Cashing in on #trending topics

Two major pieces of news went viral in early March, the Cape Town fires and the colour of that (white and gold) dress.

As the news hit social media and pictures of the dress debate still lingered freshly on people’s timelines, images of brave firefighters holding saved animals flooded social pages around the world – and in both instances marketers and PR people looked to capitalise on a trending issue or hashtag.

Jumping on a current issue and using it to push a different, branded agenda or cause is a gamble and while the situation often requires a swift decision-making process, these are still decisions that need to be thought through thoroughly and strategically.

In the case of the dress, The Salvation Army has created a campaign around domestic violence, using the analogy of black and blue bruises and asking why domestic violence does not get the attention it deserves – Well timed, simple, yet excellent!

The fires, however, saw brands in Cape Town using news of a horrid disaster to try to fill seats in a restaurant.

Popular Pizzeria chain Da Vincis, for example, last week tweeted that 10% of their turnover would be donated towards helping fight the fires. Everything about the messaging screamed tacky, as consumers were quick to point out on Twitter and other social media sites.

Yes, corporates getting involved in charitable initiatives are noble and much needed, but encouraging and promoting a higher turnover or increased sales in order to show support is not the way to go about it. The fact that images of firefighters battling devastation was watered down in a picture collage next to images of a pizza and burger is insensitive and ill-planned.

A similar case last week was Green Catering, who posted copious branded tweets promoting the good they were doing. One particularly disturbing image was of a yellow firefighting helicopter (similar to the one operated by a pilot who lost his life) with their logo pasted over the image.

Other companies opted to donate, but gave a figure not dependant on sales – a far less obtuse route to go. Nobody wants to know that you are literally profiting off the back of a disaster that has left casualties and chaos in its path.

Too many PR and social media practitioners just post without strategy in mind. When not jumping on a disaster bandwagon, this does not visibly affect the brand image of the company they represent, but the issue comes when these un-strategic keyboard warriors choose to mindlessly prostitute those brands out in the hopes of being part of a trending hashtag.