The day before the Super Bowl—during which brands pay millions in an effort to get noticed by the culture—Beyonce dropped her first new single since 2014, and in "Formation" name-checked Red Lobster.
The company says the brand was mentioned on Twitter 42,000 times in just an hour and trended for the first time ever. Because of all that Red Lobster love and this being 2016, people were immediately waiting for the brand's response. What cheeky one-liner could they come up with to further cash in on the world's biggest pop star singing its praises? Almost eight hours after Twitter blew up with its brand mentions, Red Lobster finally reacted.
And the response to that was overwhelmingly WTF.
It didn't help when the brand tried to make up for it.
Now, the social faux-pas didn't ruin everything as Red Lobster has reported a sales jump over the weekend, but it did do significant damage to its creative reputation and likely scared many other brands into thinking about just how they might respond in a similar situation. We spoke to three agencies about how brands can be socially prepared for the unexpected.
Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of 360i—the agency behind the ad-legendary Oreo blackout tweet during Super Bowl XLVII—says there are no hard and fast rules, and whether responding to something or deciding whether to chime in on pop culture, a brand needs to know itself before it can decide its social strategy.
"If there was a template, everyone would do it," says Hofstetter. "That’s why the Oreo tweet won and so many others failed trying. It’s critical to take into consideration both content and context, the author and what their POV represents, and whether or not that’s part of your brand’s belief system."
For Victor Pineiro, senior vice-president of social media for Big Spaceship, who's clients include YouTube, BMW, and Samsung, his best advice is to have your unicorns ready.
"Especially during major cultural events when all eyes are on social you do need a few unicorns on call," says Pineiro. "By 'unicorn' I mean someone who is both very creative and completely dialed into Internet and pop culture. Unicorn might seem like an extreme term, but they’re surprisingly hard to find. They need to speak the language of social media and Internet culture, or it falls flat. Red Lobster’s tweet is an extreme example of it, but you see this happen every day on social."
Another key is having a small, accessible team working with that unicorn in order to work at the speed of the social web, a velocity Red Lobster wasn't able to reach. "What likely happened here was a slow-moving approval process and conservative legal team," says Pineiro. "What should already be in place for events like these is immediate access to the brand team and legal team. Preferably it’s a small team or single decision maker on the brand side, and both the agency and brand team are familiar with the legal guardrails, to make for quicker approval."
Agency Erwin Penland has developed a reputation for tapping into culture in fun and creative ways for clients like Denny's. Director of Creative Integration Kevin Purcer says it's a tough and risky game to play in and when you're creative is judged not only on its quality but how quickly you get it up. "If you live in this space you have to be willing to take the risks that come with it," says Purcer. "You're just not going to have a 100% record, and you have to be comfortable with that."
Purcer says the agency has a very simple Venn diagram that it follows for clients on social that finds the intersection between "We Can" and "We Should," and once the decision to act is made brands need to have the right strategy in place to be able to do that quickly. "We have a simple one-pager that outlines what the brand is about, the tone we use, what we do and what we don't do on social media," says Purcer. "That one page is the guiding light for how we act and is baked into the brand positioning itself that we work from."
While the Internet can be a brutal place if you make a mistake or fall flat, Purcer says it also forgets pretty quickly. And that should help brands decide whether a situation—whether it's chiming in on something like the Super Bowl or Oscars, or responding to a Beyonce song—is worth getting involved in.
"Sometimes, if you can't come up with something that you think is great, it's better not to do it," says Purcer. "Don't do it just to do it. If it's not strong enough, you have to be willing to take a pass."