Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A (Wheat) Thinly Veiled Publicity Stunt

Social media platforms and customer service are a match made in heaven. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly being used to address consumers' issues. The trend makes perfect sense. If you create a space for open dialogue between a brand and its customers, it’s inevitable that you’ll get complaints, questions, and, every marketer’s fear, hate mail. Of course every social media handbook (read: blog) will advise you to turn these into opportunities to publicly provide superior customer service. 

There are tons of examples of brands that have used Twitter or Facebook to enhance their customer service reputation. Some do it slowly and let the reputation build organically, like @ComastSteve who quickly provides tech support, or @Jetblue that uses its account to respond to angry customers (check out the screenshot below for example).
There are also brands that pull “social media stunts”. The most recent one I’ve heard of was by Morton’s Steakhouse. One of their frequent customers, Peter, tweeted at them with a ridiculous request (jokingly, of course, but I’m sure somewhere in the back of his mind he wished they’d actually do it). He asked Morton’s to meet him at Newark airport with a steak. And, you guessed it, THEY DID! Of course he quickly wrote a blog post about it. I have no idea who this man is, but it somehow made it onto my twitter feed. And if he made it on to mine, I can only imagine he made it onto many other peoples’. There are 270 comments on the blog, and, judging by @Mortons, which has been thanking people for “sharing their story” all week, countless people have retweeted Peter’s blog post.

This story, while clearly a publicity stunt, worked. It wowed people, it became a viral story, and it definitely impressed me. But, Morton’s was lucky (or strategic!). They picked someone who they knew would write about it. Peter created content that was easily shared. But what happens when brands pull these types of stunts, and the people who are “stunted” don’t share it? What if they aren’t tweeters or bloggers? The answer? Make it into a commercial (you knew I was getting there, right?). At least, that’s what Wheat Thins did in a series of commercials that started with this one:
And included this one (which I loved, because Derek tweeted what everyone was thinking, except I'd never be caught in public using the word "Uber"): 
I love these commercials. First of all, because I’d like to believe that companies pull these kinds of stunts for their customers. Second of all, because in making them, the Wheat Thins brand took control of their reputation.  There’s a lot of literature out there about how customers can shape a brand, and I agree that they play a part. But in this case, Wheat Thins wanted to be known as a brand that pulls crazy stunts on their customers, so they took control. As a student of marketing, I thought the approach was smart. If they were doing great, and wow-inducing, customer service stunts, and no one was noticing, producing a commercial was the perfect way to get the attention they wanted-although, it would have been cheaper to follow Morton’s example and show up at the house of a popular blogger.

There’s a lot of speculation about whether or not these commercials are real (see Derek’s tweet, in the commercial above!). They defend themselves in this article, and to be honest, I buy it. After checking out their twitter feed it seems they do give out quite a few boxes based on tweets. They’re positioning themselves as a brand that listens to consumers, which is always a good thing. I just hope they stay true to that, and, when customers are actually upset, rather than just upset that they’re out of wheat thins, that they come through.