World Cup: An observer's guide to real-time marketing

This summer's soccer World Cup in Brazil was the perfect proving ground for brands to show off their social marketing chops.

Ever since Oreo won the marketing game during Super Bowl XLVII with its "You can still dunk in the dark" ad – the "1984" of real-time marcomms – PR agencies have rushed to improve and refine their in-the-moment capabilities.

This summer’s soccer World Cup in Brazil has been the perfect proving ground for brands to show off their social marketing chops. Just like the players on the field, the marketing and PR pros behind their screens need to be quick on their feet and avoid critical mistakes. And, like the teams, some did better than others.

Take for instance the bizarre moment when Uruguay striker Luis Suarez inexplicably bit an Italian opponent on the field. Sensing an opportunity, Snickers and Cinnamon Toast Crunch each responded with clever, image driven tweets about better ways to satisfy your hunger pangs than taking a bite out of another human being. Both were opportunistic and memorable; neither were offensive – except possibly to Suarez.

There’s a tactical lesson in the two food brands’ tweets as well. Both would’ve been clever with only the written word, but their images took them to the next level. Not to stretch the team analogy too far, but social strategists that play well with others have the advantage.

There were also red cards. Dutch airline KLM tweeted a stereotypical image of a mustachioed man in a wide-brimmed hat with the caption "adios, amigos" after its home team defeated Mexico. Delta Air Lines tweeted an image of a giraffe to symbolize the nation of Ghana – where the species is not native – during the country’s game against the US.

They made a golden rule of real-time marketing clear: stereotypes aren’t funny, nor are they accurate. And Twitter’s highly cynical audience can quickly put a brand in its place if it crosses that line.

By now, the social media faux pas of the summer – American Apparel’s use of a photo of the exploding Space Shuttle Challenger as a Fourth of July image – is well known. But its apology, blaming a staffer "who was born after the tragedy and was unaware of the event," as though Millennials, the most Internet-savvy generation yet, doesn’t have access to books, was equally hollow. 

Yet the bad actors were overshadowed by the brainy. Most brands avoided too-hot topics during matches between ancient rivals such as France and Germany. That’s cause for optimism that real-time marketing, though the purview of the young, is coming of age.

Frank Washkuch is news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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