Riots on the streets on London

Rosie Baker is Marketing Week’s specialist on sustainability and retail.

There are many more serious issues at hand concerning the rioting that has taken over London and other cities in the UK for the past three days, but being glued to Twitter and social media even more than usual for the past 24 hours has made me question exactly what it is brands think they are using Twitter for.

My colleague Lara O’Reilly has already blogged comprehensively about the inspiring use of social media by real Londoners to organise www.riotcleanup.com  and galvanise the masses into cleaning up our city.

She’s also talked about how while the majority of brands are as yet keeping schtum over the rioting, there are a select few that are using the atrocious scenes as “ambush marketing”.

I’m not sure that all the occasions should be dubbed ambush marketing. It’s about relevance.

For example, Lara highlighted that Mexican food brand Old El Paso’s Facebook status says: “In these trying times I think we could all benefit from a bit of comfort food…”.

It is a bit of a plug for its products and the London riots may not be directly relevant to Old El Paso’s brand message, but it sure as hell is relevant to its customers right now.

When things are gloomy, people want comfort food. It’s not a leap to see that this might just be a relevant message in the current atmosphere.

Being relevant in social media means not just being relevant to your own agenda, but to the things concerning your customers and your consumers. Old El Paso’s, while not an obvious connection, isn’t as disconnected and flagrant as others I’ve seen.

During my stint watching BBC News 24 and constantly streaming Twitter last night as the riots got closer to my neighbourhood, I was most offended by tweets from brands seemingly unaware of anything occurring beyond the end of their own nose.

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Peacocks, the high street fashion chain, whose own store in Harringey was looted earlier this week (according to Guardian’s Live Blog), sent out a tweet to all its followers at around 8pm (the peak of the rioting and as Croydon burned down) babbling about who was watching Britain’s Next Top Model.

I appreciate not everyone was watching with the same level of attention, but this kind of blatant disregard for current events makes a brand look stupid and out of touch.

Likewise Coca Cola’s tweet which declared yesterday (8 August) “Happiness Happens Day” while intended for a global audience, clearly reached thousands upon thousands of UK followers who certainly didn’t feel that happiness was happening anywhere near them.

Are these brands even looking around to see what’s happening in the world before pushing out wholly irrelevant and inappropriate messaging? Social media, while a digital phenomenon, is fundamentally about people communicating and so it needs to be handled with a  delicate human touch, not just a faceless brand pushing buttons.

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