Web content marketing is a tricky thing. There’s a lot of noise out there, especially on social media, where brands, like Replicants from Blade Runner, blend in with regular people. Like regular people, brands embarrass themselves to gain attention. They talk back, get political, or co-opt Internet memes for advertising purposes. Sometimes it works. Often, it backfires.
It’s incredibly risky for a brand to jump on the latest Internet bandwagon, rejigger it for web content marketing, and expect applause. Why? Because brands are where memes go to die. It’s the natural meme life cycle. It’s why a dead gorilla meme could live past its expiration date.
It’s also uncool and desperate. It’s old man Steve Buscemi in a hoodie with a skateboard in a high school asking, “How do you do, fellow kids?” (Which is a popular and enduring meme, by the way, so don’t try and kill it by photoshopping a Subway footlong or something under his arm.)
Yet brands continue to dredge through the meme swamp and entangle themselves in silly templates, in snarky exchanges with customers (or—ugh—other brands), or in political topics they shouldn’t ever try to unpack, all in a Sisyphean effort to appeal to the millennial and Gen Z attitude, generations fixated on absurdity and extremely, extremely dark humor they use to survive in extremely, extremely dark times. They have enough to deal with, they don’t need Coca-Cola to neg on them on Instagram.
But that’s what happens, for some reason or another. There are many examples of brands breaking bad over the last several years, but a few really stand out. Let’s try to learn from them:
Wendy’s has been on a snark campaign for a while now. Like a malevolent killdozer, it’s closed shops, leveled cities, and seized governments with its Twitter account of death. Okay, it hasn’t gone that far yet, but Wendy’s did bully someone off Twitter, which a lot of publications took in with great joy, calling it a “savage” social media strategy. Other bands got caught in its crosshairs, too. McDonald’s, fresh off announcing its move to fresh ground beef, got cooked by Wendy’s in “a devastating series of blows.” It’s like brands are now the stars of a new boxing reality show, available right now on your mobile device. But don’t worry, it’s not all trolling and taking names for Wendy’s, the fast food equivalent of Ozymandias. They’re friends with Moon Pie.
You’ll find a similar tack in the Marvel series Jessica Jones, which became a Fearless Girl-like symbol of empowerment for viewers. Like that statue she’s born of a gigantic, problematic corporation, but that doesn’t matter—the show’s a hit and the character means a lot to a lot of people. Jessica Jones is acerbic, brave, resilient, and not afraid to let the punches and whisky-fueled snark fly. So why shouldn’t the brand’s Twitter account act the same way?
Well, as with Wendy’s, it’s a little weird when brands fight back. Brands aren’t people. But Jessica Jones is a person, so, she—er—the brand snarks back. It almost makes sense until you realize the unhealthy absurdity of the role playing involved. Why is this multibillion dollar company dunking on some rando? Does this strategy work?
Not really. Most people don’t actually like when brands get sassy with them according to a 2017 survey. While 75 percent of respondents appreciate humor from brands on social media, only 36 percent will actually buy anything from them. And 88 percent say they get annoyed when brands mock fans.
Take Netflix, the home of Jessica Jones. It likes to call out viewers online, which seems a little off. Netflix also drops the F-bomb. That alone is a whole other topic—does swearing in marketing work?—and when Netflix did it, as they did when hyping up The Cloverfield Paradox on Superbowl Sunday, it didn’t amount to much. It’s somewhat memorable that they cursed, sure, but by Tuesday morning everybody pretty much stopped talking about the new Cloverfield movie and when they did have something to say, it wasn’t good.
When it comes to politics, it’s best to just stay out of it (unless you’re announcing the end of a toxic partnership during an overdue nationwide discussion). For example, Burger King taking on net neutrality is the equivalent of waving your arms for attention even though you don’t fully understand the topic at hand and have nothing to do with the topic in any fashion. Net neutrality is a complex and genuinely important subject to many people, so when Burger King tries to capitalize on it without any thought it appears insincere and frankly, a little dumb. We don’t expect fast food joints to comment on political or social issues, but hey, here we are.
Speaking of which, McDonald’s just recently tried to honor International Women’s Day by flipping its logo upside-down in one location. You can probably guess how that turned out. Rather than change its sign to a “W”, online users wondered why the company wouldn’t pay its workers a living wage instead.
Not all fast food is this daft. Arby’s doesn’t stir the pot. It makes cardboard origami out of Arby’s food and packaging based on obscure and famous anime, video game, and pop culture references. The geeky papercraft is a social media slam dunk, with some posts garnering tens of thousands of likes, shares, and comments. Besides that, it’s just pleasant. There’s no antagonism, just artistic expression by way of a very savvy web content marketing team that perfectly understands its audience.
Games are unique in that they don’t even need a reliable product to stay relevant online. The Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account, with over 5 million followers, understands its audience by leaning into the brand’s bizarre and ironic image, one earned by games with Metacritic scores that barely rise above mixed or unfavorable. Fans know it’s bad. It’s almost like they don’t care. Just look at their fan art (or better yet, don’t), something the last game tried to leverage by including a make-your-own-character feature. But those 5 million followers didn’t translate into sales. It seems they just want the memes, no matter how racist. And even that doesn’t matter since the Sonic brand owned its lugubriousness and became bulletproof, signified by a brand manager who takes it all in stride to deliver entertaining and strange memes to millions of people per day. The brand’s a joke and that’s how it’s stayed alive. So long as the Twitter account stays weird—and there’s at least one good game every decade or so—people will keep coming back. It’s a fascinating case.
The takeaway here? Don’t break bad; be original. There’s no honor in stealing an image from the Internet (chances are an artist spent real hard work, for free, crafting that weird new meme), slapping your logo on it, and calling it a day. Want to be memorable online? Then do it yourself. Learn from these examples. Learn from Arby’s and Sonic, brands that clearly take the time and effort needed to hit homerun after homerun. Other, less exciting brands have been using humor to grab mindshare for years now. Think Geico, Old Spice, Charmin, and State Farm. You can engage with customers, but they’d much prefer you be helpful, honest, and friendly. In other words, stay on brand.
Like fire, web content marketing with memes and snark on social media is a tool that cannot be wielded lightly. Use it the right way and you’ll illuminate the path for potential customers and fans. Swing it around all willy-nilly and you’re gonna get burned—probably by another brand.