Marketing via social media platforms like Twitter lets brands communicate directly with consumers and each other, creating a chance to challenge competitors and assert dominance.

Last month when Google set up the final installment of an experiential marketing campaign that awarded consumers treats when they tried Google Photos, one imagines it considered many contingencies like bad weather, sparse foot traffic, or a lackluster response. Little did the brand know that an entirely different threat loomed: another consumer brand.

Zappos caught Google unawares when it hijacked the tech brand's #PayWithAPhoto campaign. As soon as consumers earned their cupcakes, Zappos invited them to cash it in for Zappos products ranging from backpacks to watches.

"By activating next to the major technology company, Zappos looked to play a prank with the best intentions on a friend in the digital space," says Kelly Teemer, awareness marketing lead with Zappos. "It was an opportunity to connect with customers, generate buzz, and just have some fun."

The stunt garnered Zappos mentions in countless media outlets. The resulting video content also generated thousands of tweets and more than 15,000 YouTube views in less than a week online.

Zappos' #PayWithACupcake activation, created by digital agency Mullen Lowe, is the latest example of a trend that has grown in popularity in recent years.

In an effort to garner consumer attention, brands are engaging each other in conversation - and encroaching on one another's space to purloin their share of voice. It's a strategy that can win them eyeballs in the increasingly cluttered social media space. Muscle in on another brand's campaign and you stand to stand out.

We see this play out quite often on Twitter, where brands comment on one another's posts to insert themselves into the conversation. Among the most memorable of these episodes (Read more...) a chat that occurred between Old Spice and Taco Bell back in 2012.
The discussion generated so much attention, that several other brands threw their hats into the ring, including Ford Motor Company: "We're enjoying the fire & spice discussion." Even Canadian music studio Rocketfish commented, "Before you guys get us all in trouble, we want to clarify that our products contain neither rockets nor fish."

More often than not, brands can give as good as they get. A year after the Taco Bell tweet, Old Spice posted a holiday-themed Vine aimed at Oreo that incited a pithy, photo-based response.

The key to these kinds of online exchanges is real-time marketing - being aware of opportunities to engage, and ready to respond with a smart remark at a moment's notice. Brands should be particularly alert during major entertainment and sporting events, when consumer activity on social media soars and every digital marketer is poised for participation. In January, we saw NBC Sports and Butterfinger trade tweets during the College Football Playoff National Championship. Butterfinger didn't take the network's jab lying down.

butterfinger-cbs-sportsAs entertaining as these situations can be for consumers, brands should be wary of taking them too far. The possibility exists that you could offend the other brand's loyal customers - who could be your customers, too - not to mention the brand itself. In the case of #PayWithACupcake, Zappos was careful to show respect for Google and the work the tech brand put into the original campaign. 

"We hoped remaining tactful, tasteful, and playful would alleviate any negative reactions," says Teemer. "We made sure to give consumers their cupcakes back, and they were thrilled to receive both a cupcake from Google and gift from Zappos!" She notes that Google even retweeted its video, earning Zappos additional exposure with Google's own customer base online.

Teemer's advice to other marketers pondering a marketing showdown is to choose a like-minded brand, rather than an opponent with which you have nothing in common. This, she says, can "help ensure both brands are on the same page and able to interpret the comedic angle in the same way."

Whether confronting another brand on Twitter or taking the friendly rivalry offline, be respectful of your audience, your competition, and the context of the conversation. Above all, be ready for anything. When you go head-to-head with another brand, things are sure to get interesting.

Homepage image via Flickr. 

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