Who do you remember from high school?
For most of us, after a brief nostalgic haze for past crushes and best friends, there remains the “odd kid”—the kid in every grade who had a passionate interest in something really strange. The kid who made sure everyone knew about their love through elaborate displays of homemade knick knacks, stickers, pins, props, or other ostentatious displays. In retrospect, there was something about that kid’s utter lack of self-consciousness and bursting creativity that’s hard not to respect.
If only brand marketing strategy could take advantage of that same memorable, unabashed, creativity.
User-generated content, or UGC, has been around for some time now, and many brands continue to add this audience-driven engine to their marketing repertoire. At the same time, audiences today have continued to grow self-aware when it comes to advertising, and the result has been a playful back and forth between content creators and advertisers, each responding to expectations with satire, and then elaborating.
So for companies looking for a new way to spice up their brand marketing strategy, here are three principles to help guide your user-generated content efforts, including how to strike the fine balance between effective marketing and just the right amount of “odd” content.
Anyone who has been on the Internet for more than an hour has learned this principle pretty quickly. People are weird. Throw in varying measures of anonymity and a vast array of digital creation and distribution tools, and you have a recipe for oddity. Many brands keep this in mind when creating their content. Some brands, on the other hand, have had to learn the hard way.
Coke fell victim to this during its “Make it Happy” campaign when Gawker realized it could use Coke’s retweeting bot to reproduce massive portions of Mein Kampf on the beverages company’s Twitter page.
Esurance learned the sad truth when it had to pull its beloved Erin Esurance mascot due to some…creative…fan art that was being circulated around the Web. While neither brand should have necessarily predicted these responses from their users, seemingly no preparation was put into handling the contingency for crudeness, and as result, both campaigns had to be pulled.
Cheetos displayed a bit more grace under fire when it came to a similar situation that arose recently. It began with a series of inappropriate Tweets aimed at Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger, featuring more fan art along the lines of Ms. Esurance (are you seeing a trend yet?) that was certainly not good for the page. When Tony’s Twitter account tried to respond with pleas, requests, and removals, the result was only doubled efforts from the posters, and so the tiger was largely left to play more damage control while the Internet laughed on. When the same posters turned to Cheetos’ Chester, however, they were met with suave replies, jokes, and more subtle content control. The result? Frosted Flakes’ struggles turned into free media for the Cheetos brand, all because Chester Cheetah played it cool.
Peer pressure is a powerful tool that’s often thought of in a negative light, often encouraging poor behavior or discouraging good behavior. However, this same group phenomenon can work to a brand’s advantage when encouraging an audience to give in to their nostalgia for childhood fun.
Take Belkin for instance—a popular manufacturer of consumer electronics. There are few things playful about Belkin’s line of external hard drives, wireless routers, and other efficiency devices. So how could they get their users to share fun images of themselves, with Belkin products, that people would actually want to engage with? The answer was simple: Build LEGO boards into the products. Supporting a social media campaign with the hashtag #LEGOxBelkin, a steady stream of adults building starships, towers, animals, and other creations. Belkin not only got an influx of user content—it’s brand generated audience trust and interaction.
Some brands get really lucky. Sometimes you make a few exceedingly expensive, cinematic ads, and your audience turns around and then makes another one for you totally free. Sounds absurd, right? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Johnny Walker last year when a couple of film students made a spec piece that then went viral.
Other brands run contests and are inundated with a wide variety of content that ranges from professional to wildly absurd, like Doritos. The best part? By making the contest voter based, Doritos gets to use any content created for promotional purposes, for free (excluding the winner of course).
But then, there is the inevitable specter of satire, constantly posing the possibility that someone outside of your brand’s team will poke fun at your content or style. Can you ignore this sort of material? Certainly, but very much at your own peril. However, recognizing and embracing the absurdity of some of these creations can instead give your brand a human touch, while also earning you some audience trust. It doesn’t matter if someone makes a joke at your expense as long as it results in people talking about your brand—find ways to react to your users’ prods positively, and the Internet will prove benevolent as well.
Ultimately, UGC is all about controlling chaos. Preparation will always serve your brand better than prediction, and at the end of the day, the only folks that can truly make a brand look bad are the brand itself.
Remember the odd kid from high school—what might seem weird or embarrassing in the moment in retrospect can easily be seen as fun, personable, and most of all, confident. When your users are generating your content, your audience is looking for a reason to believe that your brand connects with the material in the same way they do. Give them that reason, follow their lead, and you might soon find just the right amount of “odd” visibility and trust that your brand needs to grow.
Interested in more ways to take advantage of UGC and social media? Subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter for the latest updates, insights, and analysis.