Tiger by the Tail

What a strange, treacherous, and fascinating world social media marketing can be for big brands. Be forewarned, this story is not for the faint of heart. It involves Twitter account management issues with adult content appearing on general consumer brands’ twitter channels. The subject matter can be difficult to describe at times, but the bigger picture lessons should be of great interest to anyone involved with social media marketing.

Self-admittedly, I’m always on the look-out for good ‘newsjacking’ opportunities, but not always because of the extra buzz trending stories can afford. Virality or ‘going viral’ is often a double-edged sword, and there has never been a better example of this concept than this emerging story.

I write posts about digital marketing and content strategy sparingly. I do so, partly because I’m busy like everyone else, but mostly because I only like to write about things that really interest me. Before I write, I try and look for what I refer to as the “topic trifecta”:

  1. A recent newsworthy story that catches my interest
  2. The story has to have direct ties to my industry and my work
  3. The story has to involve some humor, big twists, and opportunities to learn how to be better at what I do.

Only after ticking off these 3 boxes do I know that I’m onto a story that has the potential be great and fun to write at the same time.

When I first read about two iconic cats, Tony the Tiger (Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes) and Chester the Cheetah (Frito-Lay’s Cheetos), both pushing and pulling a fringe group of cartoon-animal-role-playing enthusiasts called ‘furries’ on Twitter, my interest from a humorous point-of-view piqued. Tony the Tiger was trying to keep his cool while managing a runaway fringe following getting extremely frisky with their channel, while Chester the Cheetah saw an opportunity to pounce. (On a side note, I’ve never written about a story where puns were so readily available and yet so utterly dangerous to have fun with!)

The problems for Kellogg’s seemed to have begun around January 27th, when Tony the Tiger’s @realtonytiger Twitter account tweeted:

The social media managers and/or social agency for Frosted Flakes had to have been at their ‘Sophie’s Choice moment’ — second guessing every move they made at this point. They were put in an impossible social media dilemma: when things start going south in potentially big and disastrous ways, do you, A. try your best to remain cool and engage the issue responsibly and ban certain accounts that went too far (possibly adding fuel to the fire through attention), or B. minimize your acknowledgment and engagement hoping the fire puts itself out from lack of oxygen?

In this case, I am not sure what the optimal response would be or should have been, and I guess we won’t know until this story plays itself out to its conclusion. All I know is that intuitively, I think Tony’s team tried their best to manage their account with humor and a dose of respect to the runaway community fringe, and that the fringe then took advantage of the situation – running away with it in some very disturbing ways as the Internet tends to do.

How bad is it? Well, apparently furries can be a little exuberant in their play style. To fully appreciate what I am referring to, you would have to follow the thread of tweets, comments, and re-tweets that is currently sparking some of the most colorful and off-color chatter on the internet right now. But, I warn again, please don’t follow this rabbit hole unless you are an adult who is not easily offended by explicit sexual innuendo or imagery.

So that you don’t have to follow and read what’s going on over there (now 5,300+ likes, and 4,300+ retweets on a channel page that typically averages less than 10 likes and retweets per post), let’s just say that after the account started banning the worst offenders, others — lots of others — came into the conversation to flame, have fun, and generally be disgusting. A truly viral outbreak of some sort was at its earliest onset.

And that’s when Big Twist #1 occurred.

The old marketing and PR adage that says there is no such thing as bad press must have struck a chord last week with the social marketing folks over at Cheetos saw an opportunity to catch this tiger by the tail. Chester, in his edgiest animated brand self, proactively engaged the frothing Frosted Flakes furry-fest and welcomed them over to his channel with open arms from this tweet:

I’m not sure if the Cheetos people knew exactly what they are inviting over to their channel, but if they do and are up for the management, well then, good on them. I have a feeling, however, this particular tiger has some vicious claws that can inflict more brand harm than fun. But only time will tell, and this is a story that has a lot more life in it.

I’ll be watching this story carefully and report on what is almost certainly guaranteed to be follow-ups on the coming twists and turns. Until then, the lessons are lining up for brand marketers on social media, especially for people managing Twitter, which marketers need to remember brands itself as a 17+ social app.

Be very careful with conservative brands, especially consumer brands with children or young adult audience personas. Be careful with the lure of viral social engagement. The internet as a global community is a big, imaginative, prank-loving tiger itself — one that can be a lot of fun to play with but can tear your brand apart if you are not careful.

My best advice is to be as creative and imaginative as possible — not just in designing new ways to engage your audience with the cleverest creative you can dream up, but to also creatively plan for how to disengage when it is absolutely critical to do so. Take time to brainstorm about all the awful things that could occur with your social media campaigns, and then plan for ways to best mitigate negative exposure in ways that preserve the most brand value. Marketers have less and less control of their brands these days, and everyone needs to be better prepared for the occasional furball.

What do you think? Have you handled something similar recently? Is it better to engage and amplify or quietly ignore and redirect?