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How Companies Can Create and Capture Virality
This week is a departure from my last two pieces, which centered on technology’s social impact. This week is about another topic that I’m passionate about: internet culture. Specifically, it’s about how to create and capitalize on virality.
I had fun with this one—there are lots of fascinating examples below. Hopefully, there are also tangible lessons for how companies can achieve breakout growth on the Internet. Let’s get to it!
How to Create and Capture Virality
Perhaps the funniest moment of an otherwise grim election week came when the Trump campaign booked the Four Seasons for a press conference. Except instead of booking the Four Seasons Hotel, as intended, the campaign booked Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a small business offering mulching, weed control, and pruning services.
Four Seasons Total Landscaping turned out to be located in an alley next to a sex shop, crematorium, and jail. The whole turn of events played out like a scene from Veep or SNL.
A day later, the owners of the landscaping business began to cash in on their viral fame. They sold “Lawn and Order” shirts and “Make America Rake Again” stickers, all of which sold out within 48 hours. You can’t make this stuff up.
The lesson here? When something serendipitous happens for your brand, jump on it.
In today’s internet-driven, social-media-centric world, companies need to be adept at both creating and capitalizing on virality.
This piece is about five strategies that companies can use:
1️⃣ Seize the Moment
2️⃣ Create Scarcity
3️⃣ Break the Mold
4️⃣ Let Creators Control the Narrative
5️⃣ Tailor to the Channel
1) Seize the Moment
The owners of Four Seasons Total Landscaping couldn’t have known that election week would catapult their business to fame, but they seized the opportunity. Today’s world moves rapidly, and companies need to be ready for virality. When the moment hits, it can be supercharge growth.
Earlier this year, Martinelli’s—a company that you remember exists approximately once a year, when your 10-year-old cousin drinks sparkling cider at Thanksgiving—experienced such a moment. It turns out that biting into a Martinelli’s bottle sounds exactly like biting into a real apple. Across the Internet, people jumped on the trend.
On TikTok, there are 25.3 million views of videos with the hashtag #martinellisapplejuice. Martinelli’s saw interest in its brand spike:
Other brands have also found serendipity online.
Dunkaroos—a favorite snack of '90s kids, tragically discontinued in 2002—made headlines when one enterprising TikToker made a recipe to recreate Dunkaroos using cake mix and whipped cream. General Mills, parent company of the Dunkaroos brand, scrambled to re-introduce the snack into stores.
Home Depot, meanwhile, found its theme song become an unlikely internet obsession. The hashtag #homedepot has a whopping 593.7 million views on TikTok.
But the most iconic viral moment on TikTok belonged to a skateboarder drinking cranberry juice. On September 25th, TikTok user @420doggface208 posted a video of himself calmly skateboarding to work, drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice and lipsyncing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”.
Today, the video has 71 million views on TikTok alone (and countless more across Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube). “Dreams” reentered the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in 43 years, hitting #1 on the iTunes Store.
Ocean Spray reported increased sales and estimated 20 billion (free) media impressions. The company turned the TikTok video into an ad and its CEO even joined TikTok to share his own version of the meme.
Moments like Ocean Spray’s are rare and elusive. A calculated advertising move couldn’t capture the same authenticity and wouldn’t result in the same cultural resonance. Rather, every modern company should have a contingency plan in place for when serendipity strikes. Companies can’t create lightning-in-a-bottle moments, but they can capitalize on them to build enduring brand value and recognition.
2) Create Scarcity
Econ 101 taught us that lower supply = higher demand. When goods are scarcer, they become more sought-after. This concept drives “drop culture”, in which a brand purposefully constrains supply in order to drum up demand.
Drop culture is epitomized by the streetwear brand Supreme. As Justin Gage puts it:
Supreme is elusive, the epitome of cool; the brand is often compared to “The girl that gives you her number, but never answers when you call.” The company has a virtuous cycle: hype creates brand equity, and brand equity in turn increases hype. Items often sell for 1,200% of their retail price.
This formula has worked to great effect: last week, VF Corp. (the company behind Vans, North Face, and Timberland) announced that it’s acquiring Supreme for $2.1 billion.
Over the last five years, drop culture has spread across the commerce world. Yeezy, Kanye West’s sneaker collaboration with Adidas, often sells out new sneakers in 10 to 15 seconds online; sneakers resell on sites like StockX for 1,000% their original price. Kanye’s sister-in-law, Kylie Jenner, similarly limits supply for new Kylie Cosmetics products.
More recently, drop culture has moved beyond retail. Square’s Cash App, a consumer finance app, is even getting in on the action, as Ian Borthwick points out:
Drop culture is so prevalent that some enterprising entrepreneurs are building tools to help people snag in-demand items. A teen who goes by the name Lickety developed a bot that lets people get the jump on sneaker drops—and he’s made over $500,000 selling his bot to sneakerheads.
Fittingly, Lickety only releases a limited number of bots at a time: bots originally sell for $250, but resell online for over $1,500. Even drop bots now have drops!
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3) Break the Mold
Most Americans are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements every day. To stand out in the noise, companies need to think differently.
Virality often stems from breaking the mold—from doing something new and creative. Golf viewership had been declining for a decade when the PGA decided to try something new. Earlier this year, the PGA teamed up with the NFL for a match pitting Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady. The match broke records, becoming the most-watched golf telecast in cable TV history.
“Cross-pollination” is popular among online creators. Many top YouTubers, TikTokers, and Instagrammers do collabs to mix things up and boost their followings.
One startup is building its entire business around “breaking the mold.” MSCHF drops a new product every two weeks—and its products are often ridiculous.
Some recent drops:
“Finger on the App” is an app with one rule: keep your finger on the app. If you’re the last one going, you get $25,000. Multiple winners spent several days with their fingers on the app.
“Medical Debt Art” turned people’s medical bills into art. MSCHF sold three framed healthcare invoices for $73,000—then used that money to pay off people’s medical debt.
“Push Party” is an app with nothing but a big red button. Anyone can push the button, which alerts every single user of the app. As part of the fun, people signed up for the app with celebrity names; this resulted in lots of notifications from Barack Obama and Taylor Swift.
MSCHF’s entire premise is that outrageous, out-of-the-box things get attention. Virality is in the company’s DNA.
This playbook translates to all types of organizations; activists are even following the playbook for social causes. Earlier this year, three emojis took the world by storm:
The trend began on TikTok, with the three emojis appearing in the comments. (As Josh Constine puts it, the emojis roughly translate as “you feel helpless amidst the chaotic realities unfolding around us, but there is no escape.”)
As the trend caught on, someone made a website for the emojis, 👁👄👁.fm. A visitor to the website was prompted to put in their information and stay tuned. The suspense reached a fever pitch: in the span of two days, the site managed to collect 30,000 email addresses. Most people expected the next great consumer app to launch. Instead, the site’s creators announced in a statement that they were raising money for black and trans communities.
The stunt received criticism for “meme-ifying” important social causes (Wired has a good breakdown of the backlash), but it achieved its intended effect. By dangling early access to something big, the organizers raised $200,000 for non-profit organizations.
4) Let Creators Control the Narrative
Creators have a better grasp of the zeitgeist than a company. Creators better understand virality. Creators know their audience best.
Companies should delegate as much control to creators as possible.
Delegating means content is more organic, more authentic, and more likely to resonate. Last week, I read an article about how digital banks are doubling down on influencers. The campaigns feel like a relic of mid-2010s influencer marketing:
Contrast these with creators who are given free rein by brands to come up with their own content. Take David Dobrik and Chipotle.
Dobrik, who has 24 million TikTok followers and 19 million YouTube subscribers, has a well-publicized love of Chipotle. The brand gave him creative control in key ad campaigns.
Dobrik first collaborated with Chipotle in April 2019, working together on a campaign built around the fictional holiday “National Burrito Day”.
A year later, Dobrik and Chipotle created the Lid Flip Challenge, which is what it sounds like: people filming themselves flipping Chipotle burrito bowl lids. In its first six days, the Lid Flip Challenge drove 110,000 videos and 104 million views. (Today, the hashtag #chipotlelidflip has 316.4 million views on TikTok.) Chipotle earned free media coverage on CNBC, Fast Company, Buzzfeed, and The Atlantic, and became one of the most-followed brands on TikTok.
Most recently, Dobrik and Chipotle teamed up again on #ChipotleSponsorMe. The campaign instructed users to follow Chipotle on TikTok and then post a video about why Chipotle should select them for the Chipotle Celebrity Card—a VIP card typically reserved for celebrity superfans, granting unlimited food. Five winners were picked.
The Dobrik-Chipotle collaborations were organic, innovative, and memorable. Imagine if digital banks gave creators control: creators may have set their posts to a money-themed song (“Got Money”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Gold Digger”), made a dance or challenge, and caused the campaign go viral.
Because everyone is now a creator, everyone can remix and duet sponsored content. There’s an interesting opportunity for a long tail of users to earn income. Say David Dobrik posts a video with a Chipotle referral link. If I duet him on TikTok, pointing people toward his post and referral link, can I share in the earnings? In the future, there will be better ways to attribute, measure, and capture value creation.
Some “traditional” celebrities—who didn’t rise to fame online—have become skilled at organic digital marketing. Will Smith is an example: brands give him creative control, and he produces high-quality content that feels organic and authentic.
“Traditional” celebrities like Will Smith are the exception. One recent survey found that 40% of Millennials believe that paid endorsements hurt the credibility of celebrities; another study found that only 17% of consumers are likely to buy a product based on a celebrity endorsement.
When companies let creators produce content in organic and authentic ways, both sides can avoid these pitfalls.
5) Tailor to the Channel
When you think of innovative marketing in the social media age, you don’t think of Burger King. But the fast-food giant is one of the savviest marketers out there. Specifically, Burger King is excellent at campaigns tailored to a social platform.
On Twitter last year, Burger King began mysteriously liking people’s tweets…from 2010. Because liking decade-old posts is creepy, people started noticing:
After more and more people took notice, Burger King did its mic drop:
For $0 in marketing spend, Burger King created massive earned media value. Not bad.
There was also the time Burger King launched a campaign built for the smartphone. Trolling its main competitor, Burger King announced it would offer 1-cent Whoppers to smartphone users within 600 feet of a McDonald's. Within a week, the campaign drove over 1 million downloads of the Burger King app—the app went from ~#400 to #1 on the App Store.
A key mistake that companies make is “copying and pasting” marketing content from channel to channel. The best marketers, like Burger King, tailor their campaigns to specific channels or even product features. A decade ago, shifting TV ads to Instagram felt “off”; more recently, companies are discovering that TikTok ads are their own unique beast.
E.l.f. Cosmetics was a first-mover on TikTok and quickly figured out a winning strategy. E.l.f. commissioned an original song called “Eyes. Lips. Face” (that’s what E.l.f. stands for) specifically for TikTok, tapping top TikTokers to promote the song.
It worked: videos tagged #eyeslipsface have been viewed 6.7 billion times and the original song is the soundtrack for 1.6 million videos. Later, E.l.f. launched an accompanying music video on YouTube:
The most-viewed TikTok video set to E.l.f.’s song isn’t even related to E.l.f. Cosmetics.
In music more broadly, artists are finding that they need to wire their music releases for virality. TikTok is now an engine for hit songs, driving songs like “Old Town Road” and “Say So” to #1, and artists have begun seeding dance challenges with new releases. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”, for instance, rode its dance to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In April, Drake wrote “Toosie Slide” specifically for TikTok: its chorus contains the lyrics: “It go right foot up, left foot slide, left foot up, right foot slide.” The song is built for a viral TikTok dance and, thus, success on the charts. It debuted at #1.
The savviest marketers don’t cut and paste across mediums. They tailor their strategies to the channel, leaning into each platform’s unique attributes.
Final Thoughts: Gen Zs
There are many more examples of brands and internet virality. Alex from Target. Netflix and chill. Daniel, back at it again with his white vans. The Tide pod challenge. The Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones. The infamous dress made by Roman (it’s blue and black, by the way). Some of these brands seized the opportunity, while others fumbled it. As news cycle compress, pop culture phenomena will become more frequent.
Much of this piece dovetails with Gen Z culture. Gen Zs are the 3 billion people born between ~1995 and ~2010, are true digital natives, and are fluent in internet culture. They expect companies to keep up. (For a deep-dive on Gen Zs, check out Zebra IQ’s excellent Gen Z Report.)
Companies should approach the internet with Gen Z’s ethos: authenticity, creativity, self-deprecation. When it comes to virality, companies should be both proactive and reactive. There are certain playbooks that increase likelihood of virality—being creator-driven, leaning into drop culture, breaking the mold—and there are others that should be used when serendipity strikes.
Virality is often perceived as something that just happens. That’s often true, but companies can also take tangible steps to manufacture virality and create enduring brand value.
Sources & Additional Reading
Check these out for further reading on this subject:
Zebra IQ’s Gen Z Report is excellent—I recommend checking it out for a deeper-dive on Gen Z culture
Insider the Supreme Theory of Hype Branding | Soham Kulkarni, Medium
Burger King’s Marketing Genius | Sean Kernan, Medium