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Building Brands

What happens when brands go viral?

October 14, 2020 · 8 min read

If this week has taught us anything, it's that we should stop asking marketers to "make content go viral."

On September 25th, Nathan Apodaca (@doggface208) created a TikTok of himself skateboarding down the highway, drinking Ocean Spray, and listening to the 1977 soft rock classic "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac. It wasn't staged, pre-planned, or sponsored — just a man living his best life. Today the video has racked up over 51M views and Nathan has 4M followers and counting.

Side-by-side images of Nathan Apodaca skateboarding and drinking Ocean Spray
Side-by-side images of Nathan Apodaca skateboarding and drinking Ocean Spray

The impact of this video was also felt by Ocean Spray and Fleetwood Mac. According to Billboard:

"For the three-day period of Sept. 25 - Sept. 27, "Dreams" racked up 2.9 million on-demand U.S. streams and 3,000 in digital download sales -- numbers up 88.7% and 374%, respectively, from their totals in the prior three-day periods, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data."

Now imagine everything about this video was the same — the person, the song, the location, the drink — but instead of being shared by a person on TikTok, it was distributed by Ocean Spray. There's no way of knowing for certain, but it's safe to assume that none of us would be talking about that video today. There's an even better chance none of us would have seen it at all.

If brands can't manufacture this type of content themselves, what insights can they glean from this happy accident? Planning for virality is fruitless, but there's a lot we can learn from how a brand responds to these situations. After all, if your product is lucky enough to be the supporting role in a viral video, the best thing you can do is just not mess it up.

In the case of Ocean Spray, their response was thoughtful and calculated. They started by posting a TikTok of their CEO recreating the iconic video and then followed it up by gifting Nathan his very own cranberry-red Nissan pickup truck. Ya know, as one does.

This isn't the first time a brand has ridden the wave of a random viral sensation. Here are some other unintentionally sponsored moments in pop culture:

Chicken of the Sea on 'The Newlyweds' (2003)

Ah, 2003. Millennials look back on this time with fondness and gratitude, thankful to have made it out of the low-rise denim decade before the social media boom.

Unfortunately, not everyone survived the mid-aughts unscathed. On August 19th, 2003 Jessica Simpson uttered words that would forever be tied to her identity: "Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish?"

Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey married in 2002 and immediately began documenting their relationship for a new reality TV show called "The Newlyweds." The first episode aired on MTV in the fall of 2003. Two weeks later, the confusion around Chicken of the Sea was dinner table talk across America.

Luckily for Chicken of the Sea, their product's name is the gift that keeps on giving.

Jessica Simpson's tweet to Whole Foods that reads
Jessica Simpson's tweet to Whole Foods that reads

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (2014)

The challenge was simple: Help spread awareness about Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or "ALS") by dumping an icy cold bucket of water on your head. Then nominate someone else in your community to do the same. Nominated participants had 24 hours to complete the challenge or forfeit by way of a donation — but many people donated either way.

Ok, but how'd it start? Fun fact: "Cold Water Challenges" were already pretty popular within the professional golfing community supporting a wide range of charities. In 2014, pro golfer Chris Kennedy took the challenge online by recording a video and nominating his wife's cousin, Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband had ALS.

Chris Kennedy showing off the ice bucket and dumping it on his head in his backyard
Chris Kennedy showing off the ice bucket and dumping it on his head in his backyard

The stunt made it into the hands of Pat Quinn, of Yonkers, NY, and within two weeks, word had reached Quinn's friend Pete Frates. Both Quinn and Frates completed the challenge in support of the ALS Therapy Development Institute. The rest is history!

The Ice Bucket Challenge helped the organization raise over $220M worldwide for the disease and generated over 2.4 million tagged videos on Facebook.

The list of celebrity participants goes on for days, but includes prominent figures like Justin Bieber, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, Weird Al Yankovic, Russell Brand, Amy Schumer, Lady Gaga, Stephen Spielberg, and former Presidents of the United States, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Netflix and chill (2014)

"Netflix and chill" is so pervasive it's hard to imagine a time before its existence.

Netflix's office building with spray paint that reads 'and chill' under the logo
Netflix's office building with spray paint that reads 'and chill' under the logo

The phrase seems to have originated on Black Twitter before becoming more widespread across socials — making its way into memes and videos on Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine. The first use of the phrase can be found on Twitter in October 2013, but seems to be a wholesome coincident and not the tongue-in-cheek euphemism we know today:

First netflix and chill tweet on Twitter
First netflix and chill tweet on Twitter

Get a comprehensive breakdown of the catchphrase here. While it's difficult to track the direct impact this phrase had on Netflix or their brand perception at large, for a brief moment in time it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of the action:

  • October 2015, Entrepreneur Kori Williams created and sold a line of condoms named 'Netflix and Chill'

  • December 2015, Ariana Grande released the holiday EP Christmas & Chill, its title a seasonal variation on 'Netflix and chill'

  • January 2016, Artist Tom Galle and company ART404 created a 'Netflix & Chill Room' in NYC you can rent out

  • June 2016, singer-songwriter Danah released a song titled 'Netflix and Chill' on SoundCloud

  • January 2020, Ben & Jerry's announced a new ice cream flavor called 'Netflix & Chilll'd'

    A picture of Ben and Jerry's newest ice cream flavor
    A picture of Ben and Jerry's newest ice cream flavor

Alex from Target (2014)

The internet is a wildly unpredictable place, and nothing proves that more than a teenage boy going viral for being a teenage boy.

In November of 2014, @auscalum tweeted a harmless pic of a cute cashier, turning Alex Christopher LaBeouf into #AlexFromTarget overnight. He gained over 300,000 followers on Twitter within the first day.

A picture of Alex from Target
A picture of Alex from Target

Like many of these viral moments, this is more about the person than it is about the brand. But if you look at keywords on social in the week that followed, you'll find that over 1.1 million people tweeted about "Alex from Target." Whether they're the primary focus or not, "Target" is definitively a huge part of that equation and undoubtedly benefitted from the association.

Target opted to play it cool with their response and addressed the incident with an understated tweet: "We heart Alex, too! #alexfromtarget" it read, alongside an image of Alex's nametag.

Roman Originals and "The Dress" (2015)

Like all the best pieces of internet lore, the madness of "the dress" originated on Tumblr. A user posted a photo of the dress with the caption: "Guys please help me - is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the f--k out."

According to Roman Originals, maker of the dress, the phenomenon revealed differences in human color perception which have been the subject of ongoing scientific investigation in neuroscience and vision science, with a number of papers published in peer-reviewed science journals.

People love an inconsequential debate. There are 2,214,343 uses of the hashtag "#TheDress" online, 3,622,960 visitors to Roman Originals website in the first 48 hours after the post, coverage on over 150 networks, and 73 million people viewed posts about #TheDress across social media channels.

How'd it affect Rowan Originals? Oh, they sold out of the dress within the first 34 minutes.

Sunny Co. Clothing's "free" swimsuit (2017)

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but that didn't stop all of us from crossing our fingers and reposting a picture of a red swimsuit anyway. We all wanted to be Wendy Peffercorn, and that was going to become a reality for free. Or so we thought...

Back in May of 2017, Sunny Co. Clothing ran a promotion that promised to send a swimsuit to any Instagram user who reposted their image and tagged the company. There were very few stipulations: the offer was valid only in the U.S. and individuals were responsible for covering the shipping and handling.

Instagram post from Sunny Co. Clothing shows off the red swimsuit
Instagram post from Sunny Co. Clothing shows off the red swimsuit

Within a matter of hours, it had been reposted thousands of times leading the small California-based clothing company to post a shameful follow-up that they "reserve the right to cap the promotion if deemed necessary."

Tweet making fun of the swimsuit, showing off boys in full body swimsuits
Tweet making fun of the swimsuit, showing off boys in full body swimsuits

In the weeks that followed, the internet was saturated with new swimsuit memes and jokes about the company’s “failed” stunt, but it was actually a huge win for Sunny Co. Clothing even with all the bad press. Why?

  1. The swimsuit was manufactured so cheaply that they could be produced and shipped for less than the "shipping cost" they charged. It's estimated that Sunny Co. Clothing made $1–2 of net profit for every suit sold.

  2. The entire Internet was talking about them. Free advertisement. The company had approximately 7k Instagram followers on the Tuesday night before the post and by Wednesday night, that number had grown to more than 750k.

  3. The data they collected about their target demo is invaluable.

Tide Pod Challenge (2018)

Unlike other more happier accidents on this list, the Tide Pod craze had consumers questioning the brand. Tide dropped to its lowest consumer perception level in nine months after videos began surfacing of teens eating their detergent — and yet their sales increased. More consumers, 41%, would consider buying Tide the next time they were shopping for household items, according to YouGov BrandIndex.

Image of Tide Pod tub
Image of Tide Pod tub

The origins and inspiration of the challenge are murky, but jokes have been made about how temptingly delicious the product looks because of its resemblance to brightly colored candy.

In late 2015, the satirical publication The Onion published commentary from a child’s perspective in which he vowed to consume one. “From the very second I saw those blue and red detergent pods come out of that shopping bag last week, I knew immediately that, come hell or high water, I would eat one of those things."

Last March, the comedy website CollegeHumor posted a video sketch in which a man agonized over his desire to eat the pods, which he compared to Gushers. Other memes have been created that have been doctored to make the pods look like other food, such as pizza toppings.

While people (mostly) understood that this was all a big joke, there were a few cases of people actually eating the pods. Procter & Gamble created numerous advertisements that urged people to never consume their products, including one featuring professional NFL player Rob "Gronk" Gronkowski, which inadvertently made them go viral again because of his pronunciation of "Tide Pods."

Following reports that some children were mistaking the colorful detergent pods for candy, Proctor & Gamble also added a double-latch lid to the tubs, making them more difficult for children to open. They are now only sold in opaque plastic packaging, moving away entirely from transparent containers that people were comparing to candy bowls.

Starbucks on GoT (2019)

In May of 2019, an episode of Game of Thrones aired featuring a consumer product that didn't quite fit the time period of the show.

A screenshot of the show that clearly points out the accidental product placement in the middle of a Game of Thrones scene
A screenshot of the show that clearly points out the accidental product placement in the middle of a Game of Thrones scene

Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen, was the most likely culprit for the mix up because of the cup's closeness to her in the scene, but Clarke later revealed during an interview on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon that the real offender was Conleth Hill (Lord Varys).

In the end, Starbucks proved to be the ultimate winner and pocketed $250,000 in free product placement thanks to the memes that sprung up featuring the cup. Marketing experts have estimated that the value of the slip-up could be worth well over $1 million in word of mouth alone.

A new twitter account created in honor of the starbucks cup
A new twitter account created in honor of the starbucks cup

Starbucks tweets were up 10x on the Monday morning after the episode aired, according to a representative from Twitter.

As they say: Any press is good press.

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