On TikToks, Rap Battles and Fan Accounts: When Companies Act Like Internet Personalities

Summary. In the ever-evolving digital landscape, corporations are adopting a new approach to captivate audiences — immersing themselves in Internet pop culture and humour. In the first part of a two-part instalment, I take a look into these unconventional strategies, and how they impact a brand’s success.

The day began with an air of normalcy, until a sudden flurry of notifications interrupted the mundane routines of scores of people. For those subscribed to apps and social media channels, the usual post warranted one of two reactions: a quick scroll or a simple double-tap to like. But this notification was different. It carried an unexpected weight, a sense of urgency that couldn’t be ignored. Curiosity piqued, they clicked on the notification, and what unfolded before their eyes left them stunned.

“Integration Test Email #1”— the simple, but piquant text of HBO Max’s email notification read.

The test email from HBO Max. Image source: @EduacardoCuevas, as cited by Josef Rodrigez in Mitú

What transpired on that fateful Thursday night, 17 June 2021, possibly in the confines of a secluded office was a weary employee working under the streaming service company, who had triggered a mass test email to all of its email subscribers. It was meant to be a private internal test. In an instant, the Internet — doing what it did best — exploded with a flurry of confusion and amusement.

News outlets were quick to cover the incident.

Online journalism related to the test email from HBO Max's intern.

On Reddit, various forums sprang up.

Threads on Reddit forums related to the test email from HBO Max's intern.

Perhaps the most interesting activity could be found within the threads of Twitter, where HBO Max was more than eager to mock its own faux pas. Within hours, its support page tweeted an apology. It was self-deprecating and humorous; the company made an attempt by addressing the commentators directly: “…[A]s the jokes pile in, yes, it was the intern”, the text read, not unlike the tone of a friend joining in on an inside gag, complete with heart emoji.

HBO Max’s apology. Image source: @HBOMaxHelp, as cited by Josef Rodriguez in Mitú

If HBO Max had hoped the participation in the larger narrative around it would temper the situation, it worked. What was meant to be a corporate blunder was spun into a heartwarming tale and trending moment, as social media users all over began to share their own unfortunate work-related stories with the hashtag, #dearintern.

A user shares his own personal story. Image source: @NMexpeditions, as cited by Josef Rodriguez in Mitú
Another user also has a tale of woe. Image source: @DrBolaGrace, as cited by Josef Rodriguez in Mitú

HBO Max became the hot topic of the day. It created a spur-of-the-moment publicity “campaign” possessing a virality that many could only hope to achieve. This mishap-turned-viral-moment is but one of the many demonstrations in the intersection between company press and online communities. It is also what happens when companies forgo a scripted and polished media story for an image that suggests “they’re just like us”. The idea that even a mega enterprise can make mistakes, laugh at itself struck an endearing chord with its audience. Perhaps we don’t all work at HBO Max, or in a programming role, or manage the apps of million-dollar corporations, but we’ve all been the unnamed intern — whether it’s realising that the mike was off the entire time during the virtual meeting only after it ended, or writing “Kind Retards” instead of “Kind Regards” in an email to the boss.

No one commits blunders on purpose, and a small business wouldn’t have been able to laugh off this incident as a one-off joke the same way HBO Max could and risk reputational damage. While HBO Max’s response to the incident was an unplanned stroke of genius, numerous viral sensations online in recent times have been meticulously crafted.

The Tricks of the Trade

In the vast realm of social media, one cannot help but be drawn to the magnetic presence of a certain red-haired, freckle-cheeked girl. Known for her razor-sharp wit and unabashedly sassy remarks, she has become an Internet sensation, captivating followers with her roasts and online antics. Many of her iconic quips have been documented in news and listicles. Except she isn’t real. She’s Wendy’s fast-food mascot.

Wendy’s global presence comes to life online with the persona reminiscent of the waggish humour of Generation Z. A proclamation on its Twitter account resounds: “We like our tweets the way we like our fries: hot, crispy, and better than anyone expects from a fast-food restaurant.”

Wendy’s Twitter account. Image source: @Wendys

Their cleverly orchestrated “beef” (online slang for a fight, argument, or grudge — pun fully intended) with fellow restaurants stands out as one of their most memorable exploits. In 2017, a tweet comparing a photo of chicken wing joint Wingstop neighbouring a gaming shop to the hip hop group Migos’ hit song, Bad and Boujee, went viral. When read together, the words in the image (“GameStop, Wingstop”) bore an alliterative resemblance to the song lyric, “Raindrop, drop top”. Wingstop responded with a verse of rap poetry.

Wingstop’s self-penned rap. Image source: @wingstop and @LeftAtLondon, as cited by Sam Blum in Thrillist

Wendy’s quickly jumped in on the act and responded.

Wendy's tweet. Image source: @wingstop and @Wendys, as cited by Sam Blum in Thrillist

What occurred after was a series of musical jibes between the restaurants, as online citizens watched on amused.

Wingstop takes up Wendy’s challenge. Image source: @wingstop and @Wendys, as cited by Sam Blum in Thrillist

After what seemed like an endless back-and-forth, both sides made it clear the absence of hard feelings.

Wingstop and Wendy's take turns to poke fun at each other. Image source: @wingstop and @Wendys, as cited by Sam Blum in Thrillist
Wingstop and Wendy’s make amends. Image source: @wingstop and @Wendys, as cited by Sam Blum in Thrillist

There are a few points to unpack here. The first would be the open acknowledgement of, and friendly banter with other brands. As Marketing Dive puts it: “How brands interact with each other on Twitter is, at least from a marketer’s perspective, fascinating to watch given that they’re ostensibly competition but often shy away from being outwardly aggressive with one another.” Sometimes, social media users also gain awareness of a brand through its interactions with another. Most of the time, however, there’s a form of visceral delight when one witnesses the exchanges between two giant corporations going head-to-head with each other.

McDonald’s and the Guinness World Records, in a cross-interaction about K-Pop Band BTS. Image source: @McDonalds and @GWR, as cited by Sandy Lyons in Koreaboo

The second point is the eloquent use of online humour. Wendy’s particular brand of comedy has allowed it to capture a considerable share of attention from younger audiences. Memes (defined by the Marriam Webster Dictionary as “an amusing or interesting item… or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media”), snark, and hilarious short-form videos are some content types that companies have leveraged to build interest. It only makes sense, considering how humour is one of the most well-known tricks of the audience engagement book. In one study, it was found that “90% of people were more likely to remember a brand’s ad more if it was funny, while 48% said they didn’t feel they had a relationship with a brand unless it made them smile or laugh.” This is despite the fact that since 2000, humour in advertising has been on a decline.

The third entails the crafting of a strong brand persona. Wendy’s has a strong personal voice that differentiates it from other brands. It is also not the only business to employ personality as a form of marketing. In June of this year Grimace, McDonald’s beloved purple mascot, took over the company’s Twitter account — appropriately, in promotion of a new set meal done in his theme. While Wendy’s relies on its character of cool untouchability, McDonald’s Grimace comes across a little awkward, a little dim-witted, but friendly and charming. Looking through the Twitter wall of keyboard smashes and candid self-photographed close-ups, one is almost inclined to believe the presence of a real furry gremlin tapping away at the keyboard with his pudgy hands. Grimace is not just character to the brand; but a living, conscious entity that interacts with customers.

Grimace overtakes McDonald's Twitter account. Image source: @McDonalds
Grimace’s escapades. Image source: @McDonalds

Lastly, Wendy’s and Wingstop are notable for their leaning on modern online vernacular, spanning pop culture references, emojis, abbreviations, online slang and fandom language (according to Wikipedia, “A fandom is a subculture composed of fans characterised by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest”). When Internet lingo evolves, so too do brands’ attempt to integrate these elements with the same youthful fervour of a middle-aged uncle breakdancing at a family wedding. In 2021, McDonald’s Twitter account briefly turned into a BTS fan account in promotion of their meal collaboration with the K-Pop band. Its account was peppered with snappy one-liners to young commentators enraptured with its engagement of the band and of online fan culture as it showed its literacy with terms like “stan” (defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as an “an extremely or excessively enthusiastic and devoted fan”), “bias” (one’s favourite member of a K-Pop band), and “OT7” (acronym for “One True 7”, used in the context of a seven-member band to represent one’s love for all seven members equally).

McDonald’s interacts with K-Pop fans. Image source: @McDonalds and @colinarmyblink, as cited by Sandy Lyons in Koreaboo

When such elements unite, the final results bear an irresistible appeal. Wendy’s and Wingstop’s showy exchange of wits is but one of the many examples cementing Wendy’s as “de-facto leader among fast-food brands” in regard to the handling of social media, and for Wingstop “an opportunity to boost its mindshare and earn a lot of social media impressions”. For the incident alone, Wingstop revealed that it had “tallied some 9 million impressions and 72,000 retweets”.

The Power of Unconventionality

Authenticity, humour, and the understanding of online culture has proven to be a powerful tool for brands to generate viral sensations and increase engagement. From adopting conversational tones to leveraging popular references, many have found creative ways to connect with their audiences and stand out in the crowded digital landscape.

Looking at the successes of savvy social media marketing, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement and tempted into jumping aboard the trends. But is there more to know about these innovative marketing approaches? Are they always prone to success, or would they backfire without the right precautionary measures? In the next instalment, I delve deeper into the reasons behind their effectiveness, and uncover the essential “do’s and don’ts” of avoiding a social media blunder. Stay tuned.

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