A Shared Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words…and Maybe More

Last week, a photo surfaced showing a McDonald’s employee assisting a physically disabled customer with his meal in a Chicago restaurant. Hailed for his kindness and generosity, the cashier was spotted not only closing his register down, as to not confuse other customers, but proceeding to don a pair of rubber gloves before joining the man at his table. The picture was posted to Facebook by another restaurant customer and almost immediately started garnering attention.  

Social media– specifically the sharing of these organic photos– has allowed consumers to take control of brand messaging and weigh in on their perception of a brand. For McDonald’s, this image does wonders for a brand that has been at the center of controversy about the quality of its food and treatment of its workers. It is important to look at how the benefits of the good images compare to the costs resulting from the bad. I should point out that this post is not about virality in social media, rather the impact it can have on a brand.

McDonald’s spent $800m on advertising in 2014. $4m of that was spent on its “Bad Lip Reading” commercial during the Super Bowl that year. With 111m viewers watching that game, you could estimate that the ad cost McDonald’s just over 3.5 cents per viewer in a 4 hour period. If you apply that same logic to this photo which was socially shared, cost McDonald’s nothing, and can be potentially seen by 1.49 billion users without any time constraints, the value is practically unmeasurable!

Such logic is applicable to other brands as well, though some reap the rewards in different ways.

1) GoPro: “GoPro vs Grizzly

In Spring of 2013, while shooting video in the Alaskan wilderness for the BBC, videographer Brad Josephs managed to get some up-close footage of two grizzly bears. While he himself was not standing with the bears, he left his GoPro camera out and let it record. One bear in particular decided to use the device as a chew toy. When Josephs reclaimed the camera and noticed it was unharmed, he shared the footage on Youtube, where it was viewed 1.7M times. The video is basically a 4-minute long commercial on the durability of GoPro cameras. GoPro clearly embraced this, as a similar video by Josephs was shot and shared again, this time by the brand.

2) Target: #AlexFromTarget

Following a rampant viral sharing of a photo of a teenage cashier at a Target store in Texas, Alex Lee became an instant internet sensation in only a day. Doing nothing more than his job, #AlexFromTarget created quite a boost for the prominence of the Target brand. Apart from the incredibly valuable social media presence, Ellen Degeneres would go on to invite Alex on to her nationally televised show. And of course #AlexFromTarget wore—you guessed it— his Target uniform. Target no doubt welcomed Alex’s fame by even embracing the craze through its social media channels as well. The benefit experienced here was surely a welcome relief as Target was still reeling from the devastating credit card breach it had encountered less than a year earlier.

Like McDonald’s, these examples both (as far as we know!) cost the brands nothing. In 2011, the last year that the television production cost survey was published, the average 30-second TV commercial cost $354K to produce. Clearly from those figures alone, the examples above present not only a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising for GoPro and Target, but also a significant added value based on the reach of the images. Target, no doubt viewed this as a chance to capitalize on some far more light-hearted notoriety than a hacking incident. It is again the organic nature in which the images are captured and shared that enabled this.

But what about shared photos that don’t generate the same kind of good will? Is bad press always better than no press? There have been some studies that argue against that logic. When a consumer shares an organic photo or video that is damning to a brand, it requires a company to dedicate crucial resources to the management of these situations.

The following are some examples of big brands that are fortunate enough to have such resources.

1) FedEx: “I’ll just leave it on the stoop.

The FedEx brand drew some ire when a man sitting in his parked vehicle on a street in Manhattan used his cell phone camera to video record a delivery worker freely tossing packages into the back of her truck without any care. While there was not a great deal of context around the situation, it was easy for anyone viewing the image to know that the worker’s carelessness made the brand look bad. Though FedEx responded quickly that this of course is uncharacteristic of a typical FedEx employee, the damage had been done.

2) KFC: “Don’t eat that!

A photo that was enough to make you want to never eat again, much less eat at KFC. In June a restaurant goer at a KFC snapped a photo of what he claimed to be a deep fried rodent in his chicken tender meal. Following the share on social media the image immediately raised eyebrows for the shock of seeing such a thing. It also however drew critics questioning its authenticity. Less than a week later a lab confirmed that the food was indeed chicken, just unfortunately shaped. The KFC brand was immediately brought the forefront of the controversy forcing the company to aggressively manage the situation while protecting the quality of its core product.

3) Apple: “Bendgate

Last September, when Apple was set to unveil the company’s newest iteration of the iPhone: the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, a short video was posted to social media that showed an official “bend test” of the new iPhone 6 Plus, after reports from users claimed that the device would bend. The video itself was in response to what social media posters had dubbed #bendgate— calling into question the physical quality of the new product. Apple immediately responded to reports by basically saying that with normal use (and no physical intent to bend!) the product would hold up just fine.

Each of these examples presented a unique situation that would ideally have been avoided, but it’s evident that none has done irreparable damage. FedEx is still delivering packages, KFC continues to serve fried chicken, and Apple continues to draw lines of excited shoppers to its stores at the launch of each new product. In an article from Harvard Business Review research showed that large, well-known brands needed to conduct immediate damage control in situations like these and spend valuable resources to limit bad press as much as possible.

The key thing that I take away from all of this is that when we as consumers take to social media to call out a brand, either positively or negatively, it puts the brand at risk. And this risk can be either beneficial or damaging. As instances like these continue to pop up and brands look to capitalize on the success of viral sharing through social media, it is important to be aware of the source of the original post in strategizing next steps.






  1. Hello Sean, thanks for this nice post!

    I agree with you that social media has allowed costumers to take control of branding messaging. That’s good news to costumers for sure, but it’s a double-edged sword to brands. Sharing positive organic photos contributes to positive brand images, however, sharing those negative ones may bring tons of negative effects on both financial concerns and brand reputation. Those brands you mentioned in the post are well-elaborated examples on both sides.

    However, from my point of view, social media is a fair tool used by everyone on these days. Not only consumers can obtain great power to give their voice on brands, but also brands can convey healthy and beneficial messages to customers on social media. Even though big brands get involved in scandals, it’s always a good way to take advantage of the great power of social media for Crisis PR. For example, a famous China’s hot pot chain – Haidilao got into trouble in 2011. Someone revealed that Haidilao added artificial seasonings into soups, which were very hurtful to customers’ health. People were shocked because Haidilao’s brand image was always associated with nature, health and trustworthy service, and the scandal dramatically damaged its reputation. Nevertheless, Haidilao’s CEO, Yong Zhang, reacted to the scandal rapidly and posted his response to the public on both Haidilao’s official website and his Weibo (similar to Twitter) on the same day of the scandal’s publication. In his response, Yong Zhang expressed that he would take responsible of the whole thing and promised to give a satisfying answer to the public. Moreover, he interviewed employees involved in the scandal and even provided professional psychological treatment instead of dismissing them. All of these actions were totally transparent to the public via all kinds of social media. Eventually, the scandal was settled and Haidilao even obtained more support from its loyal customers. Besides Haidilao’s in-time response, it seems that social media also contributed a lot to draw the public’s attention and make efficient communications between the brand and its customers.

  2. Great post, Sean! I think the examples you’ve highlighted (both positive and negative) demonstrate the power of social media for consumer brands. The negative examples in particular reveal the added pressure on brands in an era when consumers are empowered to share negative experiences with the entire digital world.

    I actually had a similar experience a few years ago: a timid coworker ordered a grilled cheese sandwich to-go from a national chain that was located in our building. He brought it back and realized that the sandwich had no cheese on it (i.e. it was two pieces of toast). Being the nicest person on the face of the earth, he didn’t want to say anything, but we all quickly noticed something was wrong. Another coworker took the sandwich back to the restaurant and asked for a new one, but the staff were rude, and the second attempt of the sandwich was hardly better than the first. Rather than taking the sandwich downstairs for a third attempt, I simply tweeted a picture of the sad sandwich and tagged the restaurant in my post. Within hours, I had gotten a direct message asking me to call corporate HQ. The company ended up mailing me $40 in gift cards as an apology. (Reminder: this was all for a sandwich that wasn’t even mine. For the record, I gave the gift cards to the grilled cheese victim, but he was kind enough to share.)

    The picture I posted didn’t depict anything truly appalling, but the brand was so concerned about negative attention on social media, they were willing to essentially pay me to delete my post.

  3. Sean,

    I wonder if you buy into the phrase “any press is good press”. Your examples of FedEx, KFC, and Apple are great examples of social media nightmares for a company’s PR firm. These incidents likely caused immediate declines in sales or caused some customers to boycott the firm. However, these stories still push the company’s brand and image out to the minds of the customers over potential competitors. Many customers can understand that these are isolated incidents oftentimes caused by a single disgruntled employee or simply bad luck. While they might not eat at KFC for a week or two, such stories inevitably fade to the back of customers’ minds as is the case with most trending social media topics.

    Of course, if the incident is an isolated occurrence, the company still must be adequately prepared and equipped to deal with the social media backlash. If a company does not take public responsibility, then there is a serious risk of alienating their consumer base. A simple apology seems like enough for customer’s to get back on board with the brand. This article (http://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/What_is_a_brands_recovery_time_after_a_social_medi_13954.aspx) examines the average recovery time for a brand’s social media disaster at about 3-4 weeks with a properly executed apology. Depending on the case, sales will be hurt for a month, but I wonder if “the any press is good press” adage holds up.

  4. Great post. Reminds me of the Capri Sun video that went viral on Facebook (showed the inside of a Capri Sun pack with a bunch of bacteria/unidentified slime) and the mom who filmed it was livid. I think what’s most genuine about these types of viral posts is that the person fits the “regular” customer profile that we, as consumers, can relate to. (Ex. the mom filming the Capri Sun video holds credibility just for being a mom and probably encouraged many other moms to stop buying Capri Sun).

  5. Nice post. I don’t think its necessarily accurate to say that these posts cost brands nothing. Yes, it costs nothing if a post coincidentally goes viral. More likely, though, it requires considerable employee time and effort to constantly engage the social media space to promote the positive images and counter the negative ones.

  6. This was a great post. I do believe that nothing is truly free. There is always costs involved. I would argue that the cost of advertising maybe less for promotions (positive Ads) on social media than that for defending a company’s brand in light of negative publicity. Regardless of how you look at it there are always man/woman hours involved i.e. people must be paid to actually do the advertising. I do believe that in order for Ads to go viral they must first be developing a critical mass on social media platforms and this can only happen with a dedicated staff constantly posting/tweeting/blogging. Social media surely brings more publicity to companies but I don’t think this naturally translates to increase in sales revenues. Your blog surely touched on a very important function of social media and that is companies may or may not generate sales from the Ads but the psychological impact those Ads have on customers is more important. Your example of a McDonald’s employee assisting a physically disabled customer with his meal in a Chicago restaurant speaks to the above. We really don’t know how the virality of this picture impacted the sales of McDonalds. However, it is safe to say that many people who saw that picture and or read about the story may have or are in the process of developing a positive opinion of McDonalds. All of your examples do show that businesses engage in social media advertising in order to appease the emotions of their audiences.

  7. It’s truly remarkable how easily a single post or share on social media can instantly go viral without initial effort. It’s nothing organizations can prepare for rather mere coincidence, whether it imply positive or negative feedback. In terms of “any publicity is good publicity”, I feel this is only true to a certain extent. If having a rodent fried product in my KFC bucket can be seen as good publicity, there is something truly wrong with the marketing realm of today’s tech-savvy society. However it’s reassuring in a sense to know customers do have a voice in the failure or success of a business.

  8. Nice post, thanks. I remember seeing this McDonald’s image go viral, and being very excited about the cashier’s great service. They are very fortunate that the social media user felt inclined to take a picture and post it online. The question for managers becomes, what can be done to encourage the use of social media in your storefront? This will encourage better behavior on the part of employees, since they know that negative encounters could go viral as well. But the main benefit of encouraging customers to post on social media would be the posts about their positive experiences either with their service as in the case of this McDonald’s image, or some other aspect of the business.

  9. Great examples and stories. Things like this happen every day when customers are always posting pictures or making comments about a good or bad experience with a brand. Few of them make it to the headlines and turn viral, but it still forces brands to be ready to respond appropriately to either a success or a crisis on social media.

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