I woke up this morning with a sense of anxiety familiar to most writers — one that only comes from an impending deadline and absolutely no idea what to write. And then I switched on the TV to see that Prince had died.
Even while reaching for the iPad I knew there would be plenty of material to enable me to fill 1,200 angry words. Following a tragedy — particularly a major celebrity death — branded social media disasters have become as predictable as they are insensitive.
By the time you’re reading this, there will have been scores of articles criticizing the worst and praising the best examples.
Why do so many professional marketers still manage to run full pelt into walls with startling regularity despite the many lessons of the past? Is our industry really that out of touch?
The evidence isn’t good.
‘Yes, but where’s the product?’
Before my first caffeine installment of the day was finished, I’d already captured the first of many screenshots. Into the notebook of shame went Cheerios, unable to resist dotting the “i” in its tribute with the iconic circular breakfast cereal.
The response by Twitter user @trillballins was typical of the horrified reaction: “Imagine Cheerios sending this to you after your Dad dies.” Playfully including your product in a tribute always undermines the solemnity of the message.
Playfully including your product in a #socialmedia tribute undermines the solemnity of the message says @kimota
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As Rob Clark, storyteller for Elusive Fish, commented on Facebook, “… (w)hen a brand uses a channel that is primarily devoted to building awareness and marketing a product, it comes across as standing on a tombstone to better gain attention.”
Social media graphics that include the product aren’t unusual (and Cheerios certainly wasn’t alone). Many brands have templates on hand to quickly create social media content when an opportunity arises.
When a blackout interrupted play for 22 minutes during the 2013 Super Bowl, Oreo famously joined in the shared experience of the audience with the timely “dunk in the dark” tweet. Unfortunately, the huge success of that tweet, celebrated by marketers everywhere, may have encouraged other brands to attempt to replicate the same success in far less appropriate circumstances.
After deleting the tweet, Cheerios said its intention was purely to “acknowledge the loss of a musical legend in our hometown.” However, other Minnesota brands such as Lenovo and Caribou Coffee paid tribute without shoehorning their logo or product.
Yet even these more subtle and respectful posts are not immune to a little criticism. While Lenovo’s respectful tweet was well received by many, some social media users still objected to any brand using a promotional channel to join a very human conversation.
Whatever your brand’s intentions, they have little to do with how an audience will receive the message. For some it will always look like opportunism in the face of grief, turning any emotional or controversial topic into a minefield you should be wary of walking into without fully considering the consequences.
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An exception that proves the rule
One of the most successful — even praised — branded tributes also placed the product front and center. However, Chevrolet can claim far greater justification for its tribute as Prince was first to plug its little red Corvette in one of his greatest hits.
No shoehorning required. Instead, the brand was lucky enough to already have such a strong product association with Prince that it would almost be inappropriate not to mention it. So while this is an exception to the rule about pushing your product, it also highlights the rare circumstances in which it makes sense.
If you can’t walk the walk, don’t talk the talk
Just a few weeks earlier many brands disgraced themselves with equally shabby tributes to David Bowie. There are so many brain-meltingly bad Bowie examples to choose from, but Crocs Shoes certainly stands out for completely missing the point on just about every level. Apparently, nothing sums up Bowie’s creativity, rebellion, and individualism better than a pair of plain white Crocs.
Just as brands adopted Prince’s signature purple almost instantly after he died, so too did they transform Bowie’s lightning bolt into a clichéd graphic device within hours — easy to replicate and slap on any branded image. Bowie’s massive cultural significance was reduced to a two-dimensional faux-logo as brands he would never have endorsed attempted to extract (i.e., steal) some brand value from his legacy.
Setting a bad example
Some social media missteps are due more to inexperience and ignorance, like this image posted to Facebook (and hastily deleted) by Palace Premier Meats — a U.K. butcher.
Naturally, this prompted a tirade of negative comments and bad reviews on its Facebook page with many angrily pointing out that Prince was vegan. Purple sausages aside, that’s some pretty bad brand alignment.
While quick to delete the image and post a humble apology, the business now has a reputation-busting 1.3 star review rating on Facebook, potentially deterring customers long after this misadventure is forgotten.
I think it’s safe to assume that an independent butcher doesn’t have an agency to advise it. Instead, this is a small business imitating the social media antics of the big brands — many of which do use agencies or have professional in-house teams and therefore should know better.
Larger brands can more easily brush off a bad day and a bit of bad press; however, smaller businesses can’t recover from a reputational disaster so easily. At the very least, their far more modest social media strategies can quickly crumble without the scale or resources to recover.
That’s why I have far more sympathy for this butcher than I do for any of the major brands.
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History repeats … and repeats … and repeats
I’m sure you can come up with a list of similar examples from over the years. Mine? Best Buy’s bad joke about the murder case at the center of the popular Serial podcast (2014) and fashion designer Kenneth Cole’s infamous promotional tweet during the Cairo uprising while people died in the streets (2011).
So why-oh-why-oh-why do professional marketers — and particularly agencies that should really know better — never learn?
Because big numbers are irresistible, that’s why. These events are trending topics that can last for days, drowning out almost all other social media conversations. If you’re an agency chasing certain KPIs to justify the monthly invoice (“Never mind the sentiment; look at the engagement numbers!”), I’m sure it can be very tempting to get in on that hashtag action. That is, until an hour or so later when a screenshot of your post pops up on Mashable or AdAge as a never-to-be-deleted record of the insensitivity and opportunism of social media marketers.
Sadly, the industry obsession with engagement above all else is not only flawed but actively encourages the worst excesses of our industry.
We need to stop pretending this isn’t a problem. These aren’t isolated and amateur mistakes; they are symptoms of an industry trend so predictable that there are communities and blogs across the web (e.g., The Condescending Corporate Brand Page on Facebook) dedicated to capturing, exposing, and lampooning the most jaw-droppingly awful examples.
Clearly, it’s not enough to rely on common sense. You can’t assume everyone on the team will agree about what is a genuine opportunity and what is disastrously inappropriate. It’s up to you to take responsibility by spelling out appropriate and specific standards in your agency briefs and internal guidelines, no matter how obvious they may seem. At the very least, you need better oversight and approval processes that ensure community standards and expectations are met, not just the brand’s commercial interests.
Our industry is extremely good at celebrating its successes, filling the marketing echo chamber with tales of social media’s power for (commercial) good. Maybe we need to spend a little more time acknowledging, learning from, and acting upon our many mistakes and failures too.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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