Woolworths, like Mortein, drank the ‘real-time relevance’ Kool-Aid

There are places and topics where marketing doesn’t belong, writes Hugh Stephens, with some handy questions to ask before posting that next piece of ‘trendy’ content.

This last week has seen a few great doozies of brands enjoying some ‘fresh social media fail’. The latest is Woolworths, with its #freshInOurMemories ANZAC campaign, calling on people to upload photos to be then branded with the Woolworths logo and “Lest we forget. ANZAC 1915-2015. Fresh in our memories.” The idea being they’d then be used as the user’s profile picture or cover photo. Just last week, Mortein was lambasted for an insensitive post about the death of a young woman, with the brand jumping on the hashtag #putYourDressOut.

I actually put the total failure of both brands to foresee the inevitable backlash down to a few simple things:

  • Brands increasingly don’t know when not to engage about an issue,
  • brands are desperately chasing reach and cut-through in a noisy environment, and
  • brands want to be seen as ‘trendy’ and real-time, because that’s the marketing meme of the moment.


These three things produce a perfect storm.

There are places and topics where marketing doesn’t belong

Marketers need to realise that, sometimes, your brand doesn’t belong in a place or topic. For example, the last thing any consumer wants on their $500-plus Apple Watch is advertising.

ANZACs, and war generally, is another place that most brands just generally should steer clear of, well beyond the simple fact that you need to have permission from the Department of Veterans Affairs before associating a brand with it, or risk a $51,000 fine.

War is always emotive, involves extensive community debate, and has a habit of polarising every single conversation. Emotive topic area + ‘trendy activation or campaign’ = disaster. You will always end up being slammed, because these issues are almost invariably button-pushing topics for large proportions of society.

Some conversations might cause some people to be emotional, but don’t trigger a reaction like this: was Zayn leaving One Direction really a band-killer? Is Game of Thrones season five starting well or poorly? These kinds of ‘emotive’ topics (which generally have no impact on anyone, even though people will argue about them until their faces are blue) are fair game. But war? No.

Of course this is tricky advice to follow – just because people are whinging about things online doesn’t mean your brand did something wrong. A notable example that many brands are experiencing at the moment is the anti-Halal brigade, which clearly makes up a very, very tiny proportion of voices, but shouts quite loudly online. You should have someone in your organisation who can tell the difference between a vocal minority and a vocal majority.

Don’t over-step in your crusade to being relevant

With the oncoming death of organic Facebook reach as brands may once have known it, people in the industry have been telling them that the way to achieve cut-through in an environment as noisy as standing in the moshpit of an AC/DC concert is to become relevant and create ‘shareable’ stories.

And this is true to a degree – you can no longer post boring, uncreative crap on social media channels, because consumers find it just as easy to leave than they found it to join. There’s a downside to social media’s low barrier of entry ‘permission-based marketing’: there’s always a low barrier to exit.

It’s actually an opportunity for brands to do things more creatively than their competition, something that people will actually stop and think ‘oh, that’s quite smart/funny’. However, much of the content (like Woolworths’ campaign, and Mortein’s post) simply isn’t creative or interesting. Creativity is not a graphic of a fly buzzing into a trend, or a profile photo generator.

Clickbait headlines, repackaged existing crap and a lot of ‘content marketing’ being peddled by many brands at the moment is not relevant or creative at all. Most of the time it’s just deceptive – your ‘Ebook worth $499, download now for free!’, that nobody has ever purchased, let alone for $499, is worth exactly $0 – or more likely, you should pay the audience to read it.

Stop trying to be trendy and realtime, if your brand is not

Ever since the infamous Oreo ‘you can dunk in the dark’ tweet, and David Meerman Scott’s work in ‘Newsjacking’ and ‘The new rules of marketing and PR’, brands have been told time and time again that the way to (seemingly) instant social media success is to jump on top of something already trending, and insert their brand into the ‘global megasphere of consumers’ who are clearly desperate to engage with brands on channels that they use to interact with friends, family and twits.

The assumption is plain wrong, because most brands are not trendy. A supermarket is not trendy. A flyspray? Not trendy. A cookie, even? Not trendy. Just because Oreo sent out a witty tweet rapidly in response to an event doesn’t mean you will get thousands of retweets for doing the same (see brands not having any creativity), nor that you should try.

Outside news outlets, not many brands lend themselves toward jumping on things as they happen. You either look like you’re desperately trying to connect the brand to a usually-irrelevant thing (a death to a flyspray arguably could have a link, but I doubt that was intended at all – it would make the whole thing worse), or that you’re trying to inject ads into an irrelevant discussion between people (not something people usually celebrate).

Questions to ask before posting your next ‘trendy’ piece of marketing

To sum up, here are a few questions to ask before posting your next piece of marketing online.

  • Is this an emotive subject area for a large number of people? Will it offend a lot of them?
  • Does this actually relate to our brand at all? Would people expect us to have a perspective, opinion or campaign about the subject?
  • Have we made a genuine effort to produce something creative, or is it just something else re-hashed?



Hugh Stephens
BY Hugh Stephens ON 16 April 2015
Hugh Stephens isn’t particularly relevant, Tweets @hughstephens and sometimes writes his thoughts about social media and online engagement on his blog.