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Game of Groans: The Starbucks Episode and How Brands can React to Events on Social Media

Darko May 21, 2019


The Game of Thrones “Starbucks” moment

For those of us who haven’t been following the events of Game of Thrones, a storm of activity on social media was stirred up by the accidental inclusion of a coffee cup in the final season’s episode “The Last of the Starks”. Given the fantasy realm of the show, it of course looked rather out of place. That said, most fans did not even notice until afterwards, as it was only on-screen for a couple of seconds in the background of a scene featuring major characters Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow.

Whether you are a fan or not, the show adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a juggernaut and one of, if not the most watched TV series this decade. Even if it’s not, it is quite possibly the most talked about – and the hype each episode is generating is only growing as the saga reaches it’s on-screen conclusion. It’s therefore natural that when a mistake like this is spotted, it gets talked about a lot. And quickly.

As marketers, we were looking on with interest to see how Starbucks would react and make the most of this turn of events. Their response was…one rather bland tweet. And that got us thinking: what should they have done instead?

Why is what happened important to marketers?

In an age where brands are clambering over each other to get in front of the latest cultural trends, this was certainly an opportunity for Starbucks. Now, I would caveat this by saying it might not have been a golden opportunity like some media outlets would suggest, claiming the value in exposure to be millions or even billions. At Ven, we suspect that if you boiled down the increased exposure and activity to how many extra cups of coffee you can sell, these numbers are greatly exaggerated – but the publicity and chatter is valuable regardless.

Starbucks is also a strong and instantly recognisable brand. The cup in question wasn’t even a Starbucks cup; their brand is so strong that the green logo on the white takeaway cup was all it took for the internet to take over and associate it with Starbucks.

Because these events obviously happen ad-hoc, it’s not always easy to get the best response and uplift for your brand in all situations – but having a plan to at least try would certainly have helped. In this case, it was plainly obvious that Starbucks didn’t put one into action.

The Nature of Unplanned Events

When it comes to marketing, unplanned events are like rocket fuel. People who can utilise these events effectively and quickly can rapidly see their brand benefit from incredible exposure.

A great example of this is Michelle Phan. Michelle is a now a YouTube sensation with a global make-up following, but she didn’t start like that. She started by releasing makeup tutorials, and while she was good she didn’t get a tremendous amount of traction.

She then saw one day that Lady Gaga had released a music video called ‘Bad Romance’, and it was getting hundreds of millions of views. Lady Gaga is known for her distinct looks, so Michelle decided as an experiment to capitalise on Gaga’s makeup routine. With a unique look and the topical, new video, this was a very sensible tactic for Michelle to try. Little did she know, though, that this one video would be the game-changing video that would drive millions of views to her YouTube account and propel her to new heights!

She now has over 56m views on that video and a net worth in the millions all because she learned to capitalise on trends, and since her initial success has been continuing to do so, latching onto this strong strategy. There’s a quote that says: “Attention goes where energy flows’ and I believe this is particularly relevant to trends in the market. Wherever there is a tremendous amount of ‘energy’, it is important to be a fun organisation that can leverage and capitalise on this to grow your own brand.

Another great incident is in 2013, when Oreo stole the spotlight when there was a blackout at the superbowl. They released a tweet that said: “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark”. The tweet quickly went viral, amassing thousands of likes and retweets. The day after, Huffington Post proclaimed that “one of the most buzz-worthy ads of the Super Bowl on Sunday wasn’t even a commercial.”

Generally speaking, most unplanned exposure for a brand can be described as one of two things:

  • Positive or neutral sentiment (we count neutral here because even if sentiment isn’t strongly positive, it’s arguably a benefit to have people talking about you)
  • Negative sentiment

You can never plan for everything, but let’s take a look at some things we could think about in each scenario.

Things to Think About During Positive Sentiment

Twitter is an exceptionally powerful tool when capturing the attention of people. It’s one of the fastest ways a word about a brand can spread. Why? Because it’s mostly controlled by people who have a huge influence in the market and people can react to tweets very quickly, in a way that only drives engagement higher.

In the case of Starbucks, personally, I believe they missed a big opportunity. Humour and being a ‘good sport’ is at the epicenter of virality. Unfortunately in the case with Starbucks, they could only muster a single tweet in response after a day. This is a missed opportunity,

One of the most useful things that any brand can learn from is maximising exposure from doing the key things fast that don’t cost money i.e. a tweet. Reacting quickly after thinking through how the crowd might react to your reaction (if you follow my drift) can often get you in on the ground floor in a social conversation and get you the most engagement. In this instance, Starbucks thought of something but were slow, uncharismatic and had no follow-up.

If you were to spend money as well, though, here are some ways I think Starbucks could have done it:

  • Have Danerys lookalikes serving coffee or giving out coffee the next day. Perhaps with a witty ‘humour’ that now that everyone’s favourite show is officially coming to an end, why not grab a cup from your favorite barista?
Okay, okay, I’m fine without the extra shot.
  • Logistically this might have been tricky, but Starbucks could have released a Game of Thrones-themed drink on the topic of ‘fire and blood’ which is a central topic in Game of Thrones, for example. Note: Starbucks do serve a “Dragon Drink” in the US at the moment that has no relation to Game of Thrones, although redressing that somehow for a couple of weeks to ride on the Game of Thrones hype might have also been a great way to capitalise.
  • They could have piggy-backed on what happened and initiated a giveaway or competition (perhaps even in conjunction with HBO, they’re a pretty large company after all). Even better, these are things you can muster up rather quickly. A Game of Thrones-themed giveaway would have further added ‘fuel to the fire (and blood)’ and significantly increased the virality.
We think Reddit may have been a bit more on the ball here than Starbucks

Ultimately, while some of the above are examples of things a large business like Starbucks could flex their resources to take advantage of, they didn’t do the basics particularly well on this occasion. Tweeting is free, and with a bit more creative thinking they could have made a lot more out of this opportunity by joining in with the crowd in a more engaged, creative way. And that doesn’t cost much more than thinking (and maybe a little bit of image editing, for the memes).

Things to Think About During Negative Sentiment

Things won’t always be rosy. Sometimes it makes sense for you to react to something that makes you look bad! Before you do, though, have a quick pause to consider a few things, step back and reflect from a social media user’s point of view.

Remember that reacting can also ‘backfire’. However, as they say – there’s no such thing as bad publicity. A classic example of this is when British Airways recently (accidentally) flew to Scotland instead of Dusseldorf. Ryanair posted a tweet that mocked British Airways by giving them a present called: ‘Geography for Dummies’. This was an excellent attempt by Ryanair to capitalise on trending news.

However, whenever you put yourself out there just remember that your opening yourself up to backlash and exposing yourself to reactions. Unfortunately for Ryanair, British Airways did respond in a rather scathing and funny way to Ryanair by also giving them a gift that said: “Customer Service for Dummies”. They took a vulnerability and a weakness of the flight and exposed it in a funny witty way. Ryanair are also rather famous for flying to airports that are many miles from their passengers’ intended destinations, so while their tweet was in good humour it was easy to predict some of social media’s even more hilarious responses.

And here’s one for you @Ryanair— Mr JB (@essex_o) March 25, 2019

Personally, I don’t think these kind of events are ever a bad thing. I always feel it’s quite funny and entertaining for customers when there is a bit of healthy rivalry going on amongst organisations.

In Conclusion…

When things happen that you can capitalise on with your brand, some of the following will be useful to take away regardless of if you’re a single person or a large company:

  • Keep an eye on Twitter and the front pages of Reddit to see what’s trending. Many publications use this both as inspiration and as a source for content. Even if nothing unexpected has happened, it’s a good habit to get into.
  • Find ways to add humour to the conversation. Be part of the ‘tribe’ and thus satisfy your audience’s human tendancies. Inclusiveness is key – laugh with your audience.
  • Don’t overthink, and be agile enough to capitalise on trends. Every company should have a procedure in place for if a quick reaction on social media is desirable. At small businesses with a few people this will be simpler. At larger organisations, agreement about what circumstances allow a social media manager to circumvent much of the chain of command would be a sensible place to start.

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