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Never Underestimate A Virus
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Holmes Report
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Never Underestimate A Virus

Devising content to intentionally go viral is a high-stakes gamble.

Holmes Report

Lately, as several high profile brands have been forced to scramble into damage control as a result of controversial marketing and communications campaigns, I have been reminded of something I learned working in public health: Never underestimate a virus.

Viruses are powerful, lethal and highly intelligent. They spread quickly and mutate rapidly, dangerously adept at staying one step ahead of being wiped out. That is how they survive--and that is how they are able to do so much damage.

Strange, then--though strangely fitting--that “going viral” has become the ultimate goal for some communications professionals when devising a campaign. The result is content, from the highly stylized to the incongruously gritty, that is at its core edgy, jarring or intentionally controversial.

When this strategy works--and there is no denying that it does occasionally work--it works big. Branded material, unmoored from traditional time and content constraints, can blow through digital and social media with a velocity and reach that is truly unprecedented. And when everything goes as it is supposed to, it blows right out again, quickly forgotten.

Viral content is designed to burn bright, burn fast and burn out.

But what happens in the astronomically unlikely, incredibly implausible event that intentionally controversial, potentially offensive material manufactured by a marketer to shock people into discussion of a brand is not received quite the way everyone hoped?

As companies like PepsiCo, Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have all recently learned the hard way, it is called viral for a reason. Once it attaches to you, it is hard to contain and even harder to recover from. Big brands can be rapidly and dramatically weakened. Small brands can be killed.

Devising content to intentionally go viral is a high-stakes gamble. Unfortunately, though, many agencies are betting with their clients’ money--quite literally; you have to wonder how much some companies were actually billed for campaigns that blew up into crises--as well as their clients’ brand equity and corporate reputations.

As increasingly common as it may be, this type of work is inherently irresponsible and self-serving. When a brand is seen merely as a means to promote the agency, it reveals an organization that has allowed a toxic culture to take hold--one that prioritizes the agency or even an individual brand manager above the needs of the client. As the agency chases awards and industry recognition, clients are assured that what is most important is “cutting through.”

Unfortunately, that’s a con that some brands--desperate to gain mindshare in a crowded communication environment--are all too willing to fall for. But we are no longer in the halcyon, delusional days of believing in digital’s potential to eradicate all heavy lifting.

As digital measurement and best practices continue to improve, they increasingly confirm what we all already knew. Real brand equity and measurable business results aren’t achieved virally overnight, but through consistent, sustained strategies across many different platforms and mediums.

Ginning up controversial content in order to chase likes, retweets and shares isn’t going to get a brand any closer to its business goals. All it is going to do is make the brand a susceptible potential host for the kind of virus that can all too quickly turn deadly.

Michael Ramah is chief client officer at Porter Novelli

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