Big Business needs to check its screen time and stop throwing money at trying to go viral

Wednesday, January 18, 2023 5:15 am


Sascha O’Sullivan

Sascha O’Sullivan is Comment and Features Editor at City AM

Lidl pointed to the TikTok fad of making the Negroni Sbagliato cocktail as partly responsible for the increase in Prosecco sales
Lidl pointed to the TikTok fad of making the Negroni Sbagliato cocktail as partly responsible for the increase in Prosecco sales

Viral Negroni Sbagliato TikTok boosts sales of Lidl’s Prosecco, but truly worthwhile viral videos are luck of the draw, writes Sascha O’Sullivan

“When I grow up, I want to go viral.” That’s what 40 percent of young people aged 16 to 24 said, according to Mastercard. Facebook has almost lost this generation, Instagram is also stalling, but TikTok and BeReal are two new social media apps competing for the attention of an entire generation.

The race to go viral is not new, and has existed in its current incarnation since the days of Tumblr, albeit to a lesser extent. When I poked around on the quasi-social media quasi-blog site set up by David Karp, having more than 15,000 followers was considered, certainly in limited circles, quite a stretch.

Now, the metrics are in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and they’re not just competing with each other to go viral, it’s big business.

At the end of last year, Lidl recorded its busiest sales day ever. He attributed his success not only to people switching to cheaper products during a Christmas marred by the cost of living crisis, but also to the odd case of the Negroni Sbagliato. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re probably over 35 (condolences).

The classic spiked cocktail shot to fame after House of the Dragon star Emma D’Carcy said the drink, made with a splash of prosecco, was their poison of choice.

The discount supermarket said it saw sales of Prosecco rise after 32.9 million people watched the 20-second clip. And that’s just the original video. By its very nature, TikTok encourages users to create their own spin-offs of viral videos, creating a snowball effect.

And brands want in.

From Odeon to Specsavers, companies are investing huge amounts of time and money into social media fame. In early 2021, Weetabix went viral for putting baked beans on their cereal. More than 25 other brands have dropped the frankly disgusting-looking combination, and even Jacob Rees-Mogg, then leader of the House of Commons, opined on the virtues of baked beans and how best to eat Weetabix.

While Lidl claims that TikTok has helped them with a very tangible metric – sales – the virtues of these campaigns are more fleeting.

Dom Boyd, chief executive of Kantar Insights, says it’s about creating “positive currency”, so while it may not directly translate into more sales, if people have to choose between Weetabix and an alternative, going viral could mean they choose the former.

But he admits, “like all great creativity,” it’s “very, very difficult” to create something organically viral.

It could be a waste of money. According to Alex Payne, former Sky Sports presenter and co-founder of Room Unlocked, an agency focused on creating relationships between brands and influencers, a fair amount of successful viral campaigns are down to luck.

For example, in 2020, Nathan Apadoca was trying to get to his job at a potato warehouse in Idaho. His car broke down, so he hopped on a longboard and skated the rest of the way, sipping a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice all the while. A video of his commute, covered by Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, went viral, along with a fruity drink.

Ocean Spray didn’t put any money behind Apadoka, but they benefited from more than 27 million views in a few days.

Payne says the value of going viral is being part of a cultural conversation. In other words, brands are trying to buy access to The Zeitgeist.

However, this will not happen with glossy Instagram posts. That’s what’s going to happen with videos like Apadoka, and that can’t necessarily be bought.

A household frozen food name wanted a new high-profile social media campaign featuring images of their product at a 45-degree angle. Payne turned them down, because in order to go viral, it has to be “authentic”. Another elusive concept.

In comparison, Odeon reached millions by handing over control to a movie buff with a decent Instagram following who posted blurry videos of him at various screenings.

Going viral often means being funny. But as any comedian will tell you, jokes come with risk.

Tampax, for example, thought they were being funny when they tweeted: “You are in their DMS. We are in them. We are not the same.”

They were accused, rightly, of misogyny and eventually faced an unpleasant descent.

The value of virality can quickly be clouded by a shareable mistake. Companies will always want to jump on the Cool New Thing. But the rule of thumb is that they’re almost always a few steps behind the 20-somethings they want to reach. Going viral can be great for their street creation, but the best videos will be #unfiltered (which, by the way, isn’t a thing anymore). So maybe it’s time for companies to check their screen time.

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