A New Social Contract

What if brands stepped away from trying to be part of the conversation and made products worthy of being talked about?

Let's pour out a 2-liter Pepsi for Papa John's. Earlier this year, the pizza baron died a grisly social-media death by ham-and-pineapple-fisted Facebook post, when the company promised to donate a dollar to help end child hunger for every "like" its page received. The crass ploy to boost its social media popularity backfired because there was actually another way Papa John's could have helped child hunger: It could have skipped the PR stunt and just donated cash.

Those who don't learn from social media history are doomed to be mocked on Twitter worse than Kenneth Cole. Remember him? The shoe designer who tweeted that images from the Egyptian revolution were actually of people excited about his spring collection? That was three years ago, and yet companies haven't learned their lesson. This past January, Arby's, Dow Chemical, Forever 21, Krazy Glue, Microsoft, Schwinn, and the U.S. Marines all used MLK Day to promote themselves.

Brands are so desperate "to join the conversation" on social media that most only get as far as "I gotta do the social media!" and don't have a thoughtful way to determine what to do on the social media. They ask, "What's our Snapchat strategy?" without ever considering if they need one.

Can social media promotion work? Sure. I've employed it for myself and my clients. But we've reached a point in marketing where we seem to have forgotten our best "engagement strategy": the product itself. The actual thing you're trying to promote is itself its own vehicle for promotion. Whoa.

If you can pull yourself away from that racist Cinco de Mayo animated GIF you're working on, consider some successful products with a decidedly antiquated social media strategy. Spanx, the shapewear hosiery company, is valued at $1 billion. The company has made a point of not paying for advertising and letting the product and its packaging speak for itself. A high-quality product with personality that customers talk about because it works—how about that? "Every time somebody puts on a Spanx product," outgoing CEO Laurie Ann Goldman told Fortune in February, "one of two things can happen: Our brand can get stronger, or our brand can get weaker."

Huy Fong Foods, maker of Sriracha, aka rooster sauce, has a website that looks like Mark Zuckerberg's fifth-grade coding project. It doesn't advertise. Even when the town where it makes its beautiful, mysterious, incomprehensibly tasty and spicy sauce complained about the smell from the factory, it didn't run to Twitter or pay for a BuzzFeed list of the "15 Foods That Taste Like Better Versions of Themselves With Sriracha." It put up a banner—no tear gas made here—and modified its factory.

I'm a writer, so of course I'm down for storytelling and engaging on social media. But what if some of the energy that brands such as SpaghettiOs put into their digital Pearl Harbor salutes were redirected inward? You've got a monopoly on the trending topics inside your product. Think about the actual value of the thing you're selling and amplify that. Think about how customers are already interacting with you and create new ways to explore those.

The only thing this call to arms needs is a catchy, buzzwordy new name we can slap on panels, hashtags, and startup elevator pitches. Tweet me your ideas!

[Illustration by Brock Davis]

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  • Peter Karwacki

    I think the commentary has merit, but the expression "Bullshit baffles Brains" has its root in the culture. By the way, I didn't have a problem with Papa John's donation strategy, who the hell knows what Papa John did?

  • Gonna save this for when I revisit my 'marketing proof' post; ideas I've kicked around that a lot of the promotional moves brands make aren't relevant to the consumer. Crisis or not, buzz or not.. people value what they like, and that's what they spend their money on.

    Not too long ago a company I like had an opening for a SM manager. I applied w/ a different kind of letter -- blog post style, outlining many things they do right and wrong and what I'd like to see changed. I wrote how social media is part of a much greater whole and closed with "I don't want to fix Brand X's FB page; I want to fix Brand X." I didn't hear back, but stand by that. FWIW.

  • Well put. I cringe every time I see a plea to use a corporate #MyProductNameExperience hashtag or a call to "tells us your CranBerrrIta aha moment on Facebook." What's in it for me? Why should I care about your candy bar or laundry detergent? What kind of company are you? Sure, you can get anyone to come to your site once and like your page in the hopes of a $10 coupon, but why come back... or why tell anyone else about your company.

    ps: I'm glad your column is called One More Thing and not "The Thurston Howl."