It’s pretty commonplace nowadays for companies to use social media platforms in their marketing strategies. Most large organisations are basic presences on Facebook or Twitter, telling us about their upcoming sales and events, general thoughts, and holiday reminders, with varying degrees of success/appropriateness. (We have all seen a few cases of corporate 9/11 posts in bad taste, so I will spare us the visual reminder).
Of course, one of the key strengths of these platforms is the ability for everyday users to connect to celebrities and larger entities, so companies that are a better social media presence will engage their customers more individually. Taco Bell has been a famous example of this, starting discussions with their followers to appear more human. Taking further advantage of Twitter’s nature as a “at this second” social media platform, companies in spaces such as the airline industry are using their Twitter accounts to handle customer service.
So obviously with its importance to marketing, social media has become a key component in advertising. Plenty of ad campaigns come with their own hashtag, or a call to action of “follow us on Twitter” or “find us on Facebook.” Companies trying to influence social media through advertising; pretty basic.
But how about the opposite process?
My blog today is about this concept, which happens to be exemplified in one of my favourite ad campaigns of late. LeBron James’ partnership with Kia to promote the K900.
Here is the original ad, which was a perfectly ordinary celebrity endorsement.
If you’re like me, your first thought after that ad was “Yeah sure, LeBron James, (who made $23 million in salary alone during the 2015 season when these ads ran) drives a Kia.” You might instead expect the NBA superstar to be driving Ferraris, Porsches, and Bentleys, and you would be correct. You might also think the only reasonable explanation of seeing LeBron James in a Kia would be if he was required by contract to do so, and again, you’d be right.
This sceptical public took to Twitter to voice their humorous opinions on the ludicrous notion that LeBron drives a Kia. “LeBron James drives a Kia like I fly a spaceship.” “What’s a bigger joke? The officiating in tonight’s game or that Lebron would ever drive a KIA?” “I’ll bet anyone $10,000,000 that LeBron doesn’t roll up to the games in a KIA.” Right?
The social media universe was criticising LeBron James, something which happens on a constant basis and is part of the reality of being a modern athlete. But more importantly, the social media universe was criticising Kia, which is a very serious problem. By rejecting the commercial, people were rejecting the Kia brand as one which would appeal to a professional athlete, or indeed anyone wealthy or popular. Instead of consumers seeing the vehicle on the road and thinking of style and class via LeBron James, people were likely to associate the car with opposite qualities due to its disconnect with the identity of LeBron. Laughter in a commercial is great for forging recall and brand recognition, but that isn’t very useful when the audience is laughing at your brand, not with it. Apart from mechanical issues such as safety and reliability, image and trust are two of the most important elements that factor into a car brand and choosing a vehicle. But the desired traits of sophistication and class weren’t aligning with public perception, and Kia had just committed a large sum of money to LeBron James to foster trust in the brand. “Deference to Authority” (one of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s “Weapons of Influence”) is the whole point of endorsements; the viewer sees someone they trust (or, through an unfortunate characteristic of human psychology, someone they find attractive), and they are more likely to believe what that person has to say. It’s why cosmetics ads put actors in white lab coats and have them list chemical formulas, and why any company hires a celebrity. But in this case, it was backfiring. And car companies don’t need to pay celebrities exorbitant amounts of money to build distrust, just ask Volkswagen.
But this is where the genius of Kia came in; they didn’t back away from the ad and move on, they doubled down. Kia and LeBron called out the Twitter trolls, who otherwise would be hidden in obscurity, in a series of advertisements:
This accomplished two goals.
- Brand image and trust were repaired. Instead of everyone talking about how unlikely it was for LeBron to drive a Kia, everyone was talking about how LeBron really did drive a Kia. Newspaper articles wrote about it. Teammates Snapchatted LeBron in his Kia. Lebron and Kia finally meshed.
- Kia engaged users on Twitter. By responding and taking part in the discussion on social media, the brand garnered favourable attention and generated further interest. They gave voices to the everyday individual, who could see an NBA superstar give a direct response to something they played a role in initiating. And nothing makes a Twitter user happier than feeling more connected with a celebrity.
I think that Kia and LeBron will serve as a great case study on how to react to or predict social media currents and plan a strategy accordingly. When I see a Kia K900 on the road, I sarcastically wonder if King James is driving by, and then I take note of how good the car looks in real life. And I’d call that a success for Kia.