Brands have found a new secret weapon to hit viral gold -- their lawyers

Bud LightBud Light’s playful cease-and-desist letter to Modist Brewing Company
  • Marketers have started using legal cease-and-desist letters as viral marketing stunts.
  • In recent months, companies such as Netflix, TGI Fridays and Bud Light have taken potential trademark infringements and turned them into marketing opportunities.
  • The tactic not only lets these companies show off their personalities, but ideally helps improve their favorability scores among consumers.

Earlier this month, Anheuser-Busch caught a whiff of trademark infringement. Its beer brand Bud Light had recently hit cultural meme status with its latest ad catchphrase “Dilly Dilly.”

So much so, that a Minneapolis brewery decided to create a Mosaic Double IPA named after it.

But instead of threatening the “Dilly Dilly” beer-maker Modist Brewing Company with some garbled legalese, Bud Light decided to have some light-hearted fun – turning a potentially combative situation into a viral marketing stunt.

The company marketing team decided to issue a friendly cease-and-desist letter – on old fashioned parchment paper no less- and hired an actor dressed in medieval town crier garb to hand-deliver it and read it out aloud at the brewery’s offices.

“Beer is all about fun and friendship and we’re a brand that’s never taken itself too seriously,” Bud Light’s VP of Brand Andy Goeler told Business Insider. “We needed to drive that point home in a way that reflected our brand personality, our DNA.”

Cease-and-Desist letters have become a fun marketing ploy

Bud Light’s response may seem like a break from a longstanding truism of American corporate law – see a copyright or trademark violation, and slap the offender with a legal notice. But the marketer is hardly alone.

This year, several brands attempted to turn plain old cease-and-desist letters into effective viral marketing gold.

Netflix, for instance, sent an adorably punny letter to the owners of a Stranger Things-themed bar in Chicago, while TGI Friday’s sent one to a bar in Chicago when it found out that the tavern was planning to “dress up” as TGI Fridays on Halloween.

One reason for the non-confrontational approach is that brands don’t want to seem out of step amidst the demands of an internet-driven culture. Rather, they want to be cool.

“If it matches your brand, it’s actually a brilliant way to endear yourself to customers and future customers,” said Chris Alieri, founder of PR consultancy Mulberry & Astor.

This tactic also comes off as more authentic because it isn’t orchestrated by these marketers, said Caroline Masullo, VP of digital strategy at TGI Friday’s. Instead, they are responding to something driven by real consumers.

“Playful legalese is unexpected,” said Masullo. “But more than that, it’s an honest and genuine real-time response that shows people we are a brand with a personality – which often means being spontaneous.”

Brands have learned to reverse the ‘Streisand effect’

Sending scary, verbose missives may often be a necessary legal recourse for companies. But it can often end up backfiring in the marketing sense, particularly when you’re a huge international corporation.

So a funny cease-and-desist letters help deflect any criticism that a much larger company is unfairly “bullying” a smaller competitor, said Susan Cantor, CEO of Red Peak Branding.

“In an age where the bully pulpit is being overused and much criticised, it softens the blow while making the point,” she said. “It makes the ‘big guys’ more likeable.”

Internet culture also does not react well to anything perceived as censorship. A cease-and-desist can actually draw more unwanted attention.

This is often referred to as the ‘Streisand Effect’ after Barbra Streisand. In 2003 the music artist used legal threats designed to suppress online pictures of her home.

Instead, her aggressive legal stance actually resulted into thousands of people seeing those pictures, said Ken White, a founding partner of Brown White & Osborn LLP who focuses on criminal defence and civil litigation.

These days, the same trolls that bash brands online for being too stuck up can actually end up celebrating funny, creative legal letters.

“In such situations, it’s very easy for the narrative to go against brands,” White told Business Insider. “And they have realised that the Streisand effect can work well in reverse and that finding a positive spin on such situations make sure that the eyes that are drawn are in your favour.”

It pays to have a personality when you’re a brand

The strategy, of course, has measurable material benefits too for marketers, beyond just image improvement. The Minneapolis brewery’s Facebook video of the town crier, for example, has been viewed 491,000 times and shared over 3,600 times in the past three weeks.

Meanwhile, Bud Light got more attention for its Dilly Dilly campaign. The cease-and-desist letter generated over 11,000 social conversations, with an overwhelmingly positive social sentiment of 98%, according to the beer giant.

Further, overall positive social sentiment around Bud Light has increased by 7% since the launch of Dilly Dilly, along with growth in brand consideration and penetration.

“The response was phenomenal,” said Bud Light’s Goeler. “If we’d done this years ago, nobody would have seen it. The rise of digital and social media makes this an unmistakable marketing opportunity.”

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