Maple Leaf Foods and Tim Hortons show the fine line between winning and losing on social

We got a good demonstration of the risk and reward of quick-twitch social media marketing and PR in Canada this week, with Maple Leaf Foods enjoying a win and Tim Hortons possibly feeling it got slightly burned.

Early in the week, a story emerged about a young Toronto Maple Leafs fan in Montreal who wanted a Maple Leafs cake for his birthday. The baker, apparently confused by the request (or maybe just a snide Habs fan) made a cake featuring the Maple Leaf Foods logo. On Monday CBC posted a story about the amusing incident—complete with a photo of the unhappy Leafs fan giving a thumbs down to Maple Leaf Foods.

It was a funny story that didn’t reflect badly on Maple Leaf at all. But rather than just letting it slide, the communication and marketing teams leveraged the moment by inviting the young boy and his family to Toronto to see the Maple Leafs in person. By Monday evening Maple Leaf Foods tweeted the following:

The next day, the Financial Post ran a glowing story under the headline: “Cold-cut maker Maple Leaf finds the marketing sweet spot with response to cake snafu.”

The whole process took just one-and-a-half hours, Janet Riley, vice-president of communications at Maple Leaf Foods Inc., told FP. “There wasn’t much of an approval process,” she said. “This was certainly a non-controversial decision to send a little boy to a Maple Leaf game.”

That seems obvious. But controversy can show up quickly—and unexpectedly—in social media.

On Wednesday, media (both social and otherwise) started buzzing about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle effectively breaking up with the British Monarchy to divide their time between the U.K. and North America. Many wondered if that meant they’d be moving to Canada, and Tim Hortons playfully joined the conversation with this tweet:

While clearly a joke, it didn’t go over well with everyone, and a rush of angry tweeters quickly expressed their outrage. The general tone was “How dare Tim Hortons waste money on free coffee for Prince Harry and Meghan when they could pay their employees more, or treat the homeless better?”

On Thursday, media outlets including Global, Narcity and Huffington Post published stories about the angry tweeters. Huffington Post used the headline: “Tim Hortons Tweet To Harry And Meghan Backfires Spectacularly.”

But did it really?

In terms of total reaction, the tweet got nearly 39,200 likes and almost 3,900 retweets, compared to 3,000 replies (even if most of the 3,000 were angry). When your replies outnumber your likes and retweets, you’re in trouble—you’ve been “ratioed.” This is not that. Not even close. The Tim Hortons tweet about Shawn Mendes going home to his local Tim Hortons received only 36,000 likes.

Tim Hortons has left the tweet up, and its only response when asked for comment was: “The social media team posted a light-hearted comment. Our focus continues to be providing great value to all our guests.”

And while it was out of character for Tim Hortons, Twitter advocates this kind of approach from brands. “Great small example of ‘Brand Judo,'” wrote Twitter Canada head Paul Burns about the tweet on his Linkedin page.

“Brand Judo = Taking advantage of the momentum from a cultural moment and flipping that momentum into a brand story. Requires great cultural [listening] & real marketing agility, but when it works, it works.” Interestingly, Burns’s Linkedin post was later taken down, with Twitter declining to say why. But Twitter unambiguously believes that tapping into cultural moments is how brands get the most from being on its platform. Last year, it worked with IPG’S Magna on a study on brands and their place in culture.

“[C]onsumers — particularly younger people on Twitter — expect and even want brands to be culturally relevant: aligning well with cultural events, promoting trends that define today’s culture, and supporting social issues that benefit everyone,” wrote Twitter on its marketing site.

“Incredibly, a brand’s cultural involvement makes up a full 25% of a consumer’s purchase decision. That means that being involved in culture is a significant consideration when people are weighing whether or not to buy something, alongside other factors like positive brand perception, price, and quality.”

So according to Twitter, Tim Hortons making a joke about Prince Harry and Meghan coming to Canada is a good idea, both tactically and directionally. But when brands decide to become more personal and join the conversation in real time, the quality of the execution and the context matters. A lot. Eric Blais, president of Headspace Marketing, believes there are lessons to be learned here.

“Of course it was a joke and brands can certainly make jokes to keep their community engaged,” said Blais. “I don’t think this is going to be particularly damaging to the brand, but I’m suggesting that this serves as a reminder that social posts like these should be developed and vetted within the broader context of the brand, and the company, operates in,” he said. “Someone in marketing reacted quickly with a fun idea tied to Tim’s iconic Canadian status. Perhaps someone in public affairs would have raised a flag.”

But that also means things start to slow down and the advantage of real-time Twitter marketing—speed and currency—is lost. What is perhaps most interesting about this is that the joke feels slightly out-of-character for Tim Hortons—in fact, scrolling through its timeline, it seems like this might be the first time it has tried a tweet like this.

Perhaps this is the start of something new for Tim Hortons, another attempt to renew its brand with existing customers and connect with a new generation of younger consumers. And adopting a personal voice and joining the conversation in real time could help in that regard, even if it’s a well documented mine-field (when it goes wrong, it can go spectacularly wrong). Three thousand angry comments is significant, and perhaps a follow up tweet to clarify it was a joke would have helped. But performative outrage and indignation has also become a hallmark of social media behaviour. Not all angry comments—nor stories about angry comments—are proof of failure.

David Brown