The Internet is a powerful tool. Use it well, and you can become the people’s champion. Just check out the eternally goofy and slightly anarchic Tumblr presence of Denny’s. An elderly gentleman hula hoops with an onion ring and receives the adulation of thousands of users. A goofball reference to Taylor Swift fares similarly well.
Denny’s runs a very strong Tumblr game by embracing the platform’s culture. The Denny’s blog is not a staid corporate promotional tool — it’s a gleeful little community, and Tumblr users have grown very, very fond of the Denny’s brand. The diner chain has successfully turned Tumblr into a significant customer base (and maybe even a talent community) — which might have something to do with why the company saw its earnings grow by almost 19 percent last quarter.
Pulling a Denny’s is no simple task. As freewheeling as the company’s Tumblr page seems, it’s the result of smart calculation. I’m willing to bet that whoever runs the account is a Tumblr native, or at least a damn observant researcher: corporate behemoth or not, Denny’s posts come across as authentic and believable, in tune with the aesthetics, preferences, and sense of humor endemic to Tumblr.
The Denny’s triumph is especially laudable when you consider just how distrustful Internet communities tend to be of corporate entities. Recall how bitterly the denizens of Tumblr reacted when Yahoo bought the platform — and now, many of those same users are reblogging Denny’s posts left and right.
Still unconvinced that Denny’s brand managers have shown exceptional prowess on the Web? Still think that anyone can dive headfirst into the Internet and gain legions of adoring fans by simply being “random” and “hip”?
Well, then you and I need to talk about Bill Cosby.
How Not to Manage Your Brand Online
First things first: I recognize that Cosby is an entertainer and personality — not a company looking to attract talent — so the comparisons I make between his brand woes and the shining success of Denny’s will be imperfect. That being said, Cosby’s goals online are still fairly similar to the goals of any company. Regardless of whether or a brand is looking to attract fans, customers, or talent, they’re primarily looking to cultivate goodwill and a positive public image. Therefore, I think brands of all kinds can learn from Cosby’s team’s mistakes.
For those who don’t know, Cosby is the midst of a public image crisis: he’s facing 14 allegations of sexual assault, according to CNN. I am not here to weigh in on whether or not he is guilty. I am neither judge nor jury, and my opinions on these allegations would require an entirely separate piece.
I bring these allegations up because I suspect they motivated his (or his social media team’s) decision to tweet a picture of him and invite other Twitter accounts to “meme” him on Monday. If my suspicions are correct, this was Cosby’s first crucial mistake: you will never, ever, ever deflect a scandal of this magnitude by trying to position yourself as a harmless jokester who wants the Internet to play along with you. Allegations of this severity will not be dispelled with a few goofy pictures, and to think this could be the case shows both a painfully tone deaf response to serious accusations and an underestimation of public morality.
For Cosby to overcome these allegations — if, indeed, he is innocent; if he is not, I don’t believe he’ll be able to overcome them, nor do I necessarily believe he should be able to overcome them — requires a lot more than just palling around with Twitter. It requires serious, rigorous, direct engagement with the issue at hand.
Cosby’s legal team has issued a series of statements that attempt to refute the allegations, but his (or his social team’s) decision to play it casual in the midst of the firestorm was a serious misstep. It made Cosby come across as oblivious: to think he could invite memes at a time like this shows very poor judgment.
And so, it should come as no surprise that the memes Cosby received were all sarcastic and venomous, with many outright accusing him of being a rapist (see the above-linked CNN article for examples). Cosby’s (or his team’s) decision to play it cool in the midst of such a situation only served to further lower his esteem in the public eye.
This is because the “meme me” tweet lacked the very same authenticity that makes the Denny’s blog such a success. Denny’s is obviously in tune with the thoughts and emotions of the people it interacts with. The Cosby Twitter account, on the other hand, tried to not-so-slyly manipulate fans and followers into serving its own agenda. The Cosby brand wanted people to ignore a very serious reality. Such a move is offensive: it underestimates the agency and beliefs of the very people it seeks to win over. Why, then, would anyone fall in line? Why wouldn’t they fight back and express their disappointment and disgust?
The point is this: no brand will ever win adoration or loyalty by treating its target audience like a bunch of easily swayed suckers. Authenticity, honesty, and mutual understanding are crucial to brand success in the Internet age. If you can’t address your audience’s concerns directly and truly, you’d best keep your mouth shut until you can.
Your brand may very well never face allegations as serious as the ones Cosby currently faces, but the point still stands: your consumers — the people who follow you, buy your products, enjoy what you do, and pay attention to your moves — are human beings. Don’t try to manipulate them into seeing things your way; rather, try to earnestly connect with them.
Cosby and his team did not do this. They were hoping to distract the people with what amounts to digital bread and circuses. It certainly doesn’t win them any goodwill. If anything, it makes us all a bit more skeptical about Cosby’s innocence.