How To Hop On A Trend Without Being Phony

Angie Liu

Angie Liu

Angie explores storytelling and communication through all mediums in her journey as a writer and producer and has previously contributed to CBC Radio’s Metro Morning and blogTO. In addition to her role as the managing editor of Futurithmic, she is also launching a biannual magazine that will examine themes of pop culture and feminism.

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Thanks to a nearly infinite number of social platforms and the ability to share content globally at the click of a button, it seems like we see a new viral trend every week. And inevitably, when this happens, many brands will try to seize the opportunity… and fail.

In trying to humanize your brand, it can be very tempting to ride the coattails of a viral movement or meme in order to open yourself up to a greater audience and win some new customers. Though, as we’ve seen time and time again, it may not always be in your company’s best interest.

If you don’t want to end up on the Brands Saying Bae Twitter account, here are 5 things to keep in mind if you want to hop on the latest viral trends without coming across as phony:

Your brand


It seems pretty obvious at first glance. However, a bunch of the ‘fails’ we see relating to trend jacking really comes down to this: Consider your brand, its image, and your product/service before associating your business with a viral trend. Hopping on a trend that doesn’t align with your brand will immediately come across as phony or forced because it’ll stick out among your content and your voice like a sore thumb. After all, successful marketing campaigns are ones that don’t force their messaging upon the audience, causing them to put up barriers.

When a brand or business shares content that obviously doesn’t fit with its image, the audience will fixate on this tonal discrepancy and likely will be ready to call it out. Before rushing to produce trendy content for fear of missing out, take the time to assess whether you’re able to work the trend into your brand naturally. Is the trend actually relevant to your brand and its messaging? If not, it may be worth foregoing.

Tide did exactly this with a viral trend – and no, we’re not talking about the one about eating TidePods, we’re talking about #dressgate. The detergent brand churned out a great campaign from the internet-wide debate over whether the dress was white and gold, or blue and black. As you can see, they used this viral trend in a way that was natural to their product, their brand, and promoted their products authentically. Looking back at it, the connection between the color of a dress and laundry detergent is a no-brainer. 

It worked much more successfully than, say Pizza Hut’s off-brand attempt at capitalizing on the same trend. It’s not just the use of photography instead of illustrations or the bad Photoshop that makes the pizza look like a radioactive hazard, it’s the very idea of it all.

Also, that use of the #pizzagate hashtag has not aged well.

Your audience


To go viral, so to speak, is to appeal to the broadest demographic possible. It’s a silver bullet, a get rich quick scheme. That’s not an audience. Sure, the right audience may care about you or your product/service, but the broadest demographic won’t. We’ve talked about it before, but casting a wide net does not give the results that you’re looking for. You want quality leads, not quantity of potential leads.

Similar to our first point, on top of considering the trend in relation to your brand, you must also consider whether the trend you want to utilize will resonate with your audience. Will they get the reference, even if they do, will they even care? If your best customers are generally older, but you base your campaign off of a viral meme to bring in a younger audience, your efforts might not work in the way that you want them to.

Aerie’s #aeriereal campaign that celebrated everyday women’s bodies as they are without Photoshop was so successful because the body positivity movement resonated with the lingerie company’s primarily Millennial market. Not every lingerie company would have chosen or felt the need to explicitly revolve an entire campaign around not Photoshopping its images, but Aerie’s decision to do so was based on their knowledge of their audience. Their understanding of their audience gave the brand the insight on the appeal they knew it would have. It’s important to note, however, the many ways that brands get body positivity wrong. Some come across as patronizing, and others, simply exploitative. Again, understanding your audience and how to authenticity communicate with them is key.

Social and cultural factors


When Pepsi used Kendall Jenner in their ad in a poorly thought out nod to the #BlackLivesMatter protests, the response was rightfully negative. Many people called the ad tone-deaf and exploitative (because nothing stops institutionalized racism like a crisp, cold Pepsi, right?) – On the other hand, known for its powerful commentary and inspirational ads, Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick in their 2018 Dream Crazy campaign after his viral “take a knee” protest had largely positive results that the brand is still benefiting from today. The major difference between the two campaigns is in the execution. Nike chose a role model for theirs, and Pepsi just chose a uh… model.

Timing is also an important factor here. The ‘when’ you share your campaign is almost as important as the ‘why’, especially if you plan to base your messaging around politically motivated movements. And again, be sure the trend works with your brand, your audience, & what you’re selling; had Tide centered a campaign around Colin Kaepernick’s protest, it likely would have come across just as disingenuous, and faced negative backlash, too.

Where you’ll be sharing


Knowing exactly which platforms to utilize for your messaging is just as important, as the choice has to align with your brand and audience. Tailoring your content to different sections of your audience on different platforms is a great start. In fact, intentionally choosing the most relevant platforms to share specific media content will come across as more genuine and less robotic to your audience. For example, memes are likely better being posted to Twitter and Instagram, than LinkedIn or print. Just remember, there’s no magic formula for this. Every decent brand will have a slightly different combination of messaging and platforms, tailored to its audience.

And of course, we couldn’t come this far without mentioning that old trope of the sassy social media Twitter account. Although every brand wants to be Wendy’s on Twitter these days, you don’t have to be overly sassy. When Tide addressed the aforementioned Tide Pod Challenge with a short, funny warning video on their Twitter page, which in turn opened the doors to their followers posting their own jokes and responses. You can be sassy, just as long as you’re classy, too.

Be real


At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do for your brand is to be authentic and respect your audience. If you’re quick to hop on a trend that you feel is authentic to your brand and your marketing campaign falls flat, or if it’s taken another way than intended, acknowledge your audience’s concerns and move on—don’t ignore it and hope it goes away and certainly don’t double down. After the outcry from the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi immediately pulled the ad and issued a statement of apology, and looking back, it’s unlikely that the incident had any long-lasting negative effects on the company, other than a bruised ego and possibly some demotions to the post room for some advertising copywriters.

Your followers know when you’re not being genuine, and in the social era, they won’t be afraid to call you out on it. If you’ve taken the above factors into consideration, you should feel more confident knowing when and how to utilize a trend without being insincere. Don’t be afraid to take (calculated, informed) risks, and there’s also no shame in sitting out a trend or two if they don’t align with your brand. Finally, adapt and own up if the trend you’ve jumped on didn’t work as planned – after all, missteps can be fixed with good intentions and an even better marketing team.

Another resource submitted:

How to Support Black-Owned Small Businesses (with great links to supporting black-owned businesses).

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