February 5, 2020

Is “chaos marketing” right for your brand?

Popeye's Chicken SandwichIf you’re a marketer, there’s a good chance you watched the debut of Popeye’s chicken sandwich last summer and salivated over more than just the chicken.  The viral headlines were fast and furious, and the escalation of customer demand was ABSURD.  And when the sandwich sold out of all stores in less than two weeks, with no new inventory projected for at least another month, you’d have thought people in the world were being deprived of oxygen.  The clamor both online and in real life hit a fever pitch.

The upshot to Popeye’s?  Sure, people were upset.  But Popeye’s scored $65 million in earned media value in just two weeks alone, and desperate chicken-lovers downloaded the Popeye’s app to “be the first to know when the sandwich is back.”

So, was it an inventory miscalculation and total disaster…or a bold marketing move designed to create demand and engagement?  This comment by restaurant consultant Aaron Allen sums things up beautifully:  “Marketing is high-fiving each other and supply chain is getting dirty looks and management is in between trying to weigh out the pros and cons of what’s happened with it.”  (See this awesome story in Vox for the juicy details on how it all went down.)

I lean toward the belief that Popeye’s knew it was going to happen (come on…sold out nationally in less than two weeks?… no one could be THAT far off projections) and did it anyway.  This is a form of “chaos marketing,” when a brand deliberately chooses a marketing tactic or position that it KNOWS will make consumers unhappy, taking the risk that the upside from all the attention will be worth the negativity.

Now, lest you think this is exclusive to American brand marketing extremism, the US in no way has the market cornered on such outlandishness.  In Scotland, popular Irn-Bru soda made a billboard that featured a cow saying “When I’m a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn-Bru.”  And in Argentina, all Burger Kings don’t sell Whoppers on the day that McDonald’s donates money to charity for every Big Mac purchased (does this make people feel warm and fuzzy?…no, they are royally pissed that they can’t get a Whopper on the day they want it.)  The list goes on.

Using chaos in marketing isn’t exactly a new thing.  What IS new, however, is how frequently marketers are proactively reaching for it as a tool…and how comfy brands are becoming with embracing the negative onslaught to garner the upside potential.

You can thank the increasingly cluttered digital landscape for that.  With more digital channels to fill than ever, media outlets are constantly looking for viral moments to feed consumer appetites.  And as social algorithms get more stringent, it’s the most outrageous, thumb-stopping, and jaw-dropping tidbits that get the holy grail of unpaid shares.  The media may not be creating these viral moments, but they’re catching the ball thrown to them by brands and then fanning the flames of conversation around the subject.  And nothing catches fire faster than chaos.

So, as a marketer…do you have chaos envy?  If you get stars in your eyes over the lure of results like “$65 million in earned media,” and think you should dip your brand’s toe in those seductive waters, consider these points first:

  • Recovering from chaos requires a confident brand.  How deep are the bonds with your customers?  How loyal are they?  Can your relationship withstand some disapproval or frustration?
  • The stakes are intense for luxe brands with high price points.  When a greater share of their wallet is on the line, consumers are less forgiving and hold brands to higher standards.  It’s tough to reclaim that trust once it’s broken.
  • Frequency of purchase plays a starring role in rebounding from chaos.  Do you really want to mess with someone’s once-in-a-lifetime purchase, vacation, or experience?  You may only have a small window of time to make an impression on a potential (or one-time past) customer.  Squander that precious moment with a negative touch point and you might never get a chance to reap the upside.
  • “Real” chaos – natural disasters, epidemics, violence, travel bans, etc. – can strike without warning at any time, making “planned” chaos akin to borrowing trouble.  You spend a lot of time and money trying to prevent chaos and crisis from harming your business.  So is there ever a good, safe time to cultivate it deliberately?
  • Your skin (and your executive team’s skin) needs to be thick enough to weather the negativity.  Listen, you asked for it…don’t freak out and lose your nerve when all goes according to plan and people are trashing you on social media.
  • Besides the marketing and social teams, the operations and guest service teams need to be on board and fully prepared.  You’ve got to ALL be in it together.  I’m sure Popeye’s didn’t expect customers to threaten employees at gunpoint or sue for false advertising, but things went there because the world is unpredictable.

And that’s really the whole point:  it’s unpredictable.  You may think you’re engaging in controlled chaos, but once you ignite that spark, the fire has no master.  And not every chaos story ends up as a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live.