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When A Brand Goes Viral and It’s Not a Good Look

Being a marketing master of public speaking is being able to read the room, understand who you’re addressing, and tailor your message to that particular group. There’s nothing more humiliating to a brand messaging campaign than delivering a punch-line to the worldwide audience, only to realize the backlash and potential silence of those whom you thought might engage in the content. It’s akin to a tumbleweed effect, and it’s not a good thing.

Social media falls into this category as well, except that instead of using facial expressions or the overall online silent treatment from your hopeful audience, your brand messaging has to go by likes, follows, comments and emojis to determine whether to adjust your message and tone. Falling face flat during a brand marketing campaign gives you reasons to go back to the drawing board and hopefully reel in the audience you had meant to engage during the initial launch. Misreading your viral message could lead to some serious consequences that may severely affect your business. 

Remember back when Snapchat and singer sensation Rhianna partnered and branded a social media campaign that ended up as a very costly gaffe? The messaging app lost almost $1 billion after the social network made an appalling attempt at humor that alluded to domestic violence. In essence, that viral message missed the mark by a landslide, and efforts to clean it up didn’t go over so well.

Before your brand goes viral, consider the following and how to ensure your organization doesn’t lose money, doesn’t spread the wrong message, and gives your audience a dose of positive vibes while spreading the brand’s voice:

The tone of a platform

Every social media and the online platform has its own way of working. The casual tone of Snapchat or the knee-jerk tone of Twitter wouldn’t be well received on business-minded LinkedIn. Furthermore, the heavy use of hashtags on Instagram would look awkward on Facebook, therefore tailoring your message to each platform is key.

Do you understand what your followers want?

Keeping your content fresh and unique is commonplace for brands choosing to go viral for all the ‘right’ reasons, but it’s important to keep things relevant or you’ll need to be ready for some very vocal, and very public, complaints. Car producer Audi started a food-related campaign on their Instagram account to celebrate the launch of their A3 Sedan in 2014. The response went negatively viral from followers who felt as though their main reason to follow the brand was their interest in cars, not food. Audi attempted to clean up the gaffe, yet celebrities and higher-ups had already weighed in–not in a good way, either. 

Fact check all details

The internet provides almost unlimited information regarding facts, details, history, and anything else that will secure a solid brand messaging. Going viral for all the right reasons requires NOT making factual mistakes, as followers will immediately notice and could even start a boycott of your brand. Coca-Cola released a series of social-media-based advertising in Russia in 2016 featuring a pre-World War II map. The result was immediately boycotted in Russian and Ukraine due to the powerhouse soda giant’s controversial messaging. 

Is your message offensive?

Probably the single most important brand test to take prior to delivery is ensuring you’re not creating content that lands in the offensive category. It’s especially difficult to get the right tone in a humorous or witty context, however, a joke that is funny to some people, might be considered racist, sexist, ageist, or mocking to a particular group. In 2019, Miele, a white goods appliance company–who was celebrating International Women’s Day–got slammed for featuring a photograph of a group of women in stereotypical female clothing sitting on a washing machine. The content featured little to no diversity and their brand got slammed for it. 

Make sure your references are understood

The Kendall Jenner/Pepsi Cola campaign is a prime example here. Since the entire Kardashian clan can be good for business, if the followers aren’t understanding the referenced message, your brand goes viral for all the wrong reasons. That 2017 ad was accused of trivializing the Black LIves Matter movement, and because of the outcry, the campaign was pulled and Kendall Jenner had to make a viral tearful apology. In cases such as these, there’s typically a shared culture of references and inside meaning, but if not used properly, the brand goes off the rails and the connection with followers is lost. 

When those in charge of the brand forget the age and interests of their core customers, one of two results usually follows: either the references used aren’t shared widely by followers, or they are perceived as being out-of-touch outsiders. More often than not, both situations are the result. Case in point–a 1982 clipe of pop art icon Andy Warhol (who died in 1987) was used in a Super Bowl ad by Burger King in an attempt to target the 18 to 30 year olds, which left the audience confused and unamused, and that the commercial was in poor taste. Either way, the ad garnered a “Worst Super Bowl Ad,” was totally wrong, and went viral in a negative way.

Understand the potential consequences

Audience engagement is the holy grail of online brand messaging. Staying true to your brand and avoiding the miscommunication pitfalls can lead to a viral presence that will be talked about for years to come. The last publicity a brand needs is to post campaigns that go viral due to poor hashtags, bad timing, a failed awareness of social stigmas, and promises that simply cannot be kept. 

For instance, in 2017, the swimming costume company Sunny Co Clothing had no idea their Instagram campaign giveaway promising free swimsuits, would go viral. In fact, the company was forced to add some rules to their campaign after numerous customers had already claimed the item, which resulted in a backlash and short-lived boycott. Fortunately, the company was able to redeem themselves after the giveaway guidelines were outlined, however they could have avoided the initial consequences had every detail been spelled out from the get-go.

In a nutshell

To fail and learn is part of brand messaging for every online campaign marketing department to understand. Even when a business makes public mistakes on a social media campaign, there is still a chance to take advantage of the situation and turn it around. Digital marketing is a dynamic field that is always evolving, and it pays dividends to have a team constantly watching out for your brand.

It’s important to continually analyze the results, no matter the outcome of a post or brand campaign. Going viral for all the wrong reasons has plagued some of the largest corporations, yet by recording the level and sentiment of user engagement–including paid, organic reach, and any leads generated by influencers–leads to what NOT to do next go-round and how to capitalize on the overall success. 

When the marketing team responds accordingly and quickly, viral brand messaging is sure to reach record heights, secure your brand, and will spot any unwanted voices asking “who signed off on this campaign?” Keep learning, keep aware of trends and timing, and above all, do your research.