Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” Campaign Shows Why Internet Advertising #Fails are a Huge Marketing Win

In 2012, Lays ran its first “Do Us a Flavor” campaign, in which they crowdsourced a new lays-do-us-a-flavor-parodies-09-sour-cream-and-penniespotato chip flavor. A number of other companies have run similar campaigns, and—as with the 2012 Lays campaign—they turn out perfectly well. Lays chose “Cheesy Garlic Bread” as the winner, garnered a fair amount of interest, and that was the end of the campaign, until now.

Lays relaunched the campaign on January 13, 2014, and the submissions have been pouring in ever since, but this time the internet is doing its usual internet thing and subverting the assumed intentions of corporate America. The flavors submitted have ranged from innocuous— Garlic Fries, Garden Veggie and Pimento Cheese—to the slightly more creative—Bacon and Hot Sauce, Crispy Falafel, Corn dog, and Beef Jerky, to name a few. The creativity does not stop there, however; the entries have started getting truly absurd. Anthrax Ripple, David Bowie’s Bulge in Labryinth, Meth, Dad Never Came Home, Crying While Eating, Existential Crisis, and Placenta have all made their way onto the site. Reports of these disruptive responses have been taking over the media, getting spots on E! and Uproxx among others. An increasing number of sites are reporting on how the campaign is “backfiring,” “failing,” and “getting out of control.”

The ethos of traditional marketing is Madison Avenue controlling the messaging for major brands and thereby attempting to control consumers’ views of the product. For those that still approach marketing with this mindset, this iteration of the Lays campaign looks like a major failure—users skewed the message and publicly mocked the campaign and product (with flavor names such as “90% air and like 4 chips” it’s hard not to think of the negative aspects of opening a bag of chips and staring down a near-empty bag). But, as Chris Anderson says in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, this kind of viral failure is the “future” of advertising. Why?

Chris Anderson gives the example of the Chevy Tahoe ad campaign that rolled out in 2006, with very similar results. The marketing team for the Tahoe was facing terrible selling conditions—War in Iraq, a green movement, and the general perception that the car was outdated after so many years of success. They wanted an ad campaign worthy of the Chevy slogan, “An American Revolution,” and so they turned to crowdsourcing, asking users to generate the next Tahoe commercial. They had many good entries, but—like the Lays campaign now—they also received a handful of subversive, clever, mocking ads, and those were the ones that took off on YouTube. But rather than responding to those ads or taking them down, Chevy sat back and watched. The results? Their crowdsourcing site started bringing more inbound traffic to than either Google or Yahoo, and Tahoe sales increased during the off season. The negative aspects of Chevy that users featured in the slam ads were things people were already talking about—bad gas milage, oversized vehicle, etc.—but now these issues seemed funny, and humor brought the brand back to the forefront of the consumers’ minds.

Lays is now taking a similar risk—embracing the negative with the positive, because both generate attention and build the brand. As Ed Dilworth, a Campbell-Ewald executive who helped on the Chevy campaign said, “When you do a consumer-generated campaign, you’re going to have some negative reaction. But what’s the option—to stay closed? That’s not the future. And besides, do you think the consumer wasn’t talking about the [product] before? They were, of course; the difference is that in the YouTube era, the illusion of control is no longer sustainable. You can either stay in the bunker, or you can jump out there and try to participate. And to not participate is criminal.”

At this moment, Lays has 6,383,025 likes and over 30,000 people talking about it on Facebook alone. They post about #DoUsAFlavor multiple times a day and each post gets between 1,000-4,000 likes. More than 15,000 people liked the UpRoxx article, “Lay’s ‘Do Us a Flavor’ Crowdsourcing Hilariously Backfires.”

It appears that giving users the ability to generate content for a brand—even if it is negative, sassy, and derogatory—serves to build brand identification and improve metrics across the board, from online interaction to actual in-store sales. It remains to be seen exactly what the net effect the Lays campaign will have on business, but we have a good feeling about it.

If you’re interested in crowdsourcing for your brand, click here to learn more.

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