If you spend any time reading about digital marketing, you will eventually come across an opinion piece discussing the idea that “brands are your friend”. That will be followed by a counter-opinion piece that, “Sorry [name of original author], brands are not your friend”, and the circle of op-ed life continues until someone eventually come to the conclusion that “brands are your next-door neighbour’s second cousin” and everyone takes a deep breath and calms down.
Of course, there is value in the “brands are your friend” mantra for social marketing. It’s a reminder that you want customers to want to hang out with you. These days, you’re competing for their attention with every other thing in the world that can possibly be digitised. So, the last thing you want is to be the friend that just joined a multi-level marketing scheme and is only throwing parties to sell something.
But while it’s important to engage in behaviour that makes the audience feel positively about it, you need to think about what type of friend you actually are. After all, your friendships are not all the same. You have the friends that make us laugh and the ones that will come sit on the couch and remind you of what happened on Game of Thrones. The friend you can call at 4am to bail you out of jail, no questions asked. The friend who knows what to cook when you have too much parsley. You’re not going to call parsley friend when you’re in jail: there are very few situations in which herbs make acceptable bail.
Relationships with brands on social media are much the same. Broadly speaking, you want to provide them with something useful or entertaining. The entertaining ones tend to get a lot of attention and excel at raising brand awareness because once they go viral, they generate a lot of earned media with headlines like “Brand X owned Brand Y with this savage tweet”.
This tactic pays off for a small number of brands, but it’s still a bit of a spray-and-pray approach. For instance, I follow a US brand on Twitter called Moon Pie because it’s funny. But I’m still not even sure what it is (something like the Wagon Wheel, maybe?).
Apart from earning Attention Economy frequent flyer points, looking at the reach of a funny post is not a useful metric when it’s being actively consumed by people like me, in markets where your products aren’t even available.
What matters is what the people you reach do next. For Moon Pie it has paid off, with increased sales - 17 per cent according to some reports. But looking to stories like this for inspiration can be like thinking that being a singer is a lucrative career just because Beyoncé seems to make a decent coin at it. Chances are, you ain’t Beyoncé.
As some of the baffling memes in the recent Federal election demonstrate, irreverent or edgy are hard tones to pull off and not everyone can do it. Nor should everyone. An attention-getting Heartless Words campaign from the Heart Foundation this week has resulted in people wondering what sort of victim-blaming asshats work at the Heart Foundation.
But even if you and your social team are talented enough to stay on the right side of the snarky/getting death-threats divide, you’re ceding a lot to forces outside your control: that you can gain enough traction to go viral. There are probably a lot of people who sing like a dream and who didn’t even achieve the success of Kelly Rowland, let alone Beyoncé.
We’ve been creating social posts for them for a few years, on the basis of providing posts that have a fun vibe, but essentially look beyond your usual crumpet spread to do something different, such as turning a crumpet into a lamington.
It still provides the audience something to engage with – debate the merits of a recipe or post their own versions – without losing sight of the fact that the audience most likely to engage with a crumpet brand are people who want to think about crumpets.
And while the channel might be different, this concept is nothing new. The food industry has traded in branded cookbooks with names like “3774 exciting uses for [product]” for at least a century. (Check out the 1915 book from the Corn Products Refining Co of New York, called Proven Recipes Showing the Uses of the Three Great Products from Corn for a long-winded example).
Neither is the attention-getting brand new. The value of entertaining people has been a foundation of the advertising industry ever since it moved on from stating that a product exists, and the best examples really lean in to their medium.
The US shaving cream brand Burma Shave famously posted sequences of signs with humorous rhymes along motorways from the 1920s to the 1960s, arguably the clever social media post of its day. Examples included “If you dislike / Big traffic fines / Slow down / Till you / Can read these signs / Burma Shave” or “Having brushes / You'll soon see 'em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma Shave”. But it’s not as if every other advertiser in that era was doing the same. Multiple-billboard-poetry was a uniquely Burma Shave thing.
If your brand wants to take an approach that’s as clever as Moon Pie or Burma Shave, go for it. Fun social media accounts have succeeded for everyone from Woolworths to the NSW Police forces
But don’t think this is the only way - you can still reach your audience on social by talking about your product, you just have to do it in a way that interests them. Whether your brand is the entertaining or useful friend on social media, the first question should always be what type of friend your audience needs.