The social media masses are constantly on a mission to dismantle the digital hierarchy.
Whenever the wealthy take advantage of a trend to flaunt their glamorous lifestyles, it’s accompanied by a counter-movement where an army of average Joes fight back by finding humor in the quirks of a humble lifestyle.
The phrase “Things in my house that just make sense” has been used to showcase high-end appliances in multi-million dollar homes. But the concept has also been adapted by middle-class Americans who mock their less attractive living arrangements, such as having to cut out the side of their bathroom door so that it can open past the toilet.
When brands jumped on this trend, they used it to build a product catalog, listing the items that “just make sense” to buy from their online stores. But consumers are prioritizing education and entertainment on social media by rejecting content that is solely for self-promotion. Today’s winning accounts aren’t afraid to lean into a healthy amount of self-deprecation, and marketers have missed an opportunity to use this trend to emphasize their brands’ unromantic elements.
“When brands capitalize on viral trends, they try to change it too much,” says independent agency Johannes Leonardo, copywriter Chris Chance, who noted that he learned about the creative process from growing up on the internet and making memes. “If the content is going to feel corporate, there’s no point in making it at all.”
From sexualizing candy bars to joking about vocal fry, here are 10 times when brands engage with internet culture without spoiling the user experience.
1. Kung Fu Tea denounces TikTok marketing
Brands meddling with unrelated trends is a great way to lose customers, but introducing a social strategy that is intentionally lazy, random, and unoriginal can also keep the internet busy. After users began linking compilations of “failed videos” with Cali Swag District’s “Teach Me How to Dougie” intro sequence, Kung Fu Tea posted a TikTok that began mimicking this format, but then inserted random product photos. This method, which was also picked up by the Harry Styles nail polish brand Nice to meet you, does not try to mislead anyone.
take away: Rather than deny that they are ultimately on TikTok to sell things, these brands have come up with a satirical strategy that mocks both intrusive marketing and brands that try too hard to hide their agenda.
2. Brands let go of self-esteem
Marketers are successful on social media when they understand the importance of humility. Taco Bell internalized this concept hiring a ruthless and unashamed critic of the brand—Doja Cat—as the face of recent campaigns. Duolingo’s long running bit is that it app reminders are overly aggressiveand RyanAir has indirectly admitted that affordability is the only thing keeping customers around.
take away: Just as user self-mockery is universally more appealing than overly curated content, brands grab attention on social platforms when they surprise consumers with charmingly unprofessional behavior.
3. Netflix respectfully interrupts an HBO show
Content surrounding The White Lotus, an HBO comedy-drama documenting the disturbing journeys of resort guests, has been hijacking social media feeds for weeks. A particularly discussed scene entails Jennifer Coolidge announcing “The gays are trying to kill me,” which led Netflix to draw attention to the actress’ sentiment in the streaming service’s rom-com “Single All the Way.”
4. Chipotle serves the corn boy
Taken from excerpts of an interview by Recess Therapy, an account devoted to conversations with children in New York, 7-year-old Tariq’s passion for corn made for a universally loved pop culture moment. The original clip was then remixed into a song, which brands used on TikTok to promote their own products. Chipotle invited Tariq to one of its restaurants and filmed him walking down the line, rejecting every menu item except corn.
take away: While jumping on social media trends quickly is tempting, sometimes the brands that take a moment to rethink their strategies create the most memorable content.
5. Popeyes protects a pop star
When an audience member threw two chicken nuggets at Harry Styles at a concert at Madison Square Garden, Popeyes teamed up with independent creative agency GUT to protect the pescatarian pop star from more unsolicited poultry exposure. The brand dressed fans in its uniforms with signs like “No air time for this nugget” and “It’s love that chicken, not throw that chicken” to plant over TikTok.
take away: Efficiently establishing itself as the antidote to a distinctly disposable product, Popeyes delighted fans as it unexpectedly crept into a cultural moment in line with the brand.
6. The Flyers’ muse pokes fun at a viral podcast clip
When Call Her Daddy podcast host Alex Cooper invited Uncut Gems actress Julia Fox to the studio, the internet was quick to call out Fox’s vocal fry and make a meme out of her belief that she was the sole inspiration behind the film. Since the Philadelphia Flyers’ Sandy is the internet’s most beloved mascot and can get away with just about anything, he was interrupted in a conversation that had nothing to do with him and it was completely excusable.
take away: Julia Fox and orange creatures are two very unconventional characters, so combining the two made for a random social moment that was simple and memorable without nauseating self-promotion.
7. Snickers feeds on dirty humor
Rumors surfaced in April that the chocolate ripples on the Snickers bar would be replaced by an uncomfortably slippery surface. It has long been claimed that the design resembles genital veins, meaning that Twitter users refused to keep quiet about the alleged product change. After a complete shake-up over the platform, the brand assured fans that the aesthetics of its product would remain the same.
take away: Rogue social media managersthat mimic the energy of the Pabst Blue Ribbon contributor (without going so far), make consumers feel that the brands they interact with are alienated from the confines of corporate America.
8. Lindsay Lohan works with Pepsi
When TikTok users started posting videos of them mixing cola with milk or creamer and calling it “dirty soda,” Pepsi stepped in bringing back the term “Pilk”, who debuted in the 1970s sitcom Laverne and Shirley.
take away: By pairing a wacky drinking craze with a celebrity that was always hard to ignore, Pepsi subtly steered a conversation that spanned the entire soda industry back to its brand.
9. Tumblr mocks Musk
Twitter’s impending demise presents an opportunity for competing platforms to attract new users, but that makes for a complicated feat when Musk bans their presence on his brown turf. When Twitter officially released a list of platforms to be banned and Tumblr was not on the list, the platform played on its questionable relevance.
take away: Tumblr used Twitter for that humbly returns to the conversation after a significant hiatus, and with this strategy comes a level of self-awareness that the masses can appreciate.
10. IHop runs to the supermarket
If a brand wants to jump on a trend two years after its peak, it must have a good reason for stopping. The pancake house partnered with General Mills, a brand that usually keeps consumers at home for breakfast rather than at their restaurant, for a blueberry and syrup-flavored mini pancake collaboration inspired entirely by social listening.
take away: By launching an original product, iHop and General Mills have demonstrated that brands that take the time to tap into the culture of the Internet can inspire nostalgia and respect in consumers.