The Blurred Lines Between Brands and Buddies

October 5, 2016 • 7 min read

Back in the good old days, social media was exclusively for college students. No one had to hem and haw over whether or not they should accept a friend request from their mom, politics were the last thing on anyone’s mind, and there were no advertisements littering your newsfeed. I realize that I sound like a grumpy old woman shaking her fist at the world, but it’s interesting, isn’t it? Social media has evolved so rapidly in just a little over a decade—and it’s changing more every day.

One of the most intriguing side effects of this evolution is how it’s transformed the advertising game. With the ability to make highly targeted ad buys and build their own profiles, marketers are able to connect with people on a more personal level. They can now pander to our individual interests, acting less like multinational corporations and more like our pals. On the other hand, social media also allows consumers to engage with companies in entirely new ways. We now have 24/7 access to McDonald’s, Nike, Whole Foods—heck, I’ll bet even your local florist has a social media presence. 

The Psychology Behind It All

With his interest in consumer behavior, I thought that Dr. Art Markman, executive editor of Cognitive Science and psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, was the perfect person to help me take a deeper look at the consequences of constant brand access. The way he sees it, social media is a way for consumers to gather information about companies on a regular basis in a way that’s delivered directly to us—with our acceptance, of course.

“Probably the most profound influence of social media,” Dr. Markman says, “comes from ‘escalation of commitment.’ Classic studies show that if you can get someone to perform a simple action at one time, it makes them more likely to engage in a more complex action later. In social media, just getting someone to follow a brand or celebrity (which is a low-effort and low-consequence action) makes it more likely that they will do something else to engage with that brand or product in the future (like purchase the product or engage in projects from that celebrity).”

Dr. Markman points to a 2016 SXSW stunt pulled off by the TV show Mr. Robot. At the conference, the show erected a replica of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel and branded it with the Mr. Robot logo. Fans were encouraged to take pictures as they rode the Wonder Wheel and post them to social media with a special hashtag. The show then responded to each person who used the hashtag, effectively engaging them further and far beyond the last day of SXSW. This is a great example of a brand getting consumers to interact online through a low-effort activity and then pulling them deeper into a longer-lasting conversation.

The Engagement Game

Brands aren’t just sticking a display ad into your newsfeed and calling it a day. They’re engineering content you care about to cater to your personality. Take the Try Guys, for example. This fierce foursome spends their days trying on wedding dresses, undergoing labor simulations and wearing unconventional bathing suits as part of content giant Buzzfeed’s brand. Their videos are geared toward millennials and often incorporate whatever the trend of the day is, but their willingness to experiment sometimes benefits certain Buzzfeed advertisers through sponsored video stunts, too. In honor of the premiere of Blake Lively’s film The Shallows, for instance, they recently hopped in a raft and allowed themselves to be “stranded” at sea

This is the kind of content you’d expect from Buzzfeed. But what about classic brands like Hamburger Helper? They’re in on it, too. The established-in-1970s, dinner-in-a-box brand dropped a mixtape as an April Fool’s joke this year—and people loved it

Brands Are People, Too…Right?

By engineering this type of content, companies are personifying themselves more than ever. And while engagement is up, the tactic is having a strange effect. According to Dr. Markman, “Human beings are wired to have relationships with people in their social group or tribe. We aren't really set up to have one-sided relationships. So, when we follow a particular brand or celebrity, our natural tendency is to treat that relationship as a two-way relationship, even though it is not. That is why people have often felt like they really ‘know’ the movie stars they watch and admire, even though they do not. It is why people often vote for politicians that they might want to spend time with, even though those politicians generally run in very different social circles.”

He goes on to explain that when people want to feel closer to someone (or something), social media is a great way for them to do that. They know, of course, that they aren’t really socially connected to the brand or celebrity, but deep down, they do tend to feel closer to the brand and that the relationship is reciprocal. Dr. Markman continues, “That is one reason why people have such a hard time when they find out that a favorite celebrity has done something morally suspect in their personal life. It undermines their sense that this celebrity is someone they would want to spend time with.”

That just begins to scratch the surface of why brands should be careful with this tactic. While it’s great to be a part of a consumer’s day-to-day life, it can also begin to blur the lines in bizarre ways. Through social media, people can now routinely complain at retailers or service providers any time they’d like. And they won’t treat the complaint like a professional business interaction. It’s far more likely that they’ll approach the situation as if they’re dealing with an offensive individual. After all, you’re their pal, right? And you’ve wronged them! So now they’re going to handle you like their closest frenemy.

For the most part, though, the “buddy system” tactic seems to be working for brands. Take, for instance, Coca-Cola. Remember Sam Biddle, the advertising cynic from Gawker? Back in 2015, the Coke brand placed itself right in his crosshairs when it created a Twitter bot to take “mean” tweets and reformat their words into text-based renderings of cute animals and other happy images. Biddle and his team felt like this was an insincere move, describing it later as an attempt to “be the ‘I'd like to buy the world a Coke’ for our modern digital idiot age.”

So, to make a point about the megabrand’s dishonesty, the Gawker gang built a bot to tweet Mein Kampf through Coke's automated positivity generator. The backlash towards Gawker was almost immediate. Biddle writes that, “We hadn't thrown a tiny wrench into the slickly oiled workings of a $3 billion marketing operation, we'd embarrassed someone's pal. Someone's pal who was just trying to do some good online!”

Coca-Cola immediately pulled the bot down, but not because its fans were angry at the company. Its fans were angry for Coke. Even the press jumped in, with The Verge stating that Gawker “[ruined] Coke’s internet kindness campaign.”

With a response like that, Coke has to be doing something right—right?! I sure think so. Even though its followers have the ability to complain about the company—to it, even—day and night, they don’t take the bait. And during the Mein Kampf incident, they practically rose up as an army to defend Coke. To this day, a visit to the Coca-Cola Facebook page will bring you a slew of pro-Coke comments, like, “I LOVE COCA-COLA SO MUCH” and “Love my Coke!” 

Which Leads Me to This…

If you ask me, it’s OK to be your audience’s friend. Honestly, I think it’s the new norm. But do it respectfully. If you’re going to “get hip with the kids,” take the time to do the research and really find out what makes them tick. Try to do what you can to solve their problems. Your audience, no matter what age, ethnicity, gender—doesn’t want to be talked at anymore. They want to have conversations that matter. That’s why Dove champions real beauty, Always celebrates doing things like a girl, and Honey Maid celebrates the LGBT community. Basically, if you’re going to try to be a friend—be a friend. And not one of those two-faced friends who laughs about an unfortunate haircut behind your back…a true pal who’ll brighten up your newsfeed and show cynics like Biddle that brands can have a little heart, too.