Reading between the lines: the strategy trolls

You’ve all heard of internet trolls: they’re often snot-nosed rascals who think Grown Ups 2 was Adam Sandler’s high point (and that he had a high point). The purpose of a troll is to incite a reaction from an audience, and faking a contentious opinion or simply saying something you know to be wrong usually does this. It’s childish, dumb and pathetic. But is it also a very clever brand strategy?

Mars, the owner of Dolmio, have announced they are definitively labelling some of their products as unhealthy. They didn’t say ‘unhealthy’ of course; they’ve been much less direct about it. They have said that they are defining some of their products as ‘occasional’, meaning they are not meant for everyday consumption. Not that the media could care less what Mars want to say. Rather than take Mars’ message of ‘we’re trying to make it easier for you to be healthy’, the news are naturally far more interested in the part where Dolmio confessed to their products being unhealthy.

As if some salute to the olden days where we would garnish our salt-flavoured butter-shakes with cigarettes and bourbon, Mars’ press release refers to their ‘occasional’ products with the phrase ‘authentic’. ‘Authentic’ is up there with ‘traditional’ as a word often used to justify failing to keep up with modern expectations.

But Mars are smart people; could there be method to the apparent madness? When one stops focusing so much on their products they label as ‘occasional’ you realise how many products are left as ‘everyday’. By having this distinction you’re essentially defining your products as unhealthy or healthy, and only 5% of Mars’ products will go under the ‘occasional’. So does this mean 95% of Dolmio products are being indirectly labelled as healthy, regardless of how true that actually is?

So could Mars have caused this media snafu intentionally? I’ve no evidence to suggest they did, sadly. But let’s not forget that Dolmio made BBC news headlines not once but twice, and it certainly isn’t the first time a brand has made a ‘mistake’ on purpose. In America, Hostess Snacks tweeted a picture of cake baseballs with a very obvious error in the text. This was an intentional joke by the company that worked in two ways: people who got the joke got to engage with a clever tweet, while people who didn’t realise it was intentional start a discussion and draw attention. With about 1,400 retweets you can’t deny it gained traction.

Even more successful was a tweet by Monster, who had the public feeling silly when they failed to read the small print. The tweet congratulated the wrong team after the 2015 Super Bowl, with subtle text at the bottom pointing out their joke. The tweet generated more than 4,000 retweets and increased discussion about Monster.com by 1500%. It sounds like this sort of thing is a sure winner, right?

Not necessarily. Not thinking your idea through can be disastrous (and stupid). Take the cinema in US, Missouri, that wanted to excite its cinema goers at the opening night of Iron Man 3. They hired actors to wear combat gear and raid the cinema: this was just one year after the shootings at The Dark Knight Rises. Needless to say, the police were called and the cinema spent the next week or so apologising. Sony tried to mislead its audience, as well, when they created a fake fan blog for their PSP, intentional spelling mistakes and all. Audiences found out, of course, and took offence that Sony thought their target audience were a) that gullible and b) as bad at spelling as the persona they created. Getting busted like that is the ultimate embarrassment, like everyone discovering you don’t really have a girlfriend in Canada, or that your six-pack is just drawn on with a marker. It might seem obvious but your trolling can cause severe damage to your reputation if you don’t do it right.

First of all, if you plan to deceive your audience, you must make sure that you have a purpose for it. Don’t troll for the sake of trolling, people don’t like this. Monster and Hostess Snacks both had a reason to mislead and both were in good fun. The intention was not specifically to anger people or cause mischief – they wanted to start a discussion about their brand. The next rule is to make sure you don’t target devout beliefs or dedicated fan bases. Religion or politics – unless part of your company ethos (e.g. pro-gay rights) – should be avoided, but also any groups who are sensitive to their idols’ reputation, like Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance.

At the end of the day, your brand is striving for recognition and social media presence. They say all publicity is good publicity, even if it is talking about how stupid your brand is. But your brand isn’t just the numbers on your Twitter feed or even the sales figures this quarter: you also have a reputation. There are long term ramifications that might have an impact on next quarter, when your moment in the spotlight has extinguished. What if you’re the company that everyone remembers for telling you not to eat their products, or confusing baseball and American football? Reputations can stay longer than increased sales figures, so consider that before you start trolling. After all, trolls have to hide under a bridge for a reason.

Photo credit: Flickr user bludgeoner86