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Sometimes, a meme can furnish a few lessons that marketers might consider when developing their marketing strategies. At other times, the connection between the event and brands is tenuous, at best. And on occasion, the effort to turn current events into something relevant for brands and marketers blows back.
Many recently criticized PR agency Edelman for publishing a blog post immediately after Robin Williams' suicide suggesting brands "Seize the day" and use the tragedy "as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation." While the Edelman blog post was worthy of criticism, it was really just a symptom of a larger issue: Marketers' and agencies' continued promotion and use of dubious tactics such as "real-time marketing" and "brand newsrooms." These schemes attempt to hijack consumer emotion and interest in a current event to make otherwise irrelevant brands more relevant.
Business leaders must recognize that companies build relevance not by hopping from one trending topic to another but with concerted and ongoing effort in specific and discrete issues that resonate with consumers. Edelman should know--better than most--that the time for a company to demonstrate care for depression and suicide is before a celebrity death brings these topics to the forefront and not after Twitter is abuzz. One way tells consumers that your organization stands for something more than profits; the other tells consumers your brand is a vulture willing to exploit any tragedy or event to try to boost the bottom line.
It is happening again--while the world is busy dumping buckets of ice water over their heads, ad industry news sites and agency blogs are lighting up with posts about what marketers can learn from the #IceBucketChallenge. Alas, I believe many of these posts and articles are simply wrong, drawing arguable connections between what worked for this charitable effort and what will work for brands. Here is what I believe marketers can (and cannot) take from the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge:
- The #IceBucketChallenge demonstrates the power of social media, not the power of social media marketing. (Tweet This): Almost every article and blog post I have read calls this a "campaign." It is not. A campaign is a planned series of marketing events launched by an organization to achieve a goal, but the ALS Association did not plan, launch or manage this (although they have eagerly jumped on the bandwagon). The Ice Bucket Challenge was a spontaneous and viral happening created and spread by individuals; in fact, had the ALS Association attempted to launch this themselves, they likely would have been criticized for manipulating and asking too much of people. The Ice Bucket Challenge succeeded not because it was a carefully crafted campaign but because it wasn't.
- The Ice Bucket Challenge didn't succeed because it is easy but because it is difficult. I have read several times that brands can learn from this program that making participation easy for consumers is vital. Excuse me--the Ice Bucket Challenge was easy?! Most brands would do backflips simply to get 15 seconds of consumers' time to post a rating or positive comment. Meanwhile, the Ice Bucket Challenge required people to find a bucket, fill it, lug the heavy bucket somewhere convenient, fill it with ice, set up a smartphone to capture everything, lift the heavy bucket, douse themselves in ice-cold water, dry off, change clothes and post the video online. And, oh yeah, donate money! If that is your idea of easy, I wonder what a difficult activity might be!
Ironically, had the challenge been something easy--"I dare you to post a video doing a duck face!," for example--it would not have worked. Because the Ice Bucket Challenge was difficult, it gave people an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to make the effort--and no, your brand probably cannot get people to do heroic activities in support of your product or service.
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The fact that people could show off how creative they were (with Bill Gates building a dousing contraption and Stephanie Izard doing an ice bucket Flashdance) was a big part of the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. So was the part of the program that demanded people call others out by name; this was the charitable equivalent of a chain email, but because of the social media elements, people could not break the chain privately and quietly but only by humiliating themselves with silence and inaction. While some have claimed this program was about pulling at the heartstrings, I can recall seeing just one video that was legitimately emotional. The lesson of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that pride and shame are powerful human emotions, but brands should be very wary of trying to activate these emotions as part of a for-profit marketing campaign.
Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, when he declares himself the
"luckiest man on the face of the earth," moves me to tears.
Of course, the ALS Association now has the names and contact data for more than 700,000 new donors. If the charity fails to educate those individuals, few will donate again and the association will not build upon this success for future fundraising benefit. With additional concerted effort, the ALS Association may convert this successful acquisition program into an effective awareness, loyalty and repeat donation effort. The point that marketers should take from this is that no single campaign or program can be a soup-to-nuts success delivering on every marketing goal; instead, building deep, strong, and long-lasting consumer relationships takes a cohesive brand journey.
It takes nothing away from the generosity of many or the rewards accruing to the ALS Association to point out that this was not an effective marketing program but another example of the way social media lightning can strike unexpectedly. This is what brands can learn: Consumers are fickle and crowds are hard to predict or motivate. They can ignore your carefully-crafted and expensive viral video campaign then turn around and make the Harlem Shake the next big thing.
Kudos to the ALS Association for seeing the Ice Bucket Challenge rising out of the crowd and being agile enough to capitalize on the opportunity. In the end, that may be the most important message of all for brands--your brand succeeds not with what you plan and post but with what consumers think and do. If brands did more worth talking about and concentrated less on broadcasting content, they would have a better chance of building relevance and loyalty in the social media era.