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marketing mistakes

When did Brand Twitter get Creepy?

Where is the line, here?

Strange Marketing Decisions

 

You might have seen a strange tweet from Sunny D, an orange-flavored drink company.

 

 

It’s jarring – a bright orange bottle wrapped in a brightly colored label is suffering from a mental health crisis. Other brands reply, a chorus of “we’re here for you!” and “You got this!” flood Sunny D’s channel. It’s equally strange for Moon Pie, a dry pastry treat filled with marshmallow, to be replying with “stay strong”. How could we have strayed so far from the original intent of Brand Twitter?

Easy: brands do what people do even when they shouldn’t, for sales.

 

Brand Twitter: The myth of the underpaid intern

 

Perhaps it started as a truth – when Twitter was small, many brands put minimum effort into showing up. They’d rather spend their advertising dollars on tried-and-true methods of reaching consumers, and Twitter wasn’t exactly big. When Twitter got bigger, organizations started to take notice – but marketing was busy doing other things, so Twitter advertising turned into a pet project for the person who wanted to fool with it. Sometimes that was an intern.

Thus, the legend is born! “The intern” has basically free reign to do as they please because the higher-ups aren’t looking in their direction. It paints the image of a scrappy youngster doing their best for their company the way only an intern can. Of course, most messages are generic, but whatever – that’s a real person representing the organization, and if you tweet at them, they’ll respond like a real person! You have a direct line of access to the company! The brand is a person after all!

This doesn’t stay this way. Companies take notice and realize that this is a great way to connect with consumers, but they also realize this person has an enormous amount of power over the brand’s image now that Twitter’s gotten bigger. Teams and more experienced people up the line begin to take over, and the interns are relegated to ‘help write for’ instead of ‘manage’ the account.

And yet, the myth of the underpaid intern persists. Companies deliberately behave like their account is ran by one. Even when tweets are traceable to different people, the brand acts like they all came from one person, one very funny, energetic, and quick-to-respond intern who knows just the right things to say at any time of day. (You may notice memes are outdated by the time the brand gets to posting them – that’s a clue that it’s a team, rather than a single person with full control).

 

Sunny D

 

All of this makes Sunny D’s post even weirder. “I can’t do this anymore”. It’s so simple, and very concerning – it echoes a suicide note. It implies something that corporations are literally not capable of, and if this weren’t brand Twitter, I’d be seriously concerned about the person behind the tweet. In a way, I still am – was this someone who got control of the account for a moment, or did the main account controller forget to switch to their personal account? Surely, this wasn’t intentional. Surely, Sunny D’s marketing dept didn’t look at that and think “yeah, this is okay.”

If they really didn’t mean to tweet that, it makes sense that Sunny D would then try to salvage this tweet that’s already been seen by thousands – a savvy Twitter user knows deleting a tweet like that could cause serious alarm, and Sunny D would be forced to handle it seriously. By replying as though they meant this to happen, they save face. It’s still in poor taste, but it looks like it’s intentional and not as serious as the initial tweet might suggest.

 

Digital Overstep

 

If they did mean for this to happen – It’s scummy. It’s a drink brand. Corporations are not really people in real life, no matter what the law says. There is no person with the identity of Sunny D that you could physically harm, there is no body or brain of Sunny D that could be experiencing “I can’t do this anymore”. There are the people that make up Sunny D – that’s a different matter. Those people are real. Sunny D the brand is entirely fictitious, it exists only as an idea used to sell orange liquid. It is a concept. Not a person.

This wasn’t particularly effective advertising, and it was overall sort of creepy. Sunny D markets to children, right? Children can have these issues, but that’s not what Sunny D brought attention to. A brand twitter behaving like a person is distinctly unsettling, in a world where ads are slowly creeping into every facet of life. Brands aren’t supposed to require this kind of mental burden. You aren’t supposed to see something a brand has tweeted and feel heavier for it. It’s incredibly weird. It oversteps boundaries.

 

Marketing: A Tangent

 

But that’s what marketing does. It pushes, and it pushes, and if it pushes too far, other brands take a note of how much or what kind of reaction they got. Pepsi’s ill-thought-out ad with Kylie Jenner, for example, was a laughingstock, and as a result many companies quietly pulled back from social issues of the time so they wouldn’t get swept up in the widespread scrutiny that happened afterwards.

Even then, had Pepsi dared to throw its weight behind one side or the other, they would have come out better. Their audience would have been polarized, but the folks who stuck around would have been more devoted. See Gillette’s The Best a Man Can Be ad – they split off some of their userbase with that one, but they also came to be regarded more favorably by the ones who appreciated the message of the ad.

Or, you could look at the MyPillow Founder’s fervent support of former president Donald Trump – that, once again, split his audience (and ruined relationships with vendors), but he made more money off of his target audience as a result. It goes to show that it doesn’t matter which direction you push, as long as you pick one. There are people who believe the moon landing was faked, and those people buy products too – you can sell to them as long as you do it wholeheartedly.

 MyPillow picked one. Gillette picked one. Pepsi didn’t.

Sunny D’s undefinable agenda in this tweet is only working against it.

But what is it for? What purpose did this tweet serve? What agenda is Sunny D advancing?

 

Wendy’s

 

Simultaneously, brands feel enormous pressure from brands like Wendy’s, which has the benefit of being one of the first to be ‘sassy’ on Twitter. Other notable front runners for this trend included Denny’s, which posted to Tumblr as a singular person before it was cool. Other brands know people remember Wendy’s for being funny. They know Wendy’s is on the consumer’s mind before they are. However, those brands have also noticed the market’s a bit oversaturated for Wendy’s style content at the moment, and it’s not appropriate for every audience anyway. Tony the Tiger might get some angry replies from parents if it roasted a customer. Wendy’s can afford to be mean because it’s not selling to children as it’s main audience.

Other brands then have to figure out how to transmute what Wendy’s has with its audience into something they can say is their own.

Steak-Umms owns that it’s not great quality meat, but it is tasty, and that’s endearing in its own way. It jokes that it’s set is cheaply made online. Denny’s is still Denny’s, and they own the strange atmosphere of their restaurants and turn it into a selling point.

These campaigns are unique, a little edgy, but certainly not tasteless. Unique enough to be remembered, not unique enough to revolutionize the space. Meanwhile, Moon Pie and Frosted Flakes are incredibly milquetoast, but their branding is familiar, and the campaigns aren’t offensive.

 

All Together

 

Sunny D, for some reason, strayed from all of this. The tweet’s edgy. It’s too dark for the target audience: if they understand it, a drink brand just threatened suicide, if they don’t, then they don’t get the tweet and it was sort of meaningless. Agenda-less. Not promoting anything except empty words of affirmation towards an entity that only exists on paper. Meaningless chatter that also crosses a line.

The tweet is somehow totally devoid of meaning and wildly too personal at the same time!

Sunny D’s tweet seems so creepy in comparison to other tweets because it’s too much for the average consumer to take in from a stranger even if Sunny D were a person. This is the kind of thing you text to a friend in private. It’s a personal moment. It requires a lot of delicacy and understanding, the kind that a stranger can’t often provide for another stranger. How would you even go about comforting a drink brand?

And keep in mind: a brand always wants to be your friend, because most people listen to their friends. Ask people for favors, and they’ll feel obligated to help – and people like feeling helpful, so generally they’ll think a little better of you. Sunny D is pantomiming a very real, personal interaction with you via this tweet and asking for help it is literally incapable of receiving: once again, it’s a non-sentient drink brand. It’s asking for a favor it can’t use, one you’d never refuse to a real person.

Sunny D is behaving like it’s something it’s not, and in doing so it’s entered a digital uncanny valley. It’s mimicking human interactions in an attempt to sell more orange liquid.

Public Campaigns Vs. Public Image: A McDonald’s Story

#Farmers of McDonalds

 

#MeettheFarmers was the initial campaign, the one that McDonald’s had planned for. There was some static; the same issues that apply to the meat industry as a whole apply to McDonalds, but complaints of cruelty and poor animal husbandry didn’t completely ruin the hashtag. Generally, the farmers were happy, the animals looked happy, and McDonalds was happy with it’s campaign.

It’s always risky to get folks involved if the company doesn’t know for sure that they think of it positively, but so many farmers rely on McDonald’s that it was basically a slam dunk. Sure, PETA got a little rowdy, and nobody’s going to make themselves look bad by posting pictures of their sad or poorly treated animals, but the crop farmers generally felt that they’d been treated fairly by McDonald’s. This was great! McDonald’s does a lot to support local farming, and it was smart to emphasize how much of their food they bought from US farms. The patties are still packed with things that keep them from molding, but the cow didn’t have to fly overseas to get to it’s destination packing plant or restaurant.

It’s a genuinely good campaign – they could trust that they’d done right by the people who’d be replying, and they’d retweet specific responses as a form of curation.  Marketing done right!

 

#McDStories

 

After the success of #FarmersOfMcDonalds, McDonald’s paid to promote their next big hashtag, #McDStories. This went downhill, very fast. Where McD farmers are a small, controllable group who are generally professional, the public is… not. And it turns out, when a corporation consistently underpays and overworks it’s workers, they’re going to do things or skip things that customers notice. McDonalds yoinked the paid promotion slot, but by then it was already out of control.

All they could do was damage control as all sorts of nasty stories rolled in. Violence by staff members, sanitation issues in the bathroom, uncleaned ice tanks, solicitors in the parking lot, solicitors inside the store, solicitors coming up to windows in the drive through – customers had seen it all! Heck, even workers joined in – McDonald’s was apparently struggling with it’s management chain in places, and issues that could have been resolved with better training and store support (the shift lead isn’t supposed to be in charge of pest control, for example) just weren’t even getting noticed, until #McDStories forced them to the front of the line. Bugs. Food contamination. Food poisoning. Incorrect cleaners being used for grills and the ice cream machine. Rats. All things that could be controlled or even eliminated with better contact from whoever’s in charge of regional management.

Beyond that, though, the campaign showed that McDonald’s didn’t really know how it looked on the outside. A fast food restaurant universally loved by children, or a fast food restaurant with locations that play it fast and loose with adult customers’ food? The upper management had allowed both to happen, but only one of those demographics is regularly on Twitter.

McDStories highlights a critical disconnect between the McDonald’s marketing department and the outside world.

 

Marketing Mistake

 

Every company wants to be perfect in the customer’s mind. They all want to be clean, friendly (except for Dick’s), and accessible. However, things start to split when you get specific: pubs cater to adults, so they wouldn’t have the same bright colors as family-friendly restaurants. Therefore, the marketing for a pub is going to be very different than the marketing for a fast-food restaurant for kids. McDonald’s has been trying to shift more towards adults in modern times, and since adults care about different things than they used to, McDonald’s has been struggling to find a common thread among McDonald’s customers. Maybe this was a crowd-sourcing campaign for ad ideas, maybe it was just an attempt to appeal to adults.

Either way, it made a disconnect between ‘McDonald’s the brand’ and ‘McDonald’s the restaurant chain’ pretty obvious. You’d never see Waffle House doing this sort of campaign. Waffle House knows what kind of people stumble into their restaurants at 3 AM for a couple of post-bar waffles, and wild stories of incidents inside Waffle Houses scatter the web. A famous Vine shows two of the employees fighting while a customer asks for a waffle in the background. And yet, Waffle House is well-liked. It knows what it is, it doesn’t try to pretend every customer has a great time; they’re there for cheap food and the strange sense of community a 3AM Waffle House has. Besides, Waffle House’s management style seems to keep customers and workers alike pretty happy!

Denny’s, another cheap diner with 24 hr locations, has incidents, but they rarely go viral. They’ve gotten a cultural image of ‘you ate at Denny’s, you knew what you were getting into’. McDonald’s has unknowingly slipped into the same territory – appealing to adults with a 24hr schedule means you’re going to get some strange customers. They don’t seem to realize that’s where they’re at, so they don’t know how to lean into it yet like other 24 hr restaurants do. They’re very concerned with being family friendly. Management- and Marketing-wise, something’s obviously slipping if these stories were genuinely unexpected.

 

How Could They Fix It?

 

The long and the short of it is to listen. Burger King’s rat-bun scandal caused the store to shut down while Burger King corporate handled the issue. McDonald’s has had complaint-tweets before, but somehow they don’t get much traction until the tweet’s got a bunch of retweets, so really, they set themselves up by using a scrollable tag. Companies that won’t respond to anything but highly public tweets about their issue do this to themselves. If a complaint to the manager or to corporate doesn’t change things, then of course the customer is going to resort to what works.

Listen to customers through official channels, and the unofficial ones that everyone can see won’t be flooded with horrible stories of missing quality!

 

Sources:

https://www.businessinsider.com/mcdonalds-twitter-campaign-goes-horribly-wrong-mcdstories-2012-1

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/01/24/mcdstories-when-a-hashtag-becomes-a-bashtag/?sh=2aeca912ed25