Why many brands struggle in the era of real-time marketing and constant conversation
I have to admit, it’s probably been 25 years since SpaghettiOs last consciously entered my mind. That streak was broken last week, like it was for many people. As December 6 rolled into December 7, the brand’s Twitter feed displayed a smiling, cartoon “O” holding an American flag and encouraging us to remember Pearl Harbor. Nice sentiment. Not-so-nice reaction.
Do we really expect brands to comment on every major piece of news or cultural milestone? Are there any rules about this? Is it better for some brands to just shut up and sell?
This time the Twitter populace, usually prone to feverish overreactions and self-righteous indignation, mostly fell bemused at the SpaghettiOs tweet. In the past, errant brand tweets or Facebook posts have caused uproars, protests, boycotts, and calls for some poor social media person’s head.
I used to think brands helped themselves when they were conscious of world or cultural events enough to comment on them. Many years ago in this column, I even expressed admiration for Kenneth Cole and his cheesy, pun-filled, yet topical and cause-related sentiments.
Now, I’m simply not so sure it’s a good idea. Despite exhortations from many people in our industry for brands to “do great by doing good,” sometimes canned pasta is just canned pasta. It’s questionable how much more customer love or engagement they’re getting from keeping a running commentary on the world, day after day, on items mostly unrelated to their business. Plus, the more brands that attempt it, the less impact it has.
What’s fueled all this is technology: The need to fill ever-widening pipelines with “content,” and the ability to spread messages around the world in seconds. Technology makes it easier for brands to pull the trigger on even the most mundane of sentiments. Unfortunately, the nice posts are forgotten in minutes, but when they go wrong, they can have consequences far outweighing their real significance.
It’s also possible that all this social media consciousness is very disingenuous. Brands are, of course, the public face of corporations — many of which wield their political and financial power to do some unsavory things behind the scenes. We shouldn’t be surprised that they show their happy face to the public through their social media efforts.
So there ought be to an appreciation of brands that show restraint, or the ones that keep their two-way social conversations focused on their product or customer service. But advertising isn’t a business of restraint. More is always better. And it’s preferable to force a two-way conversation rather than participate in one.
Which brings us back to the nature of brands. Most brands don’t possess a mission to do anything other than increase market share and satisfy customers who buy their products. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it leaves an opening for smaller, startup brands to try to pursue some nobler, altruistic positioning.
I think most consumers would be happy with brands that simply make good products, not try to make grander social or political statements. Ad agencies and marketing firms would be better off helping our clients improve their products and services first, and leave grander social statements to those few clients whose actions back them up.
Interestingly, as the SpaghettiOs tweet made the rounds, there was one hashtag and phrase folks used in association with it. Which was a line I remember being used in TV commercials at least 25 years ago: “Uh oh, SpaghettiOs.” Never underestimate the power of a slogan burned into our brains through decades of endless repetition in the mass media.
Or to put it another way, the SpaghettiOs incident was a reminder that mindless real-time marketing can’t permanently replace the kind of ideas and advertising that used to require, well, real time to conceive and run.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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