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Content Marketing, Features

Three Recent Viral Marketing Moments—and What You Can Learn from Them

What makes content go viral? We’ll analyze three viral marketing moments and answer why they spread like wildfire

Matt Duczeminski
November 23 2019

As Sam Hurley alludes to in his discussion on guerilla marketing, the viral moments brand consumers see are actually the result of carefully crafted initiatives by the company’s marketing team. These campaigns are developed with the intent of generating organic word-of-mouth—which is what “going viral” is all about.

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In this article, we’ll dissect three viral moments in recent pop culture history, how each moment came to be, and why it was so effective.


Popeyes Wins the #ChickenSandwichWars of 2019

The Backstory

In early 2019, Popeyes began testing demand for a new fried chicken sandwich at select locations throughout the US. As positive early reviews trickled in, the chain decided to go forward with its new creation, and in August, the new Popeyes sandwich hit locations nationwide. Alas, the launch failed to generate the kind of buzz Popeyes had been anticipating. Sure, customers were ordering the sandwich—and clearly liking it—but they weren’t really talking about it. As such, the company had little hope of getting more customers on board via word-of-mouth. So, they took matters into their own hands.

The Viral Moment

One week after the nationwide launch, the brand started generating online traction. Ironically, it wasn’t until Chick-fil-A fired the first shot of #ChickenSandwichWars that Popeyes’ new creation gained widespread attention. Responding to comparisons between Popeyes’ and Chick-fil-A’s sandwiches, Chick-fil-A tweeted the following:

Fifteen minutes later, Popeyes subtweeted their competitor, asking:

Popeyes marketing executive Bruno Cardinali explained to the New York Times that those 15 minutes were full of frantic discussion about how to reply to Chick-fil-A’s tweet:

“It was 15 minutes of turnaround putting out the tweet that triggered the whole thing. And at that moment, we braced ourselves.”

The Impact of Going Viral

Just by looking at the Twitter stats, it’s clear that Popeyes won the social media battle: while Chick-fil-A’s tweet earned 3,100 shares, Popeyes’ reply generated over 87,000 retweets. This feat is even more incredible when you realize Popeyes’ Twitter audience is one-tenth the size of Chick-fil-A’s. In other words, Popeyes generated visibility among those outside their Twitter following. While it’s too early to tell how this viral moment impacted Popeyes’ sales and revenue numbers, we know that “The Sandwich,” as it came to be known, sold out across the country within three weeks of its release.

Takeaways

  • Strike when emotions are high to make them escalate even higher. Popeyes’ “clapback” at Chick-fil-A turned a relatively innocuous tweet into what has now been dubbed the #ChickenSandwichWars of 2019.
  • Keep things lighthearted and playful. Popeyes’ subtweet wasn’t mean spirited or divisive—but it did let Chick-fil-A (and its audience) know about the new chicken sandwich in town.
  • Be intentional. As mentioned, Popeyes’ marketing team acted quickly—but also deliberately. They knew this scenario provided a perfect opportunity to go viral, and they took full advantage of it.

Gritty Represents Philadelphia to the Delight of Hockey Fans Everywhere

The Backstory

In September of 2018, the Philadelphia Flyers unveiled a new mascot via this bizarre message on Twitter:

The immediate response to Gritty’s debut was… not great. Perhaps the best word to sum up everyone’s reaction would be confusion. Nobody knew who, or what, Gritty was supposed to be, or what he/she/it had to do with hockey or the city of Philadelphia. Flyers rivals Pittsburgh Penguins tweeted the following response:

The Viral Moment

In true Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa fashion, Gritty knocked the Penguins out cold with this nightmare-inducing subtweet:

The subtweet changed everyone’s mind about Gritty. Almost immediately, hockey fans, Philadelphians, and Philly-haters alike were aboard the Gritty train.

The Impact of Going Viral

The marketing team behind Gritty knew that their response to Pittsburgh’s comment was going to be a serious turning point. And they were right. Within 30 days of introducing Gritty to the world (and getting people to accept Gritty for… whatever it is), the team had generated an astounding $151 million in earned media (equaling roughly five billion online impressions). The New York Post even referred to Gritty as the “world’s most popular mascot.”

While the Flyers hockey team hasn’t done much to drive revenues as of late, Gritty has kept Philadelphia hockey alive. As Flyers COO Shawn Tilger explains, “[Gritty has] transcended just what goes on the ice. People can’t name players, but they can name Gritty.”

Takeaways

  • Be authentic, period. Gritty’s response (and “personality” in general) is about as representative of Philadelphia as anything you’ll ever see. Ask any Philadelphian, and they’ll agree 100%.
  • Have fun with your audience. Gritty may be obnoxious, bizarre, and even rather frightening… but it’s always in good fun. When looking to deliver viral content via shock value, always let your brand’s goodhearted nature shine through in your messaging.

IHOP Transforms into IHOb

The Backstory

Back in June 2018, the International House of Pancakes announced it would be changing its name to IHOb. Of course, the team didn’t reveal what the “b” stood for, leading to a week of speculation among IHOP customers and the general population. It all came to a head on June 11…

The Viral Moment

…when IHOP—now IHOb—announced that the “b” in its new name stood for…

Supposedly, IHOP would shift focus onto its afternoon/evening menu—specifically, its hamburger selection. The move was perfectly engineered by IHOP (yes, the original name was later restored) to generate buzz amongst its current and prospective customers—and to promote their new product.

The Impact of Going Viral

If you were under the impression that IHOP’s marketing experiment fell flat, think again. It turned out that the IHOb campaign quadrupled the sales of hamburger meals and other non-breakfast items—a result secondary to IHOP’s original goal, which was to spread awareness of the restaurant’s non-breakfast offerings. According to IHOP president Darren Rebelez:

“Literally everybody in the world now knows that IHOP is now selling burgers… that was goal No. 1. Goal No. 2 was to actually sell them.”

According to Rebelez, the initiative generated a whopping 36 billion social media impressions along with the sales boost.

Takeaways

  • Injecting a sense of playfulness makes for more engaging promotional announcements and product releases. Since the goal is to spread information about your brand, word-of-mouth should be your main focus.
  • Build anticipation to encourage emotional investment in your brand. In IHOP’s case, many customers were under the impression that it would be leaving its breakfast menu behind—only to feel relieved once they realized their favorite restaurant wouldn’t be changing much, after all. You can be sure these relieved individuals stopped in for their favorite pancake meal soon after.

Wrapping Up

It should be clear that getting a brand to go viral by sheer luck is a pipe dream. Virality is achieved through intentionally created marketing campaigns that generate strong word-of-mouth and spread quickly on their own merits. By producing authentic, lighthearted, emotionally driven content that your audience can’t help but share, you’ll have a pretty good chance of becoming the next viral sensation.

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Matt Duczeminski

Matt is a professional writer specializing in helping entrepreneurs improve relationships with their customers. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Sarah, and he'd probably get a lot more work done if his cat would stop bothering him.

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