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When UGC goes wrong: A case study of the Grimace shake trend

When UGC goes wrong: A case study of the Grimace shake trend

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By now, most of us know that all publicity is good publicity and that is something that McDonald's is learning firsthand after it released a new Grimace shake, a berry-flavored purple milkshake, as part of an extended marketing campaign. The campaign saw the fast-food chain bringing back Grimace, a purple monster mascot that used to be all the rage in the 90s and celebrating the creature's birthday with the release of an exclusive shake. 

However, the Internet does as the Internet does and very soon, the new campaign went awry when a new trend started where consumers would purchase the shake and then pretend to pass away in gruesome situations such as in a forest or road with the vibrant purple shake spilled around them. Some even took it a step further and crafted elaborate kidnapping situations with Grimace as their terrifying captor. 

Having a viral trend that suggests that a new product of yours may have the power to unalive you may seem pretty damaging to brand image, but the fact is, user-generated content (UGC) are unpredictable and can really go either way. McDonald's, in this instance, seem to have taken the trend and made it their own, going as far as to create a meme that it posted on its social media trends joking that they were pretending not to see the shake. 

Don't miss: McDonald's brings back classic Grimace mascot: How brands can tap into nostalgia marketing

mcdonalds x grimace shake trend

True enough, Will Lee, the managing director of That Marketing Guy noted that trends such as these are the boon for driving awareness; and the bane for building brand equity - at least the one that you want, he said. 

Additionally, while from a marketing perspective, the trend may seem negative initially, it presents an opportunity for McDonald's to increase brand awareness on a greater scale and potentially reach beyond their initial target audience into mainstream pop culture, according to Ashvin Anamalai, the chief executive officer at DNA Creative Communications. 

"Every viral moment is a chance to engage with the audience while they are engaged. By actively monitoring the conversation and working swiftly to control the narrative, it is important to seize the opportunity to connect with the audience creatively and promote the safe and proper use of the mentioned products," said Anamalai when asked how brands can leverage UGC content while also, largely, having very little control of the narratives. 

To illustrate his point, Anamalai highlighted the Tide Pods trend which went viral on TikTok some time ago. In the trend, users started biting into the pods as a trend to release the detergent liquid. While it was a harmful trend that the brand and officials had to step in to put a stop to, the trend generated significant online conversations and according to YouGov, caused an increase from 38% to 41% in purchase considerations during the controversy. 

"Even unintended UGC have the power to impact a brand's success," he said. 

Agreeing with him, Kristian Olsen, the managing director of Type A Digital noted that all publicity is good publicity. "There is nothing innately negative about this particular Grimace-phenomenon, because it's not really causing a problem for McDonald's. On the contrary, it is making everyone try the Grimace Shake," he said before adding:

The hilarity of it is that there are some people who might try the shake as a way to have their own 'creepy experience', or to emulate other content creators' content.

"McDonald's objective was always to get more people to buy the shake. People are doing just that. Success story. It's just that people are taking a creepy approach," he said. 

How brands can leverage UGC that have gone wrong

Of course, not all brands are able to take control of UGC and turn it into a success, according to Olsen. In fact, he argues that the unpredictability is the point of UGC. So how exactly can brands manage it?

"You can set the narrative as best as you can but once it goes online, it's really out of your hands," Olsen suggested. 

Anamalai added on by noting that leveraging UGC gone wrong requires addressing safety concerns and being responsible.

"Brands can turn the situation into an opportunity by addressing concerns, highlighting their commitment to customers, engaging with influencers, encouraging positive UGC, and learning from the experience to improve future campaigns," he said. Adding:

Speed, caution and sensitivity are key.

Related articles:
McDonald's taps into childhood nostalgia with new Grimace-themed video game
McDonald's Philippines wins praise for queer-inclusive video ad
McDonald's free Big Mac lunch box is being sold on Carousell for up to SG$40

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