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When it comes to trends, brands must favor relevance over reach

By Kristin Johnson / February 28, 2020

If you were anywhere near Twitter late last year, you’re familiar with the Art Basel Banana.

What began as a piece of art turned into a full-fledged, viral meme across social media. Brands like Popeyes and Burger King quickly responded with their own versions of the $120,000 banana, taping their chicken sandwich or a french fry to the wall.

Brands often try to tie into what’s trendy for the masses and make it work for their brand. For Popeyes, this was an opportunity to jump on a trending topic that played up the popularity and shortage of their chicken sandwiches. It was a smart move for the fried chicken restaurant. The social post was timely and brought together two social phenomenons in a single Tweet.

Likewise, Burger King is known for its culture-hacking social campaigns. The fast food chain has a reputation for finding relevant ways to insert their brand into popular moments, relying on social platforms, influencers and mainstream media to identify trending topics. A Tweet poking fun at the Art Basel banana only made sense for a brand that previously launched campaigns around moments like net neutrality and the cult-favorite horror flick, “It.”

But jumping on a trend isn’t as easy as it seems. For some brands, the decision feels natural. For others, it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We’ve seen what it’s like when retailers try to cash in on Pride month or when politicians start to experiment with memes and influencers. It can feel unnatural, contribute to the growing noise online and, above all, demonstrate that brands aren’t always prioritizing relevance in their efforts.

Once the high of a few thousand impressions wears off, it’s doubtful one meme will impact your brand’s long-term success. Instead of forcing a trending topic to work or chasing viral moments, brands need to use social to surface things that are already on trend for their brand, industry and audience. Don’t just look for the big conversations, look for the right conversations. So instead of creating what you think your audience wants, focus on giving them what they actually want. It may not make your post go viral, but it will ensure the consumers you care the most about are giving you their full, undivided attention.

Your audience is telling you what they want…

The good news for brands is that consumers are already vocal about where their interests lie. And while those interests may not be the next viral meme, they’re more likely to contribute to your brand’s business goals.

So while your competitors throw all their resources into a campaign around New York Fashion Week, intent on getting in front of as many people as possible, take a step back and put the strategy through the simple filter of: why? This may seem obvious, but if you ask yourself “why am I doing this?” it can separate what’s strategic from what’s a waste of time. In the Fashion Week example, ask yourself: Does our audience even like fashion? Does contributing to this trend help me reach my goals?

Sprout’s own Listening tool revealed over ten thousand people were talking about New York Fashion Week on social in the first week of February. Are you able to make your brand’s voice stand out from the thousands of conversations happening all at once? If the answer is “no,” the chance of your brand message resonating with the typical Fashion Week audience is slim.

Look to your customers on social to learn what topics interest them and where they spend the majority of their time. While gut instincts are great here, social listening is the most effective way to surface what trends actually matter to your audience, what your followers want from your brand or any upcoming events that get your customers excited.

By diving into your Listening insights, you’ll discover what your audience cares about outside of your products or service. When you can tie your content into those interests in a relevant way for your brand, that’s when you can stir interest, connection and advocacy with your audience.

When it comes to our fashion example, consumers in the space have increasingly called on brands to practice radical transparency when it comes to disclosing where and how clothes are made. Everlane, one of my favorite brands, tapped into this rising trend and today is known for its transparent pricing practices.

Other brands like Zara have course-corrected their strategies based on social insights gleaned from one of their target demographics, Gen Z. Members of Gen Z are particularly vocal on social about their willingness to pay more for items produced in an ethical and sustainable way. As such, Zara has pledged to stop using synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels and to use nearly all sustainable materials by 2025.

Just because something is trending worldwide doesn’t mean it’s important to the core group of people your brand wants to do business with. Prioritize relevance over reach—it’ll go a long way in building stronger relationships with your customers.

…but don’t forget about your peers

Equally important as listening to your audience is paying attention to what’s happening in your industry at large. What are the trends impacting your industry and how are your competitors responding (or not responding)?

Consider the seltzer trend in the beverage industry. Millennials, growing increasingly health conscious, are swapping fizzy sodas for flavored seltzers like LaCroix and Bubly. And in the search for a healthier, better alternative, consumers are also ditching wine and beer for alcoholic seltzers.

So when White Claw burst onto the scene and became the drink of 2019, it wasn’t surprising to see beer brands also jump on the hard seltzer bandwagon. The recent shift in beverage consumption has seen Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors release their own versions of boozy water to appeal to millennials interested in a balanced lifestyle.

In other words, what’s trendy in your industry and what opportunities can your brand jump on? The insights gleaned from social can help brands identify which trends are worth their while and how to position themselves as clear winners over their competitors.

Finding an untapped opportunity and capitalizing on consumers’ growing preference for chicken is exactly how Popeyes broke through the already crowded fast-food market. Last summer, Popeyes debuted its chicken sandwich which sold out two weeks after its launch and generated roughly $65 million in equivalent media value for the fast-food chain. It was a direct challenge to competitor Chick-fil-A and the ensuing chicken sandwich war has emboldened other fast food chains to create their own copycat versions.

Going viral isn’t everything

Every brand, at some point in its lifetime, will attempt to join the conversation on a trending topic. But only a select few brands will actually go viral or achieve what they set out to accomplish.

Instead of competing with millions of voices and brands 10 times your size, prioritize relevance over reach. Don’t look for the trends that appeal to everyone, look for the trends and the topics that resonate with your core audience. By focusing on only the most relevant trends, brands stand to build strong bonds with their customers that stand the test of time.

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson is the VP of Content and Communications at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketer with a passion for impactful storytelling, fostering her team's growth and sparking thoughtful discussion. Outside the office, she enjoys yoga, cooking and a great pint of beer (usually, in that order).
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