Marketers dream of the day when they are able to leverage a popular culture phenomenon and turn it into a successful social campaign. Hijacking pop culture is sometimes referred to in the industry as “real-time marketing,” but the rules are very similar. If a brand is able to identify the right opportunity at the right time, the results can be huge.
Well-known examples of pop culture trends-turned marketing efforts include the cowboy-inspired Marlboro man—invented at the height of popularity of American Western movies in the mid-1950s—and the successful “Dunk in the dark” tweet from Oreo during the 2013 Super Bowl power outage. Both brands took different tactics to use pop culture to further their image.
Other brands have experienced their own moments in the sun after taking advantage of popular trends at the perfect moment:
In recent years, zombies have experienced a renaissance due to the popularity of movies and television shows like AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Outdoor clothing and gear brand REI saw the popularity of zombies as an opportunity to promote the value of its products. The company pulled together an infographic of 13 “essentials” needed to survive a zombie outbreak—conveniently full of items that REI carries. The cheeky infographic also offered survival tips, like how to kill “walkers” and how to set up wire-trip alarms to know zombies are close.
After REI shared the infographic on social media in the fall of 2014, dozens of aggregate news sites picked up the image, resulting in expanded awareness of the outdoor brand.
When “hipsters” first hit the scene, they were described as the stereotype of young adults interested in counterculture who donned vintage pieces from local thrift stores—all in an effort to be different. Clothing retailer Urban Outfitters found a way to imitate the thrift store experience by mass producing clothing that fit the trend. Items included obscure band T-shirts, fedoras, and vintage-looking denim. For a few years, Urban Outfitters exploded into suburbia by offering a Brooklyn hipster style to teens and young adults who were beginning to figure out their own style. This approach helped Urban Outfitters grow profits by 44% between 2003 and 2006.
Eventually, Urban Outfitters’ rapid expansion killed certain elements crucial to the hipster style, just by making the trend popular, as the hipster ideal was to express individuality. As a result of the changing trend, Urban Outfitters' sales slowed considerably after 2011.
The brand’s style focus later morphed from the Brooklyn thrift store shopper to the Portland social do-gooder. Young adults were more concerned with the ethics of a company than the style. Currently, Urban Outfitter is embracing the more casual trend of “lumbersexuals”—featuring plaid shirts, beards, and environmental awareness—and has seen a bit of uptick in business since switching its tactics.
Sometimes a brand can become a pop culture phenomenon all on its own, and then later capitalize on its own success. This was the case with Dijon mustard brand Grey Poupon, which released a commercial in 1981 that would go on to become one of the most iconic TV scenes of all time. The catchphrase “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” went on to be parodied around the world—including in a reenactment in the movie “Wayne’s World.”
Riding on the success of that original video, Kraft-owned Grey Poupon has been its own biggest spoofer. In 2013, the brand reenacted the “Pardon me” car moment to show its support for marriage equality with an image of two men holding hands between cars similar to the one in the original commercial. The photo—with the caption “Spread Good Taste”—quickly spread as a message of solidarity with gay marriage supporters. The ad received over 8,000 likes on Facebook and over 450 comments. Also in 2013, Grey Poupon tried to recapture the magic of its classic campaign by bringing back a back a new version of the commercial that added a car chase scene. The re-boot received a good deal of media attention.
June is Nat. Pride month but we recommend celebrating all year – because Pride and good taste never go out of season. pic.twitter.com/7EYMJLc3Cx— Grey Poupon (@thegreypoupon) June 26, 2013