Close-Up: When consumers ambush best-laid ad plans

By interacting with consumers, brands may receive a barrage of abuse as well as a boost to their profile.

According to the Skittles website, the fruit sweets give you Aids, could be responsible for making paedophiles fat and are made of people.

Or at least that's what it said on Monday last week, when Mars, which owns Skittles, and, its digital agency, made the decision to turn the brand's homepage into a live Twitter feed displaying every single Tweet that mentioned the Skittles name.

The company completely opened up its brand to consumers and invited them to give their honest opinion. Although the stunt appeared to backfire when web users sent a barrage of, to put it nicely, negative comments about the sweets, there are observers who say that for a brand like Skittles, which has little use for its website, the buzz created as a result could be seen as a triumph.

According to, there were so many posts that the site crashed three times in one day and Flaptor Labs' Twist application, which allows users to search any word on Twitter and see ex-actly how many times it has been mentioned, saw "Skittles" making up 0.93 per cent of all words used on the site that day - which, when you take into account the millions of daily posts, is quite remarkable.

This type of social media marketing approach is very rare indeed (it still doesn't even appear to have a real name yet - or not one that anyone can agree on), because most marketers are just not prepared to see so starkly what consumers really think about their brand or product.

George Nimeh, the managing director of Iris Digital, says: "If you're going to do this, you have to have a really thick skin because the outcome is undoubtedly going to be much harsher than you think."

And the reason for this is that there is no need for consumers to take it seriously, which, given the nature of human beings to poke fun and make trouble, especially those who regularly use social networking, can clearly pose problems for brands.

Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, says: "When you give people the chance to contribute, you will inevitably end up with a huge outburst of smut and filth - this is something that has been seen time and again."

And while this can cause a media storm or create buzz for a couple of days, it doesn't last long and offers little enduring effectiveness for the brand.

Mel Exon, a managing partner at BBH Labs, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global innovation unit, says: "Once the narcissists who like to swear in public get bored and the social commentators stop commentating, what will be left to talk about? Not a lot."

However, there are ways to circumnavigate the issue of your brand being globally insulted by the people you are trying to sell to.

First, companies need to give people something in particular to talk about. Without this, consumers will assume they have no other option than to write whatever they think - which is often coloured by distrust of a brand trying to hijack their favourite media.

Amelia Torode, a managing partner at VCCP, says: "Basic social media strategy is about linking conversations or making them better, not forcing yourself on people."

It is also about creating a value exchange - if brands offer nothing of value, they will get nothing of value in return.

One of the biggest questions raised by the Skittles example is whether the company anticipated the negative feedback. It would seem that it did. One insider says that Mars would have been very naive to think it wouldn't get negative comments, but that the client maybe didn't anticipate the scale and speed of reaction. Neither Mars nor Agency Republic returned calls for this piece.

And this is what makes planning the most important tool in building this sort of marketing strategy, because every eventuality needs to be accounted for.

These issues, along with the fact that no brand has yet managed to effectively employ such a technique (see Chevrolet Tahoe box), mean that this type of marketing is still uncommon.

However, this doesn't mean that the idea should be discarded, because it has the scope to offer a client an as-yet-unattainable level of contact with its consumers, if handled properly.

Last year, Modernista!, the US creative agency, invited Tweets about the agency on its site, and achieved some success.

So if a company with enough brand equity and existing interaction with its consumers can launch its own campaign with the requisite planning and strategy, it could make this type of open conversation between brands and consumers a marketing success.


Despite the swearing, filth and negativity, there were also a lot of positive messages on the Twitter feeds - with many consumers commenting about going out to buy Skittles - as well as from bloggers and social commentators giving the brand respect for attempting this type of marketing.

Meanwhile, unique visitors to the website in the immediate aftermath were hitting more than 300,000 a day and agency sources claim that the campaign succeeded because of the hype and buzz it generated. An insider says: "The idea was cleverer than people think it was. It can't have done too much harm if people are talking about the brand."

However, the problem is that the buzz is now over and Skittles needed to utilise the energy it had created around the brand, which it hasn't managed to do.

Mel Exon, a managing partner at BBH Labs, says: "It now feels faintly vacuous and it became redundant pretty quickly. There was too much reflecting the rainbow and not enough dialogue." Amelia Torode, a managing partner at VCCP, adds: "It doesn't really matter how much noise you create if that noise isn't relevant."

And this is where the execution fell down. Because Skittles didn't have anything to say and just took over Twitter without giving users anything to talk about or to get involved with, it hasn't added anything to the brand or its relationship with consumers.

The general consensus is that Skittles failed because the brand didn't have a particular message or connection with the consumer or a thorough and complete strategy.

Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, says: "In the end, Skittles didn't succeed because it hasn't added anything of value to its brand or the world in general."


In March 2006, Chevrolet sponsored The Apprentice in the US and used it as an opportunity to promote its 2007 Tahoe SUV.

Alongside a number of placements in the TV show, the car manufacturer ran a web campaign, created by Campbell-Ewald in Michigan, an automotive specialist, giving consumers the chance to remix, remake and re-master previous Tahoe ads using a set of web-based editing tools.

Along with hundreds of clips of previous ads and different choices of music, users could also write their own slogans and captions on the ads.

Within a week, the site had been taken down because hundreds of anti-SUV campaigners had used the tool as an opportunity to make ads damning the Tahoe, and SUVs in general, many of which can still be seen on YouTube. Here's one: