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What does Twitter have in common with Kool-Aid, Mickey Mouse, and Spam? Maybe nothing, at least yet, but I predict that it will soon, unless Twitter retains some talented PR help in a hurry. Why?

The Kool-Aid, Mickey Mouse, and Spam brands all have spawned secondary or alternate and negative non-trademark meanings that have become part of the English language, meanings in each case that lack positive brand associations, to say the least. If Twitter is not careful it will find itself “following” the likes of Kool-Aid, Mickey Mouse, and Spam, and be in the similar undesirable position of tolerating language changes that distract from their brands and favorable brand messages, to be left watching others make generic use of their brand names to communicate a variety of ideas and meanings that are neither flattering nor brand building.

Kool-Aid “is a brand of artificially-flavored drink mix owned by the Kraft Foods Company,” coined by inventor Edwin Perkins as “Kool-Ade” back in 1927. After being correctly or incorrectly associated with the 1978 Jim Jones cult-driven mass suicide known as the Jonestown Massacre, Kool-Aid has spawned an additional and negative non-trademark meaning:

The saying ‘Do not drink the Kool-Aid’ now commonly refers to the Jonestown tragedy, meaning ‘Do not trust any group you find to be a little on the kooky side,’ or ‘Whatever they tell you, do not believe it too strongly.’ Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly is famous for using the term in this manner.”

“Having ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’ also refers to being a strong or fervent believer in a particular philosophy or mission — wholeheartedly or blindly believing in its virtues.” So, based on these alternate and negative meanings, blogs like www.dontdrinkthekoolaidblog.com exist. I suspect that these non-trademark meanings of Kool-Aid have frustrated more than a few Kraft brand managers, marketing types, and lawyers over the years.

Mickey Mouse, the creation of Walt Disney in 1928, has become a valuable brand and icon of The Walt Disney Company over the last several decades. However, there are also pejorative uses of the brand name that Disney apparently has learned to tolerate: “‘Mickey Mouse’ is a slang expression meaning small-time, amateurish or trivial. In the UK and Ireland, it also means poor quality or counterfeit.” Mickey Mouse is also defined as informally meaning “useless, insignificant, or worthless,” and “trivial or petty.”

Spam is a well-known, probably famous, brand of canned and processed meat, owned by Minnesota-based Hormel Foods. It was the butt of jokes in a popular Monty Python sketch, first televised in 1970, and as a result, years later the Spam brand name (coined in 1937) acquired an alternate and negative meaning within the world of electronic communications, namely, junk, undesired, or unsolicited e-mail. Something most people with a computer and e-mail account despise. Probably the only types who don’t despise this kind of spam are those who flood the world wide web with it and perhaps those who build businesses and software products to combat the serious problem of spam e-mail. This alternate and negative meaning of Spam is so prevalent that software manufacturers have developed their own brands containing the once single-meaning Spam brand name. For example, SPAMfighter is federally registered for “computer software for eliminating unsolicited commercial electronic mail.”

Now, back to Twitter, and to what some call “Drinking the Twitter Kool-Aid.”

A possible connection between these four brands (Twitter, Kool-Aid, Mickey Mouse, and Spam) came to me after watching a Kevin Spacey discussion on The Late Show with David Letterman, where Dave and the Academy Award-winning actor discussed Twitter for over four minutes, in which “K-Spa” starts the discussion by admitting that his “business partner” made him “drink the Kool-Aid,” that is, Twitter Kool-Aid, implying that the use of Twitter is kooky, or at least promoted by kooks. After more than four minutes of discussing Twitter, and despite touting his “over 800,000 followers” on Twitter, a hilarious Spacey appeared unable to make a compelling case for the beneficial use of Twitter, leaving Letterman to end the conversation by stating, “You know what it reminds me of, oh yeah, a waste of time.” Apparently, Dave had harsher words for Twitter back on April 24 when he referred to it as “stupid crap.” Others have dubbed it “permission-based stalking.”

It appears that Letterman is not the first to have come to the same conclusion about Twitter being “a waste of time.” Others, including our own Dan Kelly, certainly have questioned time spent using Twitter. Indeed, a search on Google for “Twitter waste of time” is so popular that it appears as a ready-made search phrase option on Google after typing the character string “Twitter wa” — and this search query actually yields 30,700,000 hits. The number one hit on Google using this search query agrees that it is, “unless you use it in a way that isn’t.” Given this growing negative dialogue, one has to wonder, will the public embrace a new meaning of Twitter, basically, a single word replacement for the clunkier three-word phrase “waste of time”? Instead of frittering one’s time away, might you be accused of “twittering” your time away, even if you’re no where near a computer, handheld device, or cellphone? Will these alternate and negative “time wasting” meanings begin to appear in dictionaries, opening the floodgates to additional undesired uses that may be difficult or impossible to control?

I submit that there are plenty of uses that the law is simply not prepared to stop. Knowing which are which is, of course, important. In addition, this is where the close collaboration of marketers, trademark types, and perhaps most importantly, PR gurus is necessary and critical, to help brand managers prevent their brands from spawning alternate and negative meanings that can distract from or undermine favorable brand development and management.

  • Great question! My default response is from show business regarding press mentions that might be negative, or even scandalous: “Every knock is a boost.”
    The word “Twitter” itself carries connotations of trivial and frivolous. Years ago my agency launched a new business campaign under the banner “Our Creative Director moonlights for a real Mickey Mouse outfit” – and it featured kid’s music CD’s with songs that I had written. We played up the downside of a negative connotation!

  • When I heard of Twitter, I was really surprised that they chose that name for their brand in the first place. The definition of a “twit” is not exactly flattering (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/twit). And then the extension into their own lexicon (tweet, retweet, #, twitpic, etc) seemed to further invite opportunities for twisting the brand in a negative light. People already are buzzing about the number of defectors from the service – that certainly can’t help the reputation.
    I think the actual choice of the name may leave them more exposed than they would have been under a different moniker. It’s not just the fact that people consider it a waste of time, but that the name phonetics and root meaning itself is so easy to make fun of and twist around. I wonder what the rejected names were? Maybe one of them would have served them better.
    That said, I wholeheartedly agree with both points of Twitter PR going to be instrumental in steering the brand ship as well as there being a potential future opportunity to utilize self-deprecation if need be.
    Will be interesting to watch it play out.

  • Excellent article Stephen. Thanks for sharing! I love to hear my own thinking echoing back to me in well articulated ways. :}

  • Interesting article! Thank you for sharing Stephen.

  • There is already a parody website called YouTwitFace.com. It seems that this site pre-dated a joke made by Conan O’Brien in the June 3 episode of The Tonight Show.

  • I think that a phrase becoming so popular that it loses it’s “brand” linkage can almost be a good thing. For instance, pratically everyone uses “Google” as a synonym for “search.” When your brand becomes so ubiquitous that it is being used as a verb that is a good thing…. it becomes part of the vernacular.