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.