Lily Croll / April 9, 2015

When Social Media Campaigns Flat-Out Work: What to Learn from Taco Bell, Newcastle, and Target

Originally published in Social Media Today

Social media has brought new opportunities and new challenges for companies seeking to connect consumers with their brands. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram provide marketers with new ways to reach customers, but they also require companies to rethink their usual advertising strategies. The “hard sell” technique that has its legacy in television and print just doesn’t play in the social media space.

With that in mind, here are three campaigns launched in the past few months that have demonstrated novel, creative approaches to social media campaigns. With the dust now settled on these recent campaigns, we see how these three companies drew on the unique power of social media ingenuity to achieve significant results and push their brands forward.

1. Taco Bell’s taco emoji campaign (Winter 2014/2015)

Taco Bell launched an entertaining—and, more importantly, successful—campaign this winter to urge the Unicode Consortium, which provides the emojis we all know and (mostly) love, to develop a taco emoji. Taco Bell created a Change.org petition to gather signatures for the emoji, sold taco emoji T-shirts, and inspired a Twitter campaign that effectively rallied users around #tacoemoji. Taco Bell’s petition met and exceeded its goal of 25,000 signatures within eight weeks of the campaign’s launch, and the campaign earned both social and mainstream media attention.

Taco Bell’s campaign revealed just how well it knows its audience—which, of course, happens to be the fiercely skeptical millennials. Traditional campaigns would immediately be critiqued as inauthentic. Earning millennial attention—not to mention loyalty—has to come from shared values or passions. And, sometimes, that passion is tacos.

The restaurant chain cleverly combined two culturally relevant tech trends—emojis and community activism—to generate enthusiasm. Its campaign helped to elevate the demand for a taco emoji from a silly-sounding request to an irreverent-yet-enthusiastic rallying cry. The campaign poked fun at the Unicode Consortium’s emoji set, asking why we have four different mailbox emojis, 25 different clocks, and a floppy disk…but yet no taco.

Part of what made Taco Bell’s campaign so successful was harnessing the two-way power of social media. Instead of simply “pushing” its product at consumers, the company empowered its fans of fast food Tex-Mex to speak up on behalf of the brand. In the process, Taco Bell fostered an authentic sense of brand loyalty and gained exposure in the mainstream press. Just as importantly, Taco Bell ensured that its core product was central to the conversation without appearing too opportunistic—a balance that any brand struggles to achieve.

2. Newcastle’s “Follow the Money” Twitter campaign (Summer 2014)

Newcastle’s “Follow the Money” campaign, which began in summer of 2014, made a brilliant backstage play at social media marketing, offering to send a $1 check to anyone who agreed to follow the brand on Twitter. Attracting more followers is, of course, the goal of many social media campaigns, as Newcastle cleverly acknowledged in its promotional video: “Why endure the unsolicited marketing of other beer brands for free when you could endure Newcastle’s unsolicited marketing and get paid?” But few brands are as up-front about their desire for followers as Newcastle was.

Of course, not every brand could pull off such a bold stunt. From another company, the ploy might have just seemed (understandably) tacky. But the Twitter effort dovetailed perfectly with Newcastle’s “No Bollocks” advertising campaign, which promises “good beer without the bollocks of traditional beer advertising.” Ironically, it was Newcastle’s disavowal of traditional advertising techniques that allowed it to create such an innovative campaign.

Though Newcastle was literally giving away money, the campaign was surprisingly cost-effective. Most promoted Twitter accounts end up spending between $3 and $8 for each new follower they attract—so in offering to pay consumers directly, Newcastle was actually saving money. And the campaign’s real value came in generating wider attention for the brand, outside of the effort to attract followers.

Newcastle’s social campaign reminds us that the most innovative social media marketing efforts aren’t necessarily the subtlest ones. It also provides a valuable demonstration of the power of meta-advertising in a world saturated (or, arguably, oversaturated) with marketing messages.

3. Target’s #HalloweenHill Instagram campaign (Fall 2014)

Target’s #HalloweenHill Instagram campaign, launched this past Halloween, managed to promote Target’s brand by taking perhaps the ghostliest route of all: not mentioning the company at all. Target posted split-screen images on its Instagram account, with one image offering a “trick” and the other a “treat,” tagging the images #HalloweenHill. The brand made innovative use of Instagram’s tagging feature to allow users to follow the “trick” or “treat” images to other Instagram pages, where they could find detailed instructions for fun recipes or crafty Halloween decorations. While the items in the instructions were conveniently available at Target (though let’s be honest, what isn’t?), the campaign never explicitly mentioned the brand.

This campaign success resonates in part because “solving” Instagram has been a challenge for brands: It’s unfriendly toward links, offers limited text formatting features, and doesn’t lend itself to overt campaigning. Target got around the limited linking ability by creating disposable support accounts that could illustrate single craft activities, in detail, and drew users in by showcasing craft activities that felt genuinely fun. It found success by making clever use of Instagram’s capabilities, and by attracting interest in its products without being overly self-promotional.

Target’s campaign should encourage brands to look at new ways of leveraging the mechanics of social media platforms. It also serves as a noteworthy example of the role social media can play in building brand awareness and fostering brand loyalty. Target managed to advertise products through experiences while coming across as a helpful friend, rather than a big company focused on the bottom line. That’s what all companies are trying to do these days in their social media marketing, of course, but it’s easier said than done. Target should get kudos for actually pulling it off.