A recent PR stunt by Burger King made quite a splash:
The company wanted to highlight a brand anniversary, so they started liking really old tweets from various influencers. It’s quite weird to discover that someone has liked something you published in social media a very long time ago. Why does anyone like this now? And for how long did they have to scroll to find it?
And when the sender is a worldwide brand, most targeted influencers had almost no choice but to react and bring attention to Burger King’s “strange” behaviour. At Better Marketing, writer Sean Kernan praised the creator behind this campaign in the article Burger King hired an absolute genius — and it paid off.
Casey Neistat, famous vlogger and one of the targeted influencers, expressed concerns about the manipulation, but still bowed down to the genius of the campaign:
“Us influencers were not brain surgeons or rocket scientists. It’s not nice to manipulate us into hawking your sugar-coated french fries. The thing that upsets me the most is just how genius it was. We all were like little mice, we all went in for the cheese and the trap and it snapped on us. You win Burger King! Whoever you hired to come up with this should get a raise.”
I’ve never covered this on the blog before, but it’s time to take a closer look at the exploit PR strategy:
We don’t often think about it, but there’s been a continuous history of brands who have found creative ways to exploit various channels by using them in a way that just wasn’t intended. The most classic example is when brands offer quid pro quo for liking and sharing social media updates — in order to game the algorithm. “Like and share for a chance to win,” right?
In my opinion, what’s remarkable about the Burger King campaign is that they managed to identify an exploit in such an old social platform as Twitter. This is truly creative; finding potential exploits is generally much easier when platforms are new. And — social networks are in general continuously getting more proactive in anticipating corporate exploits.
So, is the exploit PR strategy something your brand should explore?
For starters, it’s worth mentioning that these types of campaigns have complicated value propositions. The Burger King campaign is very typical in this regard; the campaign is dubbed genius from a marketing perspective, not from a product perspective. With campaigns as these, Burger King is positioning their brand primarily as brave buyers of creative marketing, not as providers of great hamburgers. And they get people talking about marketing tactics, not about their products.
As a consequence, campaigns like these are mostly celebrated by other marketers and journalists specialised in covering PR- and marketing campaigns. The news angle is typically how a brand successfully has manage to exploit (or manipulate, even) someone or something — which often has very little to do with the actual products or service being offered. Yes, Burger King did manage to trick several influencers to publish updates about the brand, updates that would otherwise have cost the brand a small fortune. But if tricking these creative influencers out of their commissions would’ve backfired, then what?
I’ve been contacted by numerous advertising agencies with guerilla marketing ideas over the years. They’ve asked me to help them secure publicity for their campaigns, but I’ve always declined, politely. I simply won’t take a brand’s budget to do publicity work just to promote the brilliance of their current advertising agency. I wouldn’t even take a brand’s money to help their CMO to win creative campaign awards. As a senior PR adviser, this is a general principle that I’ve adopted — and a decision I stand by still to this day.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not hesitant about all forms of PR exploits. I’m a big proponent of newsjacking (creating news stories to piggyback on current hot topics), ramp-up techniques (social graph exploits), and designing viral loops (incentivised social sharing). I just wouldn’t advise using actual marketing tactics as the main point of the campaign itself.
To summarise, my advice about PR exploits is this:
1. Always be on the lookout for exciting potential channel exploits, but only use these if the outcome is aligned with both your brand voice and your overall value proposition.
2. Beware of the meta-challenge of spending corporate resources on promoting your marketing creatives instead of your actual products and services.
3. Bear in mind that manipulation isn’t the only way to get free influencer publicity; there are numerous of other ways to collaborate with influencers where you both win in the end.