Enthusiastic fans sparked significant engagement — and product shortages — for White Claw and Popeyes this year, grabbing the interest of media outlets, marketers and business pundits by exemplifying a paradigm where consumers lead the way and brands reap the benefits of all the buzz without much investment.
But while the allure of a viral hit is as strong as ever 15 years after Facebook's launch, the formula remains elusive for how brands can manufacture organic success in the digital era and questions persist over whether that's something even worth pursuing.
The short-term boost from a viral success is hard to dispute. White Claw reportedly cut its media spend 30% after a fan-produced video spurred a surge in interest in its low-calorie spiked seltzer and the brand struggled to keep up with demand. More recently, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen leveraged the power of Twitter to ignite organic interest in its rivalry with Chick-fil-A and the return of its chicken sandwich following a wave of interest in the dish's launch months earlier that resulted in it selling out.
For Popeyes, the social media reaction soared as the chain conducted consumer taste tests prior to the sandwich's nationwide launch in August, Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes' head of marketing North America, told Marketing Dive in an email.
"From then, we knew that the online conversation would play a role in the launch and had planned to leverage that alongside our paid marketing campaign," Cardinali said. "An integrated marketing campaign was to be launched to support our new menu item and drive traffic to restaurants, but due to the demand we pulled the campaign."
For the sandwich's recent return, the campaign included a social media video titled "Open Sunday," out-of-home ads in Times Square and full-page print ads in The New York Times, USA Today, New Orleans Advocate and other publications.
Make a point
Many brands have high hopes for connecting to their customers with something other than ads, Greg Gotts, founder of California-based viral marketing agency Brief Attention Span Communications, told Marketing Dive. His advice to brands comes by way of one of the celebrities he's worked with: Monty Python's John Cleese.
"He would say, 'Don't tell a joke unless it makes your point.' Otherwise it's wasted and you're distracting people," Gotts said.
The executive has several viral successes under his belt, including a video of an 83-foot semi truck making a jaw-dropping jump off a ramp over a moving Lotus Formula 1 car. The video has clocked more than 12.6 million views on YouTube and continues to climb five years after it was uploaded.
The brand behind the stunt was EMC (now owned by Dell), a maker of cloud computing software for firms like Lotus, which might normally have had to spend enormous sums to achieve a similar level of awareness. Such potential cost savings underpin the enduring appeal of organic engagement for marketers.
But besides ensuring a viral stunt or organic play is relevant to the brand, Gotts said it may be difficult for some marketers to replicate these success stories given that many details stay behind the scenes. Just because a video doesn't air on TV or a creative asset debuts on social media doesn't mean the results were some sort of fluke.
"There are covert advertising groups that reach out to bloggers and ask them to put things in their posts, for example," he said. "So it doesn't look like an ad, but there's still some spend involved."
Quick hit vs. brand building
Influencers are the gas fueling some of the biggest organic successes. These social media tastemakers helped boost the success of both Popeyes, which reportedly leveraged online communities like Black Twitter to generate an estimated $65 million in earned media, and White Claw, whose popularity this year was driven in part by influencer-created videos and memes.
Social platforms have rules requiring sponsored content to be labeled as such, and while some have found ways to circumvent this, there is still significant opportunity for brands to be above board when working with influencers. A recent Morning Consult survey of Gen Z and millennials found 86% are open to sharing sponsored content online for money while 61% are likely to boost the brands they enjoy without getting paid to do so. Given that the same survey also found many consumers in these age groups say influencers hold significant sway over their purchasing decisions, microinfluencers could be an important way to boost organic reach.
"It's like being an actor in Hollywood. The content can be great, but it's like Marlon Brando is waiting tables, and you've got to introduce him to the right people for him to get his big break."
Brief Attention Span Communications, founder
However, before brands begin seeking out viral hits, they must ask themselves if they're creating real value that leads to long-term business benefits, said David Camp, co-founder and managing partner of marketing advisory firm Metaforce.
"Most viral marketing or earned media is just an extension of advertising — you build a campaign, float it across lots of digital channels and hope it gets picked up so you don't have to pay for distribution," he said. "Even if you get lots of clicks, it boils down to a one-to-many monologue between a manufacturer and the masses versus a dialogue. Brand marketing should be about building relevance, differentiation, esteem or demonstrating a level of integrity."
That's not to say brands can't use content to make an organic impact versus traditional advertising that aligns with its purpose, Camp added. He pointed to Red Bull, which is known for a series of stunts that speak to the profile of its high-energy target customers, or Patagonia, which has created short films that shed light on environmental issues.
"Rather than creating advertising or cheap 'Hope I go viral' content, Patagonia is using content to tell its sustainability story," Camp said.
No matter the approach, successful organic marketing isn't as easy or organic as it looks. This is true even of what goes viral, Gotts noted, as brands still need to strategically ensure they're positioned at the right place at the right time, with an audience that's ready to enjoy the content and help drive its buzz.
"It's like being an actor in Hollywood," Gotts said. "The content can be great, but it's like Marlon Brando is waiting tables, and you've got to introduce him to the right people for him to get his big break."