Tired pop culture fads can drag down your brand

In summary As the ill-fated celebrity Gilderoy Lockhart ominously said in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, "Fame is a fickle friend, Harry."

Celebrity relevance in advertising is everything. Don’t marry your brand with a fad just to get a quick spurt of attention. It takes away from your message and runs the risk of doing more harm than good.

Remember the end of 2012 when Psy’s pony-riding “Gangnam Style” was everywhere? And by everywhere, I mean ABC dedicated a Nightline piece to the “dance revolution”. It was inescapable. We’re all glad that’s over now, right?

WE might be, but I doubt Wonderful Pistachios is.

Wondeful Pistachios’ 2013 Super Bowl commercial features Psy parodying his own viral video, complete with pony-riding pistachios as his backup dancers. It’s weird, it’s riding the line of being too out there, and it appeals to a basic sense of silliness that lurks inside all of us.

That is, it was, until “Gangnam Style” pony-rode it’s way from strangely socially-acceptable to just downright overdone. Even with a Super Bowl airing, the “Crackin’ Style” commercial was making use of a meme that was closer to being out than in. Despite its hefty price tag, the commercial should have had a shelf-life closer to a dairy product than the nuts it advertised.

Yet, every night while I’m watching Hulu+, I’m bombarded with the Wonderful Pistachios commercial. Not just once or twice an episode – I’m still seeing Psy pony-ride those nuts every commercial break.

It doesn’t stop there. “Crackin’ Style” is also the name of the iPhone app Wonderful Pistachios launched (it’s a nut-themed photo editor).

Wonderful Pistachios has taken what could have been a successful (though expensive) marketing in the moment opportunity and made it the centerpiece of the 2013 leg of their advertising campaign.

But, their campaign is all about how celebrities “do it” (crack into pistachios). Doesn’t Psy fit in there?

Taking a step back from Psy and looking at the rest of the commercials in the US playlist of the Wonderful Pistachios YouTube page, it is true that their campaign centers around banking on the popularity of certain celebrities, characters and memes (“Crackin’ Style” was not even close to being the first – both Keyboard Cat and Honey Badger have spots dedicated to them as well).

However, as the ill-fated celebrity Gilderoy Lockhart ominously said in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “Fame is a fickle friend, Harry.”

The risk with relying on social fads, trends, memes, and even celebrities as the basis for your brand’s campaign lies in the fact that popularity is an untamed beast. There’s no telling what will be popular with the masses, for what reasons, or for how long. Even more dangerous, there’s always a risk that a fad, trend, meme, or celebrity won’t just slink away back to obscurity, they could fall out of public favor to the point of becoming famous for the wrong reasons (possibly becoming a villain character). If they are integral to your brand’s image through their use in a campaign, that villain is now synonymous with you (Psy himself became at risk of receiving the “public villain” treatment when his former anti-American concert and statements came to greater light following the success of the Gangnam Style video – the Wonderful Pistachios spot aired after this controversy).

Celebrities and memes come pre-loaded with a certain reputation and instant popularity. But, are you really popular or just sitting at the right table in the schoolroom cafeteria?

It’s high school 101: Have a popular friend speak highly of you and see your reputation soar. Suddenly you have dates to the prom, plans for Saturday night, and friends to ditch those boring classes to go try on jeans with at the mall. But, if you need to take your little sister to see Yo Gabba Gabba! on ice, you’ll find that all of your newfound friends have important plans they just can’t get out of.

Plus, your reputation is now wholly dependent on that popular friend’s reputation. Sure, some kids heard about the Yo Gabba Gabba! incident with your sister, but you’re just too sweet to say no like that. Your friend however, started dating that guy who doesn’t shower for some unexplainable reason. In the eyes of the student body, her speaking highly of you should have been their first indication that she really has bad taste. Your sudden rise to the top ends with an equally sudden – and long – fall from grace.

When you piggyback your reputation onto that of a person or meme that is already popular, it runs the same risk of backfire. Not to mention, it’s just out and out cheating – cheating yourself out of making a unique reputation that speaks more accurately to who your brand really is.

Not all celebrity endorsement is a flash in the pan, though.

Make no mistake, I’m not saying that all celebrity endorsements, use of celebrities in advertising, or even making a timely connection is bad for your brand. Used appropriately and with intention, these methods can be extremely effective, memorable and successfully showcase a side of your brand the public may have previously missed.

I do caution against taking a celebrity’s brand and marrying it with your own, however. Likening your company to someone who is truly similar is one thing, but riding the wave of someone else’s popularity completely is a gimmick that will either provide a short-lived buzz around your business, be seen through by your customers, attract attention from groups who have no potential to become customers, or miss the mark entirely and have a negative impact on your brand.

To me, “Crackin’ Style” is an example of just such a gimmick.

You know I’m cringing my way through every Hulu+ commercial break at night, but how do you feel about it? Is Wonderful Pistachios taking a huge risk or does it speak well to the brand?