Credit: Peeple

Peeple: when controversy is good for business

Human-rating app Peeple is back, but can it use the backlash to its advantage this time?

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 29 Mar 2016

Peeple’s co-founders are nothing if not persistent. You may remember the delightful app when its concept was aired last October, essentially dubbed a ‘Yelp for people’, the tagline being ‘where your character is your currency’. It was a platform that allowed you to rate anyone publicly, from bosses to mere acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, people didn't take kindly to Peeple, which didn't allow individuals to opt out. There was a significant backlash and the co-founders hastily retreated to the drawing board. Or so they said.

The app has launched today, set to a redemption arc story where the founders saw the error of their ways after public pressure and smoothed out how the app works. Going through the details suggests that’s not quite the case, but it does beg the wider question of when is controversy good for business? 

Some firms always seem wrapped up in one controversy or another. Sports Direct comes to mind. The retailer just fell out of the FTSE 100, and while the Guardian’s December expose on the retailer’s working practices may not be the sole cause, it certainly didn't help. 

On the other hand, controversy can be a very effective marketing tool, though only if it fits the brand. Paddy Power is at home on the ASA’s most complained about ads of the year, yet its marketing usually pays off – even if the infamous Oscar Pistorius one skipped straight past controversial and into tasteless and offensive.

So where does Peeple’s controversy fall on the scale? The fact you’ve likely heard of the app at all is a point in its favour. Getting yourself known as a new firm is arguably half the battle to taking off in the first place. Today’s launch has also been dominated by language about improved security and privacy. Now only those who sign up for the app can be written about and will get to select which recommendations are displayed on their profiles. The original design let users add people to the database and give them star ratings and reviews – without their consent.

To see why privacy and security are not areas where you want controversy, just ask Ashley Madison. Its whole premise is controversial – a dating site for extramarital affairs, with unashamed marketing capitalising on that (its slogan is ‘Life is short. Have an affair'). And there was predictable uproar about its catchy ad jingle, ‘I’m looking for someone other than my wife’. But when all that controversy actually proved damaging to the firm was after the cyber attack where all of its customer data was stolen. That's what led to founder and CEO Noel Biderman stepping down and left a tattered reputation to repair.

Peeple’s security and privacy concerns will need to have been assuaged for better prospects this time around. The fact there’s still a premium upgrade called The Truth License, which allows members to see everything that has been said about Peeple’s members regardless of what they think, is a red flag. Many will feel the founders are looking for a roundabout way to introduce their original concept.

The founders claim beta testing showed the app was used for ‘spreading kindness and accolades’, but if that’s all it is, who really needs a watered-down LinkedIn? An element of controversy can be a good thing – and a distinguishing feature for a new company, but only if the firm's in control of it. Peeple’s founders will hope their app has retained its divisiveness, but that they’ve made enough tweaks to keep a handle on it. 

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