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"They're Unhinged, I Love Them." Is Unhinged Marketing For You?

So here's the thing about traditional social media marketing campaigns: a lot of them have started feeling a little bit stale and formulaic - at least to those of us who are online enough to become desensitized to most traditional marketing. This most especially applies to the Gen Z and Millenials who often aren't fans of being directly sold to. This, alongside the rise of absurdist humour, has given "unhinged" marketing one heck of a boost.

This unconventional approach to marketing has been gaining traction among both social media users and brands. I'm not going to lie to you, dear reader, it's a favourite of mine, and I'm firmly pro unhinged marketing just so long as it's done right. Let me repeat that, with emphasis on the 'just so long as it's done right.' There are pros and cons, as well as the inherent risk of walking too close to the line - all of which are worth looking at closely.

Breaking the Mold: Unhinged Content on Social Media

The days of meticulously polished social media marketing campaigns aren't gone, but some trailblazing brands are adopting a refreshingly different approach characterized by a sense of chaos, entertainment, and the occasional shock factor. The goal? To stand out in crowded social media feeds and capture the elusive attention of today's ever-distracted audiences. Attention economy, indeed.

One standout example of a brand that has wholeheartedly embraced this approach is Duolingo, the popular language-learning app. Duolingo's TikTok content has featured zesty, funny videos starring their iconic bright green owl mascot, Duo. This quirky content strategy has propelled them to astonishing heights, with 162 viral TikTok videos, 702 million impressions across all their social accounts, and coverage from prestigious media outlets like NPR, Rolling Stone, and Teen Vogue. The estimated media value of their social media efforts? A cool $6.5 million.

So, what's Duolingo's secret? They turned their brand mascot, Duo, into an "unhinged" creator who doesn't just sell language courses but actively participates in trends, entertains, and even develops quirky storylines, like Duo's crush on Dua Lipa.

Another example of unhinged marketing is Astroglide over on Twitter. Instead of the couched references and tongue-in-cheek jokes you might expect from a more traditional marketing strategy, Astroglide says the quiet part out loud. Between thirst tweeting, adding snappy captions to Twilight memes, and a long and storied history of shipping Destiel right alongside half the Supernatural fandom, Astroglide is leading the way in unhinged marketing, and it's working.

When it comes to engagement, their followers interact with them like they're friends and swear up and down they'd never cheat with another lube. It's easier for a lube company to toe the line than it might be for brands selling other products, but my hat is off to whoever is running their Twitter account. They moonwalk their way down the line of appropriateness with style and aplomb in a way other brands simply can't.

Take, for example, Radio Shack, which tried to revamp its image by falling right off the edge of unhinged marketing into the dumpster fire of inappropriate nonsense. This wild disparity between success and failure begs a question: How did things come to be this way?

The Pioneers: Fast-Food Brands Lead the Way

Well, the short answer is that you can thank Wendy's. Fast-food giants like Wendy's, Taco Bell, McDonald's, and DiGiorno have been at the forefront of "unhinged" social media marketing.

Wendy's has made multiple headlines by roasting social media users and throwing shade at other fast food brands. Their competition doesn't hesitate to clap back with banter of their own, prompting the public to weigh in with their own opinions. It's just silly and combative enough to work without being outright hostile or inappropriate. To be successful, unhinged marketing needs to be in good fun, not actually harmful.

Why "Unhinged" Social Media Marketing Is Popular

The popularity of unhinged social media marketing can be attributed to a shift in audience preferences. Users, particularly Gen Z and younger Millenials, have grown desensitized to the typical sales-driven messaging and curated content that brands have traditionally churned out. Instead, they crave authenticity and relatability. The unhinged approach delivers just that—it's chaotic, entertaining, and often surprising, making brands appear more human and fun in an unexpected and unconventional manner.

However, as this approach gains popularity, it's also become increasingly controversial. Brands attempting to break away from the polished image of traditional marketing often walk a precarious line between being relatable and offensive. This risky territory can lead to brand crises, and without a well-thought-out social media crisis plan in place, the consequences can be severe, especially since the rise of cancel culture.

Is "Unhinged" Content Marketing Worth It?

The allure of entertaining rather than overtly selling to audiences on social media is hard to deny. Brands recognize that this attention-grabbing content can help build stronger relationships with their audience. Yet, not every brand is suited for the unhinged approach, and success depends on your goals and target audience.

Jumping on the unhinged bandwagon may seem like the only way to stay relevant, but it's important to remember that this approach is high risk, high reward. If executed poorly or the humour falls flat, brands risk coming across as unrelatable and offensive.

Lessons from Mistakes: The Burger King UK Backlash

In March of 2021, Burger King UK learned this lesson the hard way. They tried to promote their scholarship for women employees in the restaurant industry to move up to Chef and Head Chef positions on International Women's Day. The tweet in question reads, "Women belong in the kitchen," and came off as being very misogynistic, leading to a backlash. This incident serves as a stark reminder that the unhinged approach can backfire if not handled with care.

It also serves as a reminder that diversity in your business - and your marketing team - is essential. The wider a pool of knowledge and experience you have to draw from, the less likely you'll be to make major marketing fumbles like Burger King. If this tweet had been run by people with a broader understanding of the cultural climate on the internet - and women's issues - it never would have been sent out.

Finding the Balance: Taking Calculated Risks

While some brands successfully push the boundaries and thrive in the unhinged realm, others regret taking the leap, sometimes at even a whisper of negative feedback. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to social media marketing, especially when it comes to unhinged strategies. It can work wonders, or it can fall flat.

The differentiating factor here is whether or not your brand has taken the time to develop its unique voice, and has made sure that it resonates with your target audience and is aligned with your brand values and mission. It's also ok to incorporate a sprinkling a marketing trend into your strategy without plunging into the deep end. If being a little bit unhinged will help your brand connect with your audience on an honest, genuine level, go for it. If it doesn't fit your brand's image, it's alright to give this marketing trend a pass.

Online interactions are unpredictable, and a thoughtful, well-planned out approach is your best bet for success in a truly unhinged social media landscape.


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