Debating entering that social debate? Here's when a brand should

Social media can often be toxic. Other times, it's good, clean fun -- and an opportunity for brands to join in.

No debate here: in-house communicators agree that wading into a viral debate can be a win for a brand, keeping it top-of-mind, as long as it establishes clear signals before joining in and heeds red flags about the online banter, regardless of how much it is trending.

There’s been a lot of media chatter recently about social media being the cesspool of the internet, dividing society much more than helping it, but sometimes there is good-natured ribbing in which most participants play nice, have fun, and welcome opposing viewpoints.

Think of discussions like "is a hot dog a sandwich?" or "is a Pop-Tart ravioli?" Or think of disagreements sparked by visual and auditory illusions in which people see or hear the same thing differently. In 2015, #TheDress, became a viral sensation when it divided viewers into two camps: those who thought it was white and gold and those who saw the image as black and blue. Last year, a four-second audio clip went viral after some people heard the word "Yanny" in a recording and others "Laurel." The post was viewed more than 27 million times on Twitter.

The latest meaningless debate to blow up the internet? The order in which to rank the chips in a variety pack of Frito-Lay items, which was ignited by a video post from comedian Kevin Fredericks. His post has been viewed more than 6.9 million times with everyone from "Captain America" actor Chris Evans to Monica Lewinsky sharing their chip preferences. Even "Today" anchors weighed in on it for a segment.  

Chris Yemma, Frito-Lay North America director of brand communications, says it was a no-brainer for the company to get involved since the packaged-goods marketer’s brands were the subject of the debate.  

"We had a very positive conversation going on, so the question became not if we were going to participate, but how?" Yemma says. "You always want to be in on organic moments like these to show that there are true people and emotions behind your brand, while also helping to extend the conversation and further the mass positive awareness you’re receiving."

"Once you decide to engage, it becomes fun and challenging as you want to appear authentic. We had a unique situation because it was not just one brand; it was our Frito-Lay variety pack portfolio, which includes many of our marquee brands that were all getting attention," he adds. "So our strategy had to factor in which channels say what and when."

Frito-Lay North America’s official Twitter account served as the "parental" voice, speaking on behalf of all its "children," aka its brands, with replies including to Fredericks -- "As for the ranking, they all have a top spot for us … that’s the beauty of variety" -- and PRWeek -- "We obviously can’t play favorites)." Individual brands such as Doritos and Cheetos promoted themselves in their own distinct, edgier voices.

"MORE BREAKING VERY IMPORTANT NEWS," reads a tweet from Doritos, in reaction to a Time article arguing that Doritos should be in the top spot.

Frito-Lay North America’s PR AOR, Ketchum, is supporting the company on the chip challenge.

‘Halo effect can be great’
Of course, not all silly debates are specific to a marketer, but that doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t tap into them.  

Lego, for instance, chimed in on #TheDress phenomena with a post that was retweeted more than 3,000 times and liked by 2,800. More recently, it added to Twitter reaction about Samsung’s new Galaxy Fold by reintroducing its Lego Ideas set, Pop-up Book, for which folding is a key feature.

"The halo effect can be great both from a media-coverage perspective but also as far as driving engagement and shareability," says James Gregson, head of Lego Group’s social media studios. "It gives a brand the unique opportunity to increase relevance within a certain popular social media narrative and potentially reach and engage with a brand new audience, in the Samsung case, reaching a whole new potential audience of technophiles."

When determining whether to contribute to a debate, Lego follows online conversation volumes in parallel with synergistic topics and "our brand values like creativity and playfulness," says Gregson.

No-go areas include celebrity deaths, unless the company had previously immortalized someone in Lego form, such as comic-book legend Stan Lee.

Gregson says it is also important that multiple people inside a company evaluate an in-the-works post.

"No one is creating content in a silo or isolation," he stresses. "We have a very diverse team, and we make sure diverse people give their opinion on whether we do something or not. That way, the content doesn’t end up sitting with one person’s responsibility or become a naïve point of view."

Packaged-meat manufacturer Oscar Mayer jumps into conversations when there’s a relevant and natural connection, feels it is in-line with its brand beliefs, is interesting and helpful to consumers, and is a timely cultural moment, says Christian Badger, associate director of marketing for Oscar Mayer Brand Build at Kraft Heinz.  

Although the debate about whether a hot dog is a sandwich is not new, Oscar Mayer only took a position on social media last November.

"We’ve kept an eye on this conversation for years. We even created ‘This Is a Sandwich’ shirts with a picture of a hot dog, but hadn’t yet weighed in on the debate online," says Badger. "We felt ‘National Sandwich Day’ [on November 3] was the perfect opportunity for Oscar Mayer to officially join the conversation and take a stand."

To measure success, he says the company looked at fan sentiment, engagement with the post, and whether it spurred conversation on social media and coverage in the traditional press. It did, with articles in Delish, Food and Wine, and the New York Post, among dozens of others.

Last year, the Oakland Athletics had fun the Laurel and Yanny debate with an ongoing Twitter exchange with the Boston Red Sox.

Erica George, strategic communications manager for the Oakland A’s, says the baseball club took in many factors when deciding its involvement, but the opportunity to be highly creative in a larger conversation was critical as a means for quick reach and long-term loyalty to its social media channels.

"Generally, reach can be high in this scenario," says George. "Subsequent follows to our platform would be great, too, but that’s more difficult to obtain, hence the need to continuously stay creative and activate in a variety of ways on social. If a person sees one piece of creative, they may like it, but not follow for more. If the same person sees multiple instances of creativity coming at them in a variety of ways, then they may find value, follow, and allow us to open up our foundational world to them."

EBay has also participated in online debates like #TheDress. Caitlin Allen, eBay’s senior director and head of consumer comms, says the e-commerce company holds such posts to the same standards it would anything it puts online.

"Before jumping into a conversation, it’s important to think about whether you have something meaningful to say or how to bring a unique perspective," says Allen. "How we engage reflects who we are as a brand and why people come to eBay."

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