Cold, Calculated Playfulness

They're at it again -- big brands swapping barbs and witticisms on Twitter.

It's become all the rage -- using your best 140 characters to playfully tap another brand on the nose, prompting a battle of wits. In this case it was JCPenney calling out Kmart for its viral success of men playing Jingle Bells with their, um, stuff.

"@Kmart We noticed you could use some pants. So here's a 15% off coupon. Merry Christmas. #JingleMoreBells," JCPenney tweeted.

So Kmart responded, not only declining the offer, but also recycling an earlier commercial. "@jcpenney Thanks, but we prefer to #ShipMyPants:" And they were off to the races.

Considering that the vast majority isn't paying attention to this kind of stuff, it would be tempting to chalk it up to playful games between rival marketing departments. After all, isn't this just JCPenney having a John Cusack moment, standing outside Kmart with a boom box desperately trying to woo the customers they love to come out? (If the reference is lost on you, odds are you're a Millennial. Go watch the classics.)



But that would ignore the bigger implications of what's happening. We are watching an evolution in brand personalities and a simultaneous escalating of guerilla marketing tactics. If JCPenney sent a spokesman to wander the aisles of a Kmart to pass out coupons in an effort to get shoppers to walk out, would Adweek be chuckling about how cute this is?

JCPenney baited Kmart into a public exchange, and the moment the battle was joined, Kmart invited all of its Twitter followers to pay attention to a rival's message. The retailers are by no means alone with this shootout at the Twitter corral. Honda went so far as to build an entire campaign extension for its new minivan vacuum by playfully calling out food brands via Twitter.

If you thought the Pepsi Challenge was brass knuckle tactics, then strap in tight. The future holds the promise of pitched battles that start without warning, cost next to nothing, and play out for all to watch. Any brand with a Twitter account, a sharp writer and an oversized dose of confidence is poised to fire the next salvo.

To be sure, not all brand "battles" have such serious stakes. Indeed, when done well, this kind of brand ambassadorship can expand audiences for both sides. For example, Honda and Oreo clearly are not competitors. But when the carmaker called out the cookie brand, it was shrewdly expanding its Twitter audience.

If you look at Honda's Twitter 209,000 followers you'll find a bunch of car junkies. Oreo's 213,000 followers are pretty much what you'd expect from a CPG brand. So if you're launching a minivan with a tool to help parents keep it clean, which audience would you rather engage?

"Dear @Oreo, nothing personal, we just don't like your crumbs on our seats – Odyssey w available Built-in Honda VAC," the automaker posted with a picture of two vacuum heads over the headline "Double Suck."

Oreo -- being the master of rapid response -- wasted little time coming back with a picture showing one of it's MegaStuf Oreos cracking the vacuum head. "Hey @Honda. Next time, try sucking up something your own size." Every time the brand responded, Honda brilliantly touted its new features to a new audience.

So if your brand is on Twitter (You are on Twitter, right?) how do you decide when and where to engage in this kind of freewheeling creativity? If you're the instigator, think carefully of the audience you're trying to reach and make sure you don't lose site of that in the escalation that follows. Know when to say "enough."

And if you're on the receiving end of a nose-thump? Be prepared to move fast with similar laser-focus on who you really want to reach. But more importantly, consider which brand has more to win -- or lose.

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