Cold Calculated Playfulness

27 Nov

A version of this post also appeared on MediaPost’s Marketing Daily Commentary.

They’re at it again; big consumer brands swapping barbs and witticisms on Twitter.

It’s become all the rage, using your best 140 characters to playfully tap another brand on the nose, prompting a battle of wits over the next couple hours, or even days. In this case it was JCPenney calling out Kmart for it’s viral success of men playing Jingle Bells with their, um, stuff.

So Kmart responded, not only declining the offer, but also recycling an earlier commercial in the process.

And they were off to the races.

Considering that the vast majority of public isn’t paying attention to this kind of stuff, it would be tempting to chalk it up to playful games between rival marketing departments. After all, isn’t this just JCPenney having a John Cusack moment, standing outside Kmart with a boom box desperately trying to woo the customers they love to come out? (If the reference is lost on you, odds are you’re a Millennial. Go watch the classics.)

But that would ignore the bigger implications of what’s happening. We are watching an evolution in brand personalities and a simultaneous escalating of guerilla marketing tactics. Seriously, if JCPenney sent a spokesman to wander the aisles of a Kmart to pass out 15% off coupons in an effort to get shoppers to walk out, would Adweek be chuckling about how cute this is?

JCPenney baited Kmart into a public exchange, and the moment the battle was joined Kmart invited all of its Twitter followers to pay attention to a rival’s message. The retailers are by no means alone with this shootout at the Twitter corral. British Telcom giant Tesco threw down in a rap battle with rival O2.  And Honda went so far as to build an entire campaign extension for its new minivan vacuum by playfully calling out snack food brands via their Twitter accounts.

If you thought the Pepsi Challenge was brass knuckle tactics then strap in tight. The future holds the promise of pitched battles that start without warning, cost next to nothing, and play out for all to watch. Any brand with a Twitter account, a sharp writer and an oversized dose of confidence is poised to fire the next salvo.

To be sure, not all brand “battles” have such serious stakes. Indeed, when done well, this kind of brand ambassadorship can expand audiences for both sides of the engagement. For example, Honda and Oreo clearly are not competitors. But when the carmaker called out the cookie brand it was shrewdly expanding its Twitter audience.

If you look at Honda’s Twitter 209,000 followers you’ll find a bunch of car junkies, dealerships and after-market add-on brands. Oreo’s 213,000 followers are pretty much what you’d expect from a CPG brand. So if you’re launching a new mini-van with tool to help parents keep it clean, which audience would you rather engage?

The tweet was accompanied by a photo of two vacuum heads over the headline, Double Suck. Oreo being the master of rapid response on Twitter wasted little time coming back.

It was just one of more than a dozen exchanges between Honda and food companies. Every time the CPG brands responded, Honda brilliantly touted its new features to a new audience. And the snack food brands reconnected with grownups that may have not thought about their childhood snacks in years.

So if your brand is on Twitter (You are on Twitter, right?) how do you decide when and where to engage in this kind of freewheeling creativity? If you’re the instigator, think carefully of the audience you’re trying to reach and make sure you don’t lose site of that in the escalation that follows. Know when to say “enough.”

And if you’re on the receiving end of a nose-thump? Be prepared to move fast with similar laser-focus on who you really want to reach. But more importantly consider which brand has more to win, or lose.

About the same time JCPenney and Kmart were swapping double entendres Walmart was getting it’s nose thumped by Ashton Kutcher for allegedly paying its employees wages so low that many are relying donations to have a happy Thanksgiving.

” Walmart is your profit margin so important you can’t Pay Your Employees enough to be above the poverty line?” the movie star posted along with a link to a news story about the retailer holding a food drive for it’s struggling workers. Walmart, which has a rather famous “no free shots” attitude towards social media, responded attempting to correct Kutcher’s assertions.

The two went back and forth for several hours. Walmart using it’s @WalmartNewsroom account to respond. Who do you think won that gun fight, @WalmartNewsroom with 14,000 followers or Kutcher’s @aplusk account, with 15.2 million followers?

Todd Copilevitz is a digital strategist at JWT Atlanta.