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Joint Effort: Why Ben & Jerry’s Won Social Media Last Week

Last week, Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. And Ben & Jerry‘s brilliantly tweeted this on Thursday, January 2:

The tweet has been retweeted 9,584 times and favorited 5,750 times, to date. There are either a lot of stoners on Twitter, or it’s a great example of how to be engaging on social platforms. Or maybe both.

“We didn’t plan to jump on Colorado’s news, but the idea came up during a meeting and we thought it was very funny,” says Mike Hayes, who handles social media for Ben & Jerry’s, based in Burlington, Vermont. “Because of the team we’ve developed here at Ben & Jerry’s over the last year, we were able to execute it within a few hours.”

It’s not just that the tweet is funny—though it is. Ben & Jerry’s won social media last week for a few other reasons, too. Here they are—and what you steal from their… uh, joint effort:

1. Voice and tone are content’s secret sauce

Voice and tone are hugely undervalued in content and social media. Together, they constitute the secret sauce of great content, and I expect more companies will pay attention to both in 2014.

What do I mean by “voice and tone”? Voice conveys the personality of a brand or a company, and tone convey’s the content’s “attitude.” You probably learned about both in literature class, but they apply equally well in a world where every one of us—not just professional writers—is publishing.

For example, why was Justine Sacco’s infamous tweet small-minded and insulting when it was a PR executive who tweeted it, but would’ve been considered merely edgy humor if, say, Sarah Silverman had tweeted it? Because while the tone (attitude) might be similarly edgy and sarcastic, the voice (the person’s identity or personality) is vastly different.

In Ben & Jerry’s case, the ice cream company has masterfully honed its voice and tone on social media. The legalization of weed sales might be too much a hot potato for most brands to comment on. But, despite being owned by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s maintains a kind of don’t-worry-be-happy laid-back voice that allows it to weigh in on a potentially troublesome issue.

Its voice is not corporate-big, it’s Vermont-small: It’s playful, fun, humorous, and approachable. But it’s also intelligent.

As a brand, Ben & Jerry’s “delights the weird,” as Seth Godin terms it. (And, of course, we are all weird.) Knowing who you are as a brand also means knowing who you aren’t.

Idea you can steal: Hone your own voice and tone to make it uniquely yours, based on who you are as a brand, and how you need to communicate with those you are trying to reach. Consider both your secret sauce in the content brisket.

2. Subtlety wins

I like the less-is-more nature of Ben & Jerry’s humor, both in this tweet and throughout its Twitter feed.

Instead of delivering one-liners (hard to do if you aren’t a comedian), Ben & Jerry’s often uses visual punchlines like this one to convey subtle humor. That style of humor is easier to do, and it’s also more cerebral—see point 1 here.

Idea you can steal: Graphics or photos can convey a point of view, as either the punchline to a joke or to extend any point you are making. Think of visual as an integral part of the story, not as a mere clip-art tag-along.

3. Tap into cultural trends that make sense for your brand

Like DiGiorno Pizza’s live-tweeting of The Sound of Music Live! or trash talking on NFL game days, Ben & Jerry’s weighed in on a less-than-obvious event. “We continually evaluate what’s going on around us and what is relevant to Ben & Jerry’s and our fans,” Mike Hayes said.  “For us, our moments aren’t necessarily around the Emmy’s or the Superbowl, but instead when the Supreme Court rules on DOMA, when Half Baked surpasses Cherry Garcia in sales and even legislation in Colorado.”

Scotchy scotch scotchIts tweet last Thursday was consistent with how the brand taps into cultural trends, in other words: It often releases new ice cream flavors based on pop culture and news headlines—again, to extend both its brand and personality. A few examples: Bonnarroo Buzz to celebrate the annual music and arts festival in Tennessee; Apple-y Ever After (in the UK) to celebrate same-sex marriage, and (most recently) Scotchy Scotch Scotch to honor Ron Burgundy’s second feature film, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.

So last Thursday’s tweet is an example of porting that same approach into its social presence.

(And not for nothing, but Ben &Jerry’s last year partnered with the digital shop 360i. You know—the folks responsible for Oreo’s famous dunk in the dark tweet? Yeah. Them.)

Idea you can steal: Don’t try to be Oreo at the Super Bowl. Instead, consider what events or headlines your audience cares about that might give you an opportunity to contribute to the conversation. Think of it this way: Don’t try to get your audience to talk about you; talk—in your own unique voice and tone—about what your audience is already talking about.

Bonus, which has nothing to do with tweeting, but everything to do with content marketing fundamentals: Great content is packed with honest empathy, clear utility and inspiration. (Or, as a streamlined variation: Useful, enjoyable, inspired.)

Liz LemonWhich is why I love this “Flavor Locator” tool and mobile app from Ben & Jerry’s that allows you to root out your favorite sometimes hard-to-find flavors. You know when you really want to try Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt because you are a huge Tina Fey fan and lemon yogurt is your favorite, but it’s frustrating because your local stupid-market doesn’t carry it, the jerks? Are we still talking about you?

Anyway, yeah. That. Problem solved. Great problem-solving for me… err, us. And great marketing, too.

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31 Responses to Joint Effort: Why Ben & Jerry’s Won Social Media Last Week

  1. Raul Colon says:

    I missed the tweet since I don’t follow B&J but I have to say it was a great message with some pretty cool results.

    I see so many with fear of doing something like this but I also see the fact that so many don’t want to put in the work to be able to create such a brief message that impacts them.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Right. I liked the brevity and speed of this — and also the way that (as Mike Hayes suggests above), they didn’t overthink it too much. But that’s a luxury that comes out of knowing your own brand and your audience very, very well.

  2. I could KISS you! Not just because I love the post (which I do), but because I had no idea Ben & Jerry’s had a FLAVOR FINDER … and I just found out that my newest favorite flavor (which I haven’t been able to find recently) is available only one town away. “Chocolate Therapy” here I come, baby! Mama’s home.
    ;)

  3. Ann,
    I love the breakdown of this. The bottom line, as you so clearly state, is that if it’s not useful or entertaining to the reader of the tweet, then it’s just a boring old marketing tweet that nobody cares about. I love the creativity of Ben & Jerry’s!

  4. Janice Merk says:

    I was one of the thousands who happily retweeted the Ben & Jerry’s comment. Aside from wanting to share something that made me laugh out loud, I thought it was a brilliant marketing move by the company. Thanks for taking a closer look at it for us, Ann. And also thanks for the Flavor Locator tip. Good thing I changed my mind about swearing off sugar…..

  5. Brian Clark says:

    It likely took more time and effort to write this post than it did for B&J to conceive and execute that tweet. And that’s why it works — not contrived, just the right move at the right time.

    P.S. I’m glad you took the time to write the post. ;-)

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Brian. And yes – good point.

      But on the other hand, I’d also say that the tweet was relatively effortless because B&J did the hard work already (of knowing who they are, crafting a voice, etc.) Or: All things are difficult before they are easy, to quote Thomas Fuller!

  6. What a Brilliant idea by Ben & Jerry! I’m sure their Colorado sales will spike….Nice post!

  7. Lisa says:

    Ann, Wow – what a great tweet. I don’t follow them so did not see it but they sure know how to do it right! Even the use of that photo is just perfect. Thanks for sharing with us.

  8. I read your previous blog post on hiring a brand journalist and felt a twitch in my eye. Granted you were discussing B2B and there’s a huge difference between that category and consumer driven ones.

    But still, I couldn’t let it go. I’ve never overcome the fact that my sister broke my favorite Burl Ives record either so keep that in mind as I bring up the following argument.

    You mention here that voice and tone are hugely undervalued in content and social media. That’s because there are too many people writing and not enough people copywriting.

    A journalist isn’t a brand expert. A copywriter is. However, there are two kinds of copywriters. There are those who write a landing page that scrolls into hard sell copy complete with aggressive headlines, testimonials filled with exclamation marks, and cheap product shots.

    There are also those who’ve honed their marketing expertise to come up with conceptual, creative and emotive branding copy and visuals that weave seamlessly into the minds and hearts of the consumer – like Ben & Jerry’s did.

    A journalist may have found the story. However, a true marketing expert would have created it and then rolled it out in many different contexts while keeping the initial integrity. In short (okay, admittedly I’m not keeping this short), copywriters would have reported on it in a way that’s engaging, not dry and not just informative.

    Brands need to hire both: journalists who can see a good news story and report on it, as well as copywriters who create stories and relationships.

    I’ll now return to being peeved at my sister. Thanks Anne.

  9. I spelled your name wrong, so sorry!

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  14. Savannah K says:

    So brilliant of Ben and Jerry’s marketing team so react to this news of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado. After reading through some of the tweet’s comments, this seems to really have generated a lot of positive buzz among consumers… And then of course because of this, marketing news sources tap into what is happening – awesome publicity for Ben and Jerry’s. Furthermore, I think you gave some really good tips in your post regarding successful tweets. Voice and tone, subtle nature and connecting your brand with consumers by building a culture around it – three extremely helpful tips to keep in mind when branding and marketing a product or service. Really enjoyed the post – excellent insights!

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  17. Ann,

    So happy I found your blog. Social Media Today thinks highly of you! Your take on the Ben and Jerry’s tweet is quite insightful and entertaining, mixed in with the perfect amount (for me) of snark. I’ll certainly be paying your blog frequent visits. Thanks!

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  19. Katie Garrett says:

    Love this post! What a great example of utilizing social media in the every day events going on today. Both funny and clever. I do not follow Ben & Jerry’s on Twitter so I was unaware of this tweet. I’m glad I ran across your blog and saw this post. Also, I love that you leave idea’s to steal. That seems quite helpful!

  20. Jaimie Gutch says:

    I marvel at the power of social media when you have a strong following established. Due to the large brand following of Ben and Jerry’s they were able to tweet something of such little content and receive such a large reaction. But part of me appreciates this, once you’ve worked to brand and gain the following that they have- I like it better when they give me fewer posts with greater value. And it is just icing on the cake that this value is humorous and enjoyable. Great job Ben and Jerrys, I’ll go buy some ice cream now!

  21. Tinu says:

    JOINT effort! I read this how long ago and JUST got that. :)

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