Improvisation: Great for Comedy, Questionable for Branding

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“I’m not much of an improv guy. That’s a talent I don’t have.” – Henry Rollins

Improvisation is an instinctive skill long embedded within the depths of our hindbrain, the primitive portion of our cranium that controls our most basic functions. It has been essential to human survival since mankind’s earliest days, as one’s ability to think quickly and adapt used to determine whether or not they would be lunch for a saber-toothed tiger.

As we spent less time running from massive predatory creatures, however, we were able to make plans for almost every aspect of life. Improvisation has since become less of a survival mechanism and more of a novelty skill for the majority of people alive today.

And yet, for some reason, when it comes to branding and advertising, there are still those who insist on winging it and hoping for the best.

Not during dire scenarios, the exact circumstances that made improvisation a necessity. Not when the situation calls for it. Time and time again, those who should know better are ignoring best practices and established plans in favor of a momentarily hot trend or a knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes this can pay off. Often though, it does not.

Yes, of course we realize that countless millions are spent every year in market research. Obviously there are an incredible amount of hours dedicated to the pursuit of perfecting and fine-tuning a media buy in the hopes that targeted prospects will turn into customers. Plans are in fact being made.

However, what good is a strategy if it’s not being executed correctly? Not great at all. Bad, some might say. A brand is the foundation on which an effective advertising strategy must be built, and to ignore that fundamental aspect of the process to cash in on a quick and easy trend can be very costly. And not just in immediately noticeable finances. No, the loss of a brand’s position in its market can be catastrophic for future marketing initiatives and, something the CFOs out there will certainly be concerned about, sales.

This is not to say the ability to adapt and seize opportunities when they are made available isn’t fantastic when done correctly. Straying slightly from the path every now and then when the situation calls for it can be great, as long as end-of-the-road goals are still taken into consideration and won’t be abandoned by such a detour. Problems arise, however, when that deviation from established brand practices turns into a major trek. It is at this point that risk begins to vastly outweigh reward.

In a well-publicized move that had social media going absolutely nuts, the Wendy’s Twitter account went “rogue” and began aggressively (and for awhile, hilariously) roasting their followers. For a day or two, the rapid-fire responses from the fast-food chain’s official account sent the Twitterverse into a frenzy as people lined up to be belittled by the once-docile brand.

Was it off-brand? Even for a company trying to be a little edgy in its effort to target teens and young adults, yes. But consumer engagement with the account was skyrocketing, and the brand had a sudden “cool” factor that their more reserved competitors wouldn’t try to match. In a matter of 24 hours, a shift in brand focus had taken place, as talk of cheeseburgers took a backseat as the roasts on customers were at the forefront of the conversation.

Now, especially when it comes to social media, rapid responses are not just appreciated; they’re expected. Those saber-tooth-created instincts come in very handy for social media managers who are experiencing a rapid increase in interaction. With all those lightning-quick interactions and knee-jerk responses going on comes a great likelihood that something will go awry. And awry it did go.

As anyone who followed the story can verify, things went south very quickly for the newly emboldened Twitter account. When a member of their social media team replied to a follower’s request for a meme with an old, seemingly innocent image that had (unbeknownst to them) been appropriated not long before by hate groups. The outrage was swift, strong and entirely justified. The tweet was quickly deleted and an apology issued, but not before going viral thanks to a few well-timed screenshots, and the account had to rethink its social media strategy.

It can be argued that were it not for that one tweet, the account could have continued on its run of savaging its followers and drawing praise from the (apparently large) population of folks who follow fast food companies to see insults. However, as is the case with just about anything on the internet, people would have eventually lost interest and the hype would have died down in a few days or a week anyway. And it is at that point that a new problem would arise.

What is the voice of this company on this platform now? Does this new, brash brand message carry over into other media platforms? Do they go back to the old, by-the-numbers approach to Twitter? As a brand that has been searching for years for a truly memorable position to differentiate itself from the two giants that dominate the cheap burger market, was this the move that would finally set it apart? We may never know now. What we do know is that Wendy’s made a deviation, for one reason or another, from its established brand identity, and it ended up costing them.

Whether it’s a regrettable tweet or a cringe worthy commercial, it’s imperative that brands wishing to establish a solid, positive position in the minds of their audience stay consistent and stick to the plan when possible. Again, adaptation is necessary for survival, but that should be thought out and executed correctly. If not, that basic survival skill of improvising may be doing the opposite.

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