Corporate (Hashtag) Fail

Social media is the way to reach hip, young consumers, right? Maybe…but for retailers looking to actually gain business from them, it also creates the risk of coming across like an uncool dad.

What’s the fastest way for something that anyone under 40 finds cool — a cultural reference, an activity, a hashtag — to suddenly become uncool?

Have your dad participate in it.

Or your grandma. Or just anybody from an older generation than your own.

(Remember when Facebook was cool? If you don’t, that’s because your aunt was on it before you.)

For the most part, everybody wants to consider him or herself culturally relevant. For consumer-facing businesses, in fact, it’s essential. The fewer people that are talking about a company — or at least keeping it in mind — the fewer that are buying from it. And that’s no good for a bottom line.

In the last decade-plus of its rise to ubiquity, social media has become as relevant a marketing platform as television, radio or print advertising — arguably more so, depending on how young a company’s target consumer audience is. Corporations from all areas, retail in particular, have flocked to outlets like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and even that old saw Facebook in an attempt to insert their messages into the conversation being had by whom they perceive as “the cool kids.”

What a lot of them don’t realize, however, is that simply by doing so, they’re becoming Uncool Dad — on a highly visible level.

Picture this scenario: A group of 18-to-34-year-olds are hanging out together, socializing in person. Into the room walks a man in his mid-fifties, a complete stranger to everyone present, awkwardly dressed in ill-fitting clothes that are seemingly intended to mirror the style of the younger group — maybe a slouch hat — and he abruptly starts talking about “a really dope hamburger joint” that’s “on fleek.”

Would this man be genuinely welcomed into the conversation?

No. He would appear, at best, like a crazy person or, at worst, as a particularly unskilled undercover narcotics officer. The assembled group would move one step away from the interloper and very likely commence openly mocking him.

It’s a situation that is happening throughout the virtual space. Companies are working very hard to adopt the most contemporary “young people” language that their marketing departments can find and wrap it around ostensibly casual posts on social media.

The inherent problem there is that of-the-moment terminology ceases to be of-the-moment as soon as it is embraced by anything representing an establishment figure — which major brands certainly are, particularly in the eyes of young adults (or even those who, if they’re not so young, possess a targeted radar of cynicism). Members of every generation share unique cultural touch points that they protectively identify as their own; once they are appropriated by “the system,” as it were, those references quickly become something to be distanced from — if not outright ridiculed — by the very people who once embraced them.

There is, in fact, a popular Twitter account, @BrandsSayingBae, whose sole purpose is to expose the fallacy of companies’ attempts to buddy up to the younger generation via tweets riddled with language and phraseology that’s hip — or at least that was hip, right before they took hold of it. (Are you hearing a lot of young people say “bae” lately? Of course not; their usage of the term dropped off en masse once brands started saying it.)

“It’s cool when a corporation tweets like a teenager,” reads @BrandsSayingBae’s Twitter bio. “It makes me want to buy the corporation’s products.”

It’s almost heartbreaking to consider that there might be brands out there that don’t understand that statement to be sarcastic.

Of course, a company could take the optimistic perspective of the fact that a desired consumer base is effectively pointing and laughing at them on a public forum and consider, Hey at least theyre talking about us. The notion of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” however, doesn’t really hold water in the realm of social media, based on its transitory nature. Being the object of a fleeting conversation — whether a positive or a negative one — does not translate into sales.

Even the savviest of companies — often those that, by no coincidence, largely employ millennials in their marketing divisions — that include meta levels of self-awareness in their social media messaging (“You know this tweet is advertising; we know it’s advertising; but like #whatevs, right? #GOPDebate #TheNewBrokenScene #FF”) cannot effectively present themselves as “in on the joke” when they are the ones perpetuating it.

The advantage that an actual uncool dad (or uncool mom or uncool older sibling) has over brands unwittingly playing that role in the social media space is that, as eye roll-inducing as a young person might find the behavior of a flesh-and-blood human being in his or her life, he or she will nonetheless continue to value the individual because they love them (or at least like them — or, at the very least, because they need a place to live). Unless their livelihood depends on it (and even then, the connection is comparatively tenuous), no person holds that same obligation towards a corporation.

As Gawker pointed out earlier this year, in response to two layers of backlash that resulted from an ill-conceived Twitter campaign by Coca-Cola, brands are not your friends. While the message in that story (which was not a completely objective one, with Gawker — in and of itself a brand of blogging — defending its own prank) was intended primarily for blindly loyal consumers, it’s a lesson that brands themselves could keep in mind regarding their efforts to connect with a more perceptive audience on social media.

There’s no sense in a company trying to “act like people” on Twitter, Instagram or any such platform when the consumers it’s trying to reach have actual people (whether it’s those they know personally or even celebrities — arguably brands in their own right, but they are individual humans nonetheless) with whom to virtually interact by comparison. The harder a brand works to mask advertising efforts as “just chillin’ with its peeps,” the more embarrassing can be the outcome (sometimes reaching jaw-dropping levels, such as when DiGiorno stumblingly hashtagged its way into soft-pedaling domestic violence).

For the most part, brands are not going to reach cool consumers (in particular young ones) on social media by trying to be cool themselves. It might seem paradoxical, but a more productive approach on those platforms, as Social Media Contractors has intoned on its blog, might be for brands to openly embrace their inherent uncoolness. The cool kids know an advertisement when they see one; they’re less likely to be offended by the effort if the company behind it presents itself for exactly what it is: not a friend but a corporate entity desiring to sell a product.

It’s an honest policy; it’s a potentially lucrative policy … and it will be still be a viable one long after everyone under a certain age has quit Twitter because their dad figured out how to use it.