Unless you’ve been living under rock this past week, you’ve likely heard the story of new viral sensation “Alex from Target.” Apparently, some teenage girl took a picture of him bagging items at Target, tweeted it, and watched the entire world fall head over heels for no apparent reason. According to TMZ (which is actually a surprisingly accurate source on many occasions), Alex has now taken a trip out to “Hollywood” and is considering various offers that would potentially capitalize on his curious and new found fame. There’s even been an advertising start-up–Breakr–that initially took credit and then backpedaled after Alex and the girl that took the picture said they’d never even heard of Breakr. There was also, of course, speculation that Target itself was behind the internet sensation.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the wild wild west of social media branding. Or, as I like to call it, the internet of lies (Note: I’m sure I did not originate this phrase, but I like the way it sounds so I’m going to adopt it). I may be a bit of a curmudgeon, but I tend to disagree with those that think social media “buzz” is ultimately going to be an enduring component of an effective branding strategy. I think companies like Breakr are bound to and should fail. Don’t get me wrong, I think every company should have a social media presence where it directly communicates its own message to its consumers and fans. However, the notion that a company can expect to consistently generate value by so-called guerilla marketing and viral campaigns seems pretty far-fetched to me for a number of reasons. First, you can’t “make” something go viral. And second, people are becoming conditioned to distrust much of what is on social media; you don’t want people distrusting your brand.
I think too often, people see branding and marketing as being equivalent to generating “buzz.” However, as a trademark lawyer, I look at branding from a different perspective, and in my view, its all about credibility. “Buzz” may give a brand short terms gains, but credibility is what allows a brand to endure. When you look at brands from this perspective, you also have to consider whether viral internet “buzz” is a detriment because of the distrust it may engender. Even though Target claims they have nothing to do with the Alex from Target phenomenon, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, I remain suspicious. If I’m Target, I don’t think customer suspicion is a good thing.
This entire campaign reminded me of a viral campaign Bluetooth engineered several years ago. The video showed people popping popcorn by placing it between cell phones and then calling the phones. The subliminal message was that you probably don’t want to have something that can pop popcorn next to your brain, so you should buy a headset. I think people were rightfully pissed when they found out the truth.
If I have a point in all this rambling, I think it’s this: There is no shortcut to enduring brand success, and viral “buzz” campaigns can have as many risks as there are rewards. Moreover, I expect any rewards may be short-lived. If you want to build or maintain an enduring brand, I think you’re best served by directly and openly communicating your messages to your consumers. After all, who wants to put something as precious as their brand message in the hands of social media aficionados–the 21st century equivalent of the fickle mob.