’re probably on the wrong side of the argument. Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to the gym.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 29 April 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission