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Going viral on the cheap – what can we learn from Poundland?

19.01.2018 - by Ben Myall


Just a few weeks ago, Poundland achieved massive viral success with a Christmas social media campaign that saw the popular ‘Elf on the Shelf’ toy in a number of sexually suggestive scenarios with products Poundland sells.

One of the most talked about and controversial images showed the elf toy in front of a box of Twinings tea, dangling a tea bag between its legs, over the face of a female doll. The caption read “How do you take your tea? One lump or two?”

After Twinings tweeted their displeasure at the use of their product, Poundland deleted the original tweet but were ready with a replacement:

With Poundland’s Director of Marketing unapologetically reacting to the furore by saying “We’re proud of a campaign that’s only cost £25.53 and is being touted as the winning marketing campaign this Christmas!”, it’s clear the brand had no regrets in the immediate aftermath.

In January, Campaign reported that the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) is investigating the campaign after receiving 80 complaints; which mainly objected to the sexual nature of the posts in an online environment where children might see them. But Poundland responded saying the campaign delivered “significant numbers of shoppers” into stores during the run up to Christmas, and that they’re “…pleased the number of people who didn’t get the joke is so small”.

Strong reactions to this campaign – both positive and negative – assisted in the large reach it achieved, including widespread press coverage and social media attention.

Some people weren’t amused, describing the images as “degrading” to women. But the brand’s Marketing Director stated “The love on Facebook has been overwhelming, and that’s because it connects with our shoppers.”

Although the campaign was divisive and to some offensive, it did connect with many in Poundland’s target audience.

Love it or hate, it would be a mistake to put this campaign down to nothing more than a marketing team with a slightly immature – or even inappropriate – sense of humour, as some people have.

The campaign was much more considered than that. It’s right in line with the cheeky marketing tone they’re already known for among their target audience (it wasn’t even the first controversial marketing campaign they ran in 2017), but it successfully got a key message in front of people who may not normally shop in Poundland – there’s a place where you can get Twinings for just £1.

Poundland also correctly judged how far they could take the campaign without damaging important brand partnerships. Despite the ASA investigation, Poundland’s relationship as a reseller of Twinings tea remains intact.

All that said, some social media commenters (including people in Poundland’s existing audience) felt strongly that the company crossed the line between harmless innuendo and jokes which perpetuate a culture of sexual harassment.

As entities that contribute to the fabric of our culture, brands do have a responsibility to think about the ideas and messages they put out there.

It’s not always enough to say that a tactic or campaign worked and therefore it was good. There are long term implications for the equity of a brand, not to mention a debate to be had around corporate responsibility.

However, if there’s one learning we think other brands can really take forward from this, it’s that taking risks can pay off – and that doesn’t have to mean divisive jokes and causing offense.

It could be a bold rebrand that sets you apart from competitors; or experimentation with more creative approaches to audience targeting in channels like paid search and display advertising.

As the old adage goes – and as Poundland has surely learnt – you can’t please all people all of the time. The important thing is to do your research, understand your target audience’s needs, language and behaviours, and create a campaign that speaks to them.

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