Social Media

What West Elm Caleb revealed about brands’ desire to go viral

“We have to think critically about the long-term effects of jumping on a reactionary moment,” a social strategy director told us.
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· 5 min read

When the short film for the 10-minute version of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” came out in November, the unreleased dating app Keepler posted a TikTok of a billboard that read: “Call it what it was, Jake,” referencing the song’s lyrics and the man of the hour, Jake Gyllenhaal.

The caption claimed that the company used its entire advertising budget to make the billboard, which a user called “a waste of money.” In response, Keepler posted a TikTok of another billboard. Sarabeth Perry, Keepler’s product market manager, took to Twitter to laugh at the fact that her marketing team of two had gotten “a little too good at Photoshop.”

“We had a lot of people ask, ‘Oh, what are the cross streets? I want to go take a picture,’” Perry told Marketing Brew. She said making the billboard look as real as possible helped it go viral: “It’s almost meta in a way,” she said. “And it increases engagement because people are staring at it loop after loop, like, ‘Is this real? Is it not? I’m not sure.’”

The first video has 1.2 million likes and 6.3 million views—and the whole saga boosted brand awareness for the app. So in January, when a bunch of 20-something New York women began posting TikToks about dating the same man, dubbed “West Elm Caleb,” Keepler’s two-person marketing team fired up their laptops.

“Red flags: 6’4, mustache, furniture designer,” reads its latest billboard, a clear reference to Caleb. “We were talking at 10pm at night, and it was right as it was happening, so it felt like an okay time” to post, Perry said. “If it were three days later, I wouldn’t have done it.”

By then, the story had shifted from women swapping stories to a cautionary tale about doxxing and internet privacy. Brands were advised to avoid it entirely. But those who had already posted were stuck–so what can social media managers learn from the experience?

To post or not to post, that is the question

As a social media manager, the job often requires replying quickly—and with humor—to capitalize on a viral opportunity. In addition to Keepler, the Empire State Building, Hellmann’s, City Furniture, Truly Hard Seltzer, and Peacock were among the brands that jumped on the West Elm Caleb moment.

Lauren Murphy, associate strategy director of social at Deutsch LA, who helps manage Taco Bell’s social accounts, told Marketing Brew that her team has a group chat where they discuss every trending item and whether they want to get involved. In this instance, she said, they decided to hold back.

“I think like some of us on the team have seen what has happened to brands over the last decade or so, jumping in on moments they shouldn’t and we’ll often be like, ‘Hold on, let’s think about this,’” Murphy said.

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Some brands that initially got involved, like Ruggable and Natural Cycles, have since deleted their TikTok video and tweet, respectively. Neither responded to requests for comment, but brand posts on the situation were not well-received by everyone on the internet.

According to Murphy, assessing if or how a brand should post about something viral requires looking at the context of the situation: who’s going to be impacted by the post (given brand reach), as well as who the post is trying to appeal to, and why. One mistake Murphy said she’s seen brands make is trying to appeal to the whole internet rather than a target audience.

“A good way to gauge [whether to get involved] is standing by your brand,” Murphy said. “Yes, this is a viral moment. But does this fit within our brand strategy? Does this fit within our tone of voice? And if it does, what is the reaction coming out of this? Have you thought of it from all angles?”

Camille Lieurance, social strategy director at adam&eveDDB, echoed that sentiment: “We have to think critically about the long-term effects of jumping on a reactionary moment,” she told Marketing Brew. “And then does this moment help us achieve specific business objectives?”

In the case of Keepler, Lieurance said she thought their billboard referencing West Elm Caleb was “really brilliant.” “I love it when brands do something that’s topical, or alludes to something, but they didn’t actually use the guy’s name.” She said it also helped that this was a dating app commenting on a dating story, giving it a clear connection.

Post-post reflection

Perry said that when Keepler posted its West Elm Caleb billboard, the conversation was about dating behaviors more than the behavior of a specific person. “I think in the future, we would love to, when there are opportunities for virality, make it a solely positive experience,” she said. “Putting a funny song in the background and tapping light fun at something, I think for this one was okay, and I think we’ll just have to see where things go.”

As for whether the billboard trend will continue, Perry said three might be the max. “We’ve been having some conversations and, you know, one time? Great. Second time? Haha. Third time, is it still funny? We’re not sure.” She said the brand plans to continue experimenting and trying new things as it prepares to go live in June.

For other brands reflecting on West Elm Caleb, Murphy said it will “always be a risk to do anything online,” but the key is learning which things are worth taking a risk for. “You can still hop on viral moments, just not every viral moment. Not every meme is for you. Not every tweet format is for you. Not every trending audio is for you.”

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