Is “chaos marketing” right for your brand?

February 5, 2020

Popeye's Chicken SandwichIf you’re a marketer, there’s a good chance you watched the debut of Popeye’s chicken sandwich last summer and salivated over more than just the chicken.  The viral headlines were fast and furious, and the escalation of customer demand was ABSURD.  And when the sandwich sold out of all stores in less than two weeks, with no new inventory projected for at least another month, you’d have thought people in the world were being deprived of oxygen.  The clamor both online and in real life hit a fever pitch.

The upshot to Popeye’s?  Sure, people were upset.  But Popeye’s scored $65 million in earned media value in just two weeks alone, and desperate chicken-lovers downloaded the Popeye’s app to “be the first to know when the sandwich is back.”

So, was it an inventory miscalculation and total disaster…or a bold marketing move designed to create demand and engagement?  This comment by restaurant consultant Aaron Allen sums things up beautifully:  “Marketing is high-fiving each other and supply chain is getting dirty looks and management is in between trying to weigh out the pros and cons of what’s happened with it.”  (See this awesome story in Vox for the juicy details on how it all went down.)

I lean toward the belief that Popeye’s knew it was going to happen (come on…sold out nationally in less than two weeks?… no one could be THAT far off projections) and did it anyway.  This is a form of “chaos marketing,” when a brand deliberately chooses a marketing tactic or position that it KNOWS will make consumers unhappy, taking the risk that the upside from all the attention will be worth the negativity.

Now, lest you think this is exclusive to American brand marketing extremism, the US in no way has the market cornered on such outlandishness.  In Scotland, popular Irn-Bru soda made a billboard that featured a cow saying “When I’m a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn-Bru.”  And in Argentina, all Burger Kings don’t sell Whoppers on the day that McDonald’s donates money to charity for every Big Mac purchased (does this make people feel warm and fuzzy?…no, they are royally pissed that they can’t get a Whopper on the day they want it.)  The list goes on.

Using chaos in marketing isn’t exactly a new thing.  What IS new, however, is how frequently marketers are proactively reaching for it as a tool…and how comfy brands are becoming with embracing the negative onslaught to garner the upside potential.

You can thank the increasingly cluttered digital landscape for that.  With more digital channels to fill than ever, media outlets are constantly looking for viral moments to feed consumer appetites.  And as social algorithms get more stringent, it’s the most outrageous, thumb-stopping, and jaw-dropping tidbits that get the holy grail of unpaid shares.  The media may not be creating these viral moments, but they’re catching the ball thrown to them by brands and then fanning the flames of conversation around the subject.  And nothing catches fire faster than chaos.

So, as a marketer…do you have chaos envy?  If you get stars in your eyes over the lure of results like “$65 million in earned media,” and think you should dip your brand’s toe in those seductive waters, consider these points first:

  • Recovering from chaos requires a confident brand.  How deep are the bonds with your customers?  How loyal are they?  Can your relationship withstand some disapproval or frustration?
  • The stakes are intense for luxe brands with high price points.  When a greater share of their wallet is on the line, consumers are less forgiving and hold brands to higher standards.  It’s tough to reclaim that trust once it’s broken.
  • Frequency of purchase plays a starring role in rebounding from chaos.  Do you really want to mess with someone’s once-in-a-lifetime purchase, vacation, or experience?  You may only have a small window of time to make an impression on a potential (or one-time past) customer.  Squander that precious moment with a negative touch point and you might never get a chance to reap the upside.
  • “Real” chaos – natural disasters, epidemics, violence, travel bans, etc. – can strike without warning at any time, making “planned” chaos akin to borrowing trouble.  You spend a lot of time and money trying to prevent chaos and crisis from harming your business.  So is there ever a good, safe time to cultivate it deliberately?
  • Your skin (and your executive team’s skin) needs to be thick enough to weather the negativity.  Listen, you asked for it…don’t freak out and lose your nerve when all goes according to plan and people are trashing you on social media.
  • Besides the marketing and social teams, the operations and guest service teams need to be on board and fully prepared.  You’ve got to ALL be in it together.  I’m sure Popeye’s didn’t expect customers to threaten employees at gunpoint or sue for false advertising, but things went there because the world is unpredictable.

And that’s really the whole point:  it’s unpredictable.  You may think you’re engaging in controlled chaos, but once you ignite that spark, the fire has no master.  And not every chaos story ends up as a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live.

Five tips to deliver bad news gracefully.

August 29, 2012

Raising your prices?  Cutting services?  Not giving out staff bonuses this year?  Putting an employee on probation?

No one wants to deliver this kind of unwelcome news.  Quite frankly…it sucks, for both the recipient AND the messenger.  But sometimes it’s a necessary evil of doing business, and you’re the unfortunate soul who has to bear the burden.  Here are five tips to mitigate the drama:

1 – Let your own emotions run their course before you have to share the news with others.  You may not like or agree with the news you must deliver, but there is a reason why it must be done.  Find a way to come to terms with it in your own mind so you don’t bring your own negative emotional energy to the communication.  Your audience will take its cue from your approach, and if you’re defensive, nervous, weepy, or angry…it will only fuel their own negative response.

2 – Restrict your build-up and get to the point. By the time people get through six long paragraphs of posturing and pussyfooting, their BS-radar is on high alert and involuntary butterflies in their stomach are flooding their brain with negative emotion.  So, when you finally hit them with the unpleasant punchline in that last paragraph, their adverse reaction is intensified by the emotions you yourself have nurtured in them.  The same thing holds true for verbal delivery.  Often times, the anticipation is worse than the actual news.

3 – Consider the timing carefully.  Procrastinating often makes it worse (especially if there is a rumor mill in the mix), but rushing to break the news just because YOU want to put it behind you comes with great risk.   A knee-jerk communication is usually delivered with clouded judgment, high emotion, and a lack of due diligence.  Most importantly, think about when this news will best be received.  Bad news is never welcome, but you should consider factors like time of day, day of week, and your audience’s state of mind before you decide on the ideal timing.

4 – Avoid misdirection and trickery.  It’s tempting to load up bad news communication with a bunch of good news in the hopes of distracting your audience.  However, it will only damage their trust in you.  You may choose this path because it makes YOU feel better (“Look, see?  I’m not that bad…look at all the good things I’m still sharing!”) but to the news recipient, it just looks wishy-washy and weak.  And, in many cases, it can give the appearance of trivializing very serious news and not treating it with the respect it deserves.

5 – Remember that nothing is confidential.  Emails can be forwarded, and social media is designed to be the world’s fastest grapevine.  Whatever you do…whatever you say…before you “go there,” answer this question:  how would I feel if 50 million people knew about this tomorrow?  Nothing tames you into acting gracefully like the thought of being vilified by an outraged public.  United Airlines learned this lesson the hard way.  Watch video.

Above all, you must remember this:  no matter how you spin it or when you say it…your audience won’t like it.  That’s why it’s called “bad news.”  It would be completely irrational for you to tell your customers you’re raising prices and have them respond “Right, then…no worries, we don’t mind.”  So, be realistic with yourself.  If you expect to deliver bad news and have people walking away happy…this will not work out well for you.

And that brings us to the last point:  delivering bad news is not about YOU.  The recipient does not want to hear about how you were up all night belly-aching over having this conversation, or that you’re just so upset you can’t eat, or that it gives you no pleasure to do this.  Asking for their empathy at a time like this is most likely to result in their wanting to smack you.  Let them have their moment of sadness without trying to steal some sympathy for yourself.

Marketing strategy post-disaster: No one likes a sore-winner.

August 31, 2011

The corner of Sixth and Spring looked sad on Monday without the Coffee Guys.

On the Monday morning following Hurricane Irene, I committed heresy:  I bought coffee from the cart vendor across the street…NOT from My Guys.  I had no choice…for the first time in 9 years My Guys weren’t there, and abstaining from coffee seemed a foolish allegiance that would merely leave me thirsty, caffeine-deprived, and yet still unsure of their safety.

So, I crossed the street with a heavy heart…and thus began my lesson in dog-eat-dog, post-hurricane marketing tactics.

This “understudy” vendor was aggressively courting all his newfound customers, and enjoying every moment of it.  Kudos to him for recognizing an opportunity (“I no see you here before…happy to meet you”)…and shame on him for crossing the line (“You come here ONLY from now on, yes?…This best coffee in neighborhood, no one else good.”).  I walked away with no promises, unsurprised to hear him tell the next woman in line that she is his “prettiest customer of all time,” …as I apparently was just a moment ago.

Later, as I sat at my desk reflecting on the cutthroat nature of the NYC coffee cart vendor industry (and now vowing coffee abstinence until the Guys return), the post-hurricane promotional email blasts from undamaged hotels in the Northeast started piling up in my in-box.   And the parallels to Mr. Coffee Understudy’s tactics – but on a much grander scale – were startling.

Essentially, the intended message to consumers was the same:  despite the sensational news reports of widespread flooding and damage in the Northeast, our hotel was undamaged and we are open for business this Labor Day weekend and beyond.   But the strategies used to actually communicate that message were vastly different…and not one of them reflected well on the image of its hotel.  The reason?  No one likes a sore winner.

It’s totally understandable that hotels open for business don’t wish to be painted with the same “devastation brush” the media has loosely applied to the Northeast…especially now, when the high occupancy weeks of summer, Labor Day weekend, and fall foliage season make the stakes so high.  But if you find your property in this situation, here are some tips for that email blast to prevent you from looking like an uncaring ogre trying to capitalize on others’ misfortune:

Timing:  wait until the initial outpouring of sympathy and drama has passed before sending ANY promotional emails out.

Tone:  you can’t express believable compassion for the victims alongside a cheerful offer of a “3rd night free with extended pool hours”…the crass jumble of emotions just screams “all’s fair in love and marketing.”  Be appropriately respectful and less blatantly promotional.

Humor:  does not belong in ANY post-disaster marketing communication.  More than one Northeast property created a “Weakend Guest” package or message, which is a clever play on words likely not appreciated by the thousands of people who suffered severely by this storm’s strength.

Incentives:  what should your call to action be in this case?  True, bookings are always a goal, but given the situation, is this really the right message for this particular promotional blast?  Perhaps your first outreach should be clarification of facts – you are open, you sustained no damage, you feel fortunate, and your heart goes out to your less fortunate neighbors. 

Grace and Class:  being promotional and pushing incentives is bad enough on its own…actually referring to your devastated competitors shows extremely poor taste.  Messages along the lines of  “Vermont got slammed, but we here in Maine are open for business and the sun has never been brighter!” really cast you as a villain.

You would be smart to anticipate that your current reservations for the next few weeks may be at risk…but the best way to solidify them is to speak directly to those guests.  Send them an email, give them a call…whatever.  Just give them the facts:  their reservation is safe, the roads are open (are they?…provide alternate directions if necessary), and their vacation is ready for their arrival.

After the initial drama of the disaster has subsided, you can always trawl for new customers, just like you always would.  Then, at that time, no mention of the disaster is necessary.  Just make sure enough time has passed before you start kicking up your cheery tone.

Here in NYC, Redpoint  weathered Hurricane Irene unscathed, though we are working round-the-clock on crisis response right alongside some of our Northeast hospitality clients who were less fortunate.  We’re delighted to report that overall, our clients are a hearty bunch of New Englanders who gracefully take their licks and are eager to get back in the game.

And now that our Coffee Guys have returned to their corner (safe and sound, thank goodness), the gang here at Redpoint is all fueled up and ready to help them do that.