social media marketing
On Brand

On Brands

How relatable do consumers want their brands to be?
May 1, 2018
6 mins read

In the current age of social media, one in which everyone is seemingly aware of everything, the titans of traditional media have been scrambling to catch up with the times. This is especially true of major corporations, whose social media teams have found that their old-school advertising strategies aren’t working online.

As a result, businesses have discovered that, in order to reach the internet-savvy, advertising-weary, corporation-wary millennial, they have to try something new. So, what could possibly incentivize young people, who generally regard capitalism with suspicion, to invest in a brand? Simply put: relatability.  

Rather than appearing as cold, faceless advertisers, brands have taken steps to make themselves seem more accessible to the digital public. Companies do this by mimicking human behavior, particularly the behavior of distinctive types of internet influencers.

Since the digital age has created cult-like followings for certain online personalities, people chase human interaction through their favorite public figures.

YouTube gamers, Instagram models and celebrity Twitter accounts are all examples of “internet-famous” people who feel more within reach to the average consumer. So, through their own social media accounts, brands have attempted to advertise themselves to this consumer demographic, albeit to varying degrees of success.   

For example, here is a tweet from user Alex Zalben who documented a cross-brand interaction that occurred on Twitter. The tweet reads: “Uhhh… So for the past 24 hours @Wendys & @LittleDebbie have been hosting a talk show on Twitter. Their guests have been @MoonPie & @PopTartsUS (subbing in for @DennysDiner, who never showed up).”

The attached screenshots depict what appears to be a spontaneous bit of witty banter between the companies, which spanned several hours.  

Just as real people online engage in such back-and-forths on Twitter, the brands’ accounts imitated the exact same behavior. Because they were able to take advantage of Twitter as a medium, the brands got a laugh out of a community that would have otherwise ignored them.

Though this tactic bears no likeness to how marketing was done in years past, it was incredibly effective, racking up 11,000 likes and who knows how many related impressions. (Plus the fact that I know about it, and now you know about it!) 

Furthermore, advertisers are starting to realize that their best weapon to reach demographic outliers is comedy. There exist certain tropes, memes and insider argot that only millennial internet users are privy to, and ad makers have begun using these jokes like passwords, expertly trotting them out to lower the guards of viewers and allowing them to reach a formerly unreachable audience.

If you were to go on Tumblr, for instance, the content there tends to be less than advertiser friendly. Users tend to prefer absurdist humor and love memes that make little sense out of context; consequently, many advertisers find it difficult to effectively market on the platform.  

Despite such obstacles, a handful of pioneering companies have tried to master the fickle, formerly un-commoditizable beast of a site. In one particular Tumblr ad, Fruit by the Foot attempted to use the “bone app the teeth” meme — a parody of the phrase “bon appétit”— to market their fruit snacks.

While the ad met with some acceptance in the community, there was an equal amount of dismissal, particularly among users who felt the meme was out of date. The life cycle of a meme is often a short one, making it even more difficult for advertisers to keep up with trends. Though that certainly doesn’t stop them from trying.  

The trend of humanizing brands on social media is making it more and more difficult to discern between genuine online interactions and performances put on by brands in order to sell something. Whatever the future holds for advertising, brand Twitter accounts having real-time conversations with other brand accounts must mark some kind of point of no return.

Whether the future of marketing is brighter for the consumer or the advertiser is yet to be determined, but, if nothing else, at least it’ll be funnier. 

Four Brands That Are Worth a Follow:

@Dove on Twitter: Though Dove hasn’t exactly been without its scandals, their Twitter shows strong support for feminism and building young girls’ self-esteem. 

blog.dennys.com on Tumblr: Even if you don’t care about Denny’s as a restaurant, please visit this blog at least once. You’ll laugh, guaranteed.  

@benandjerrys on Twitter: The ice cream brand is surprisingly woke, tweeting about March for Our Lives and speaking out against systematic racism.  

@Wendys on Twitter: Whoever runs the Wendy’s account really likes to start beef to the point where they released a mixtape called “We Beefin?” No, this is not made up 

Jade Hookham, UC San Diego

Writer Profile

Jade Hookham

UC San Diego
Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience


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