At last year's Grammy Awards, singer Pharrell Williams wore such an outlandish hat—a cross between Smokey the Bear's forest-brown lid and The Sorting Hat at Gryffindor—that it quickly received its own Twitter account.
Then some marketing genius at Arby's, whose corporate logo is a hat of similar design, hit it out of the ballpark. The roast beef chain tweeted Williams a message during the live broadcast:
Chalk up another win for companies that are willing to be a little playful with their brands, a potentially dangerous tactic that can easily backfire but that creates big wins with consumers if done well. Social media marketing, in fact, is all about interacting with consumers, not hard selling—and a great way to do that is to spend a little brand equity on playfulness to spark conversations.
The Rules Of Play
Marketing—in the form of the mish-mosh of online posting, uploading, commenting, and sharing on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram—may appear haphazard, but is in fact governed by a set of rules, the rules of play, according to John A. Deighton, Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Leora Kornfeld, adjunct faculty, Schulich School of Business, York University.
“A lot of brands try really hard to be cool and use hip-hop talk or Kardashian talk and sometimes they go a little bit too far”
Play involves both intentional interaction and turn-taking—and social media engagement between marketer and consumer certainly qualifies—making play an appropriate word for "the tomfoolery of much of the current online activity," the researchers recently wrote in a GfK Marketing Intelligence Review article called "Beyond Bedlam: How Consumers and Brands Alike Are Playing the Web."
In the last decade, marketers have used digital media in different ways. First, many brands made it their mission to pursue followers, signing up as many Facebook friends as possible. "Coke was proud to say it had more followers than any other brand," Deighton says. "But that lost favor." Next, online marketers deemphasized treating social media as a broadcast medium and instead focused on generation of viral content. "Getting 10 million hits became the marker," Deighton says.
These days, marketing mavens realize that social media is best at building emotional bridges with consumers, done by inviting them to be part of the process. And so they are hard at work inventing playful games and other activities to bond company with consumer.
Playing on social media, particularly when the playful activity occurs in real time during a live event, can charm an audience—while in some cases costing little to do so.
Dutch shipping container company Maersk Line ran a social media campaign about shipping a giraffe from the Auckland Zoo to her new home in Melbourne, showing the giraffe all packed up in a giant container and inviting the public to share their own photos of interesting containers.
"The cost of running the campaign was under $100,000 which is a tiny budget, and they got a lot of attention from that, with 1.2 million Facebook followers," Deighton says. "It's fascinating when you look at a company like that and what it was able to achieve."
The company also enjoyed a nice side benefit: As a result of the social media campaign, prospective employees started viewing the company as a fun, interesting place to work, and the company's recruitment costs took a dive. "That's advertising and HR resources that they don't have to use anymore," Kornfeld says.
Types Of Play
The researchers categorize several types of play engaged in by marketers.
One is "playing against," used when marketers try to get through to consumers who really don't want to be bothered. On social media, an ad can involve a lot more play than seen in traditional advertising—in some cases to the point where the consumer isn't sure what, exactly, is being advertised. Comedian Nathan Fielder received publicity for his TV show by briefly opening a parody coffee shop in Los Angeles in 2014 called Dumb Starbucks. Write Deighton and Kornfeld: "The stunt's function as promotion for the show was eventually deduced by journalists and the public. The delayed reveal was an element of play."
A second type of play is "playing with," where company and consumer play together. For example, PepsiCo invited the public to propose new Lay's potato chip flavors, offering $1 million to the person whose flavor earned the most votes on the Lay's website. While many people offered real flavor suggestions, others had fun with the contest, submitting ideas like "7th grade locker room" and "summer bike ride bug inside mouth." Images were displayed all over social media, leading to hundreds of thousands of incremental impressions for Lay's.
Other forms include "playing with play," such as skateboarder Tony Hawk's massively viral video of him riding a hoverboard seemingly in mid-air (he later admitted the hoax) and "who's playing whom?" such as Toronto mayor Rob Ford's selfie-mania with constituents.
Going Too Far
Given the loose, spontaneous nature of social media marketing, things can go wrong in a hurry, the researchers note. In the competitive hunt for media coverage, brands have made deliberate "mistakes" or released misleading statements just to induce a spike in online chatter, revealing later that the actions were stunts damaging their credibility. Deighton and Kornfeld say brands should be careful not to take playfulness too far.
Boston Red Sox baseball player David Ortiz took a selfie with President Obama, which seemed playful at first until it was later revealed that he had done so on behalf of Samsung cameras. Some fans are not amused when the "soft edge of play" is displaced by "the hard edge of a trick," the researchers say.
"It wasn't authentic," Deighton says. "You really want to try to cultivate the opposite of that in the culture of your marketing team."
Social media messages can also backfire when brands try too hard to be youthful and cutting edge, turning off their audiences instead of engaging them. "A lot of brands try really hard to be cool and use hip-hop talk or Kardashian talk, and sometimes they go a little bit too far," Kornfeld says. On social media, that's a mockable offense.
Yet at the same time, mistakes in this new, more spontaneous and immediate marketing culture are almost expected. "There will be more missteps in this climate than in the button-down climate of copy strategies that didn't change for 20 years," Deighton says.
The Rules Of Play
The researchers outlined three rules for marketers who play online:
1. Lighten up a little: It's important to have fun. Social media planning shouldn't be so contrived and serious.
"The corporate culture is such that line executives don't want to get playful," Deighton says. "As soon as you try to come up with your positioning line and try to translate that into content, you sound like somebody trying to sell something. Marketing has been a deliberate business for a long time. Now it's not so deliberate at all. We say, lighten up. The dead serious stuff doesn't work."
2. No risk, no result: The public enjoys playing with brands, so companies should decide if they want to invite this playful activity. The reward is attention and consumer engagement. But the risk is that the play may take some unexpected turns, and the brand needs to be prepared to go along for the ride.
"The biggest obstacle in coaching companies about how to use medium is the reluctance to take chances," Deighton says. "Companies need to take more risks."
3. Rule out the rules: Play can generate quite a bit of charm, even when the message is not straightforward. Brands should be creative and flexible—and as long as the marketing episode does not involve trickery, the public will likely play along happily.
"Just because you've always done (marketing) this way before doesn't matter as much anymore," Deighton says. "Breaking through the noise is more difficult. You have to be more imaginative."