Skittles proves breaking the internet isn't always worth it

Skittles could have responded to Donald Trump Jr.'s tweet mentioning its brand with snark, but its decision to step back was the smarter long-term move, according to experts.

The image tweeted by Donald Trump Jr. comparing Skittles to refugees. The brand didn't take the bait.
The image tweeted by Donald Trump Jr. comparing Skittles to refugees. The brand didn't take the bait.

Immediately after Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a Skittles-refugee analogy on Monday evening, all eyes were on the candy’s PR team. Social media lit up with empathetic posts about the candy brand, which was brought into the contentious election-year debate without warning.

But instead of capitalizing on the virality of the situation, which has come to be the expected response, Skittles quickly and decisively distanced itself from the matter.

"Skittles are candy. Refugees are people," the brand told media outlets. "We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing."

Communications pros who spoke with PRWeek were unanimous in their praise of how Skittles handled the situation. Denny’s SVP and CMO John Dillon adds that Skittles demonstrated it understands its purpose and position, and the importance of being flexible and fluid enough to address unexpected issues without turning them into bigger problems.

Former political communicators thought the brand made the right move, as well.

"It can be very tempting for a brand to try to break the internet by taking advantage of a rare opportunity when they have gone viral," says Dan Hill, president of Hill Impact and a one-time aide to former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. "But you have to be extraordinarily cautious about capitalizing on a situation. If it has anything to do with politics, world events, or challenges facing communities, it is almost always a bad idea."

Trump Jr.’s comment ticked all of those boxes.

Stepping away from such a politically loaded comment was especially smart for a brand such as Skittles that is known for its light-hearted social media presence, adds Andrew Noyes, VP of communications at Brigade.

"Presumably having learned from other brands' missteps, the company appropriately resisted the urge to turn a serious issue into a marketing opportunity," Noyes explains, adding that Skittles handled the situation with "poise and professionalism."

Straight to the point
Skittles was also smart to keep its response short, sweet, and to the point, says Brian Bell, manager of brand PR, branded entertainment, and talent at Dr Pepper Snapple Group. He notes that Dr Pepper used the same short-and-sweet strategy when responding to a hoax spreading around the internet about the soda brand shutting down in April.

"A brand should not think about a response to a matter like this too much and overcomplicate it," says Bell. "Especially in this political climate, no matter what you say, you never know who is going to perceive it to be the wrong thing."

Yet Hill says the brand could have been even more brief, ending its statement after, "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people."

"For a brand that is trying to stay out of controversy and make sure they don’t upset consumers of any persuasion, they included a little bit extra that didn’t need to be there," he says.

Hill explains that even a response that seems benign to a brand can be misinterpreted as a company taking advantage of a situation to market itself on the back of a grave issue. For example, even donating money to groups supporting Syrian refugees could have been viewed by the public as opportunistic.

"Not responding [beyond Skittles’ short statement] and not trying to build some type of campaign around Trump Jr.’s comment was one of the better things they could do," adds Bell.

Skittles’ ‘Beyonce Bounce?’
The Twitterverse and media outlets mocked Red Lobster in February for its delayed response to a shout-out in Beyonce’s song Formation. However, the restaurant’s comms director, Erica Ettori, said at the time that negative chatter or not, the mention helped Red Lobster to a boost in sales and the highest levels of consumer engagement in its history.

It even coined a name for the phenomenon: the "Beyonce Bounce."

Similarly, even though Skittles stepped back from the mention, it could still benefit. The candy was mentioned in headlines and trended on Twitter for days following Trump Jr.’s tweet.

The online conversation about the brand also shifted to an older audience because of the controversial tweet. Data from Taykey, a real-time audience-data company, showed Trump Jr.’s tweet led to a slight increase in conversation among the 18-to-24 group, but a more dramatic uptick by the 55-to-64 demographic, which was previously not involved at all.

Hill estimates that the advertising value equivalent for Skittles across all platforms was "millions" of dollars.

"In this case, I am not sure how much Skittles gained [in terms of sales], but I am certain that they were effective in preventing big losses," Hill says, adding that no one seems to be boycotting the candy. "I’m not a believer in ‘all media is good media.’"

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