The bold marketing history behind the bikini

Jul 31, 2017

A key reason many companies fail to get noticed is they want it both ways: get lots of attention, but avoid any controversy.

However, history shows that marketing success favors the bold.

For instance, in 1946, there were two fashion designers trying to get attention for their new bathing suits.

The first to market was French couturier Jacques Heim, who advertised his “Atome” design as “the smallest swimsuit in the world.” (Although it was still high-waisted and modest by today’s standards.)

The other designer was Louis Réard, who named his product after a coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. recently conducted a nuclear test – Bikini.

Réard supposedly chose the name because he thought it would inspire the same shock and awe of the bomb, and he was right. It was the first popular style to expose the navel – a major cultural faux pas at the time – and was banned in Italy, Portugal, Spain and many U.S. states.

But Réard courted the controversy. At the announcement press conference, an exotic dancer modeled a bikini made with fabric resembling newsprint, a nod to the news coverage he expected.

In ads, Réard quipped that a suit wasn’t a bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” He even custom-built a car to resemble a yacht and drove it in parades with a crew of bikini-clad models.

All that being said, Heim’s design was initially more successful. It took 20 years for the bikini to really catch on. But because of Réard’s shrewd marketing, two-piece suits are now generally known as bikinis, not Atomes.

Long story short: don’t be afraid to make waves. Keeping an even keel is fine if you’re happy with the status quo. Just don’t expect breakthrough success without ever rocking the boat.

Further reading on boldness in business


You Want Snark With Those Fries? No One Is Safe From Wendy’s Tweets
Many companies take a safe but bland approach to customer interaction. Wendy’s is the poster child of a company that has successfully used an edgy style to get great engagement and greater sales. Why do people like it? “We find getting into fights on Twitter funny,” one young fan said in this Wall Street Journal piece.

Starbucks’ New CEO Kevin Johnson Vows Not to Shy Away From Controversy
Despite seemingly always involved in some form of brand controversy, Starbucks is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most admired companies. Why does it continue to take a public stand on hot-button issues? “One of the reasons people come to work at Starbucks is because we stand for something,” said their new CEO.

How Brands Get the Most Out of Trolls
It’s very easy today for popular companies to get caught up in unintended arguments. The most sophisticated organizations have plans for reacting to negative attention and leveraging it for even greater exposure. This Slate article offers some recent examples of brands that have successfully turned controversies into wins.

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