Tim Hortons announced on Wednesday that it is giving away $8 million worth of coffee and other hot beverages to customers as part of a marketing program focused on the quality of its coffee and its loyal fans across the country. The promotion actually started in March, but was put on hold in the early days of the pandemic.

Aside from the giveaways and a TV ad, the campaign invited users to share their stories of commitment to Tim Hortons coffee via Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, using the hashtag #TimsCoffeeCommitment.

It has all the hallmarks of the warm and fuzzy campaigns that Tims is known for. Its marketing team might have even envisioned an outpouring of heartwarming stories about “Timmies runs,” weekly meetings between friends, and early-morning hockey practices.

Even the accompanying TV campaign is filled to the brim with sentimentality, showing the great lengths that people go to get their cup of Tims coffee—from showing up at the drive-thru window on everything from an ice resurfacing machine to a dog sled.

But, well, this is social media, where even the most well-intentioned efforts can be met with scorn and vitriol. For several hours on Wednesday, people used the #TimsCoffeeCommitment hashtag to attack the coffee chain for everything from its labour practices, to the cleanliness of its restaurants and the quality (or lack thereof) of its coffee.

Tim Hortons did not respond to interview requests, so we don’t know if its marketing leaders did a double-double take at the reactions, or if they were prepared for a rush of nasty tweets.

But these are sophisticated marketers, and it seems improbable they could have failed to anticipate that asking people to engage with a tweet of this nature could lead to some negative sentiment.

“If you go into hashtag land, you have to take it on the chin to some extent,” said Thinking Unstuck founder Mark Tomblin. “There’s not one brand out there that doesn’t have some detractors. [If you’re a brand] don’t go near a hashtag if you’re not prepared to take some heat.”

“If they’re shocked by this, I don’t know what they’re paying attention to,” agreed Josh Cobden, executive vice-president and general manager of Toronto PR agency Proof.

But Tomblin noted that Twitter is also notorious for the amount of negativity that can be directed towards its users, and it can be easy for brands to misconstrue this outrage as being more representative of general consumer sentiment than it really is. “It doesn’t take very much for brands to get very nervous about things on Twitter, [but] Twitter is not the population,” he said.

Another senior PR leader, meanwhile, suggested the brand mistakenly tried to bolt an engagement component in the form of a hashtag onto a TV-led campaign, but without baking it into the program by providing consumers with a clear reason to share their story.

But Tims’ biggest misstep, she said, was its choice of platform. Twitter, she said, is “not a Tim Hortons audience,” adding that the chain might be more at home on Facebook—which tends to attract a slightly older, more conservative and suburban/rural user base that more closely resembles its customers.

“Overall it seems like a gimmicky [call-to-action] that wasn’t thought through, and perhaps an instance of marketing not working alongside corporate communications and corporate reputation owners who would have flagged risks to this hashtag and audience,” she said.

So why, then, would a brand so willingly open itself up to such negative—and in some cases highly specific—criticism? One of the social experts contacted by The Message attributed it to yet another example of marketing’s sometime heedless rush to measure engagement. While they carry the potential to backfire spectacularly, hashtags remain a useful tool for measurement and determining the impact of a campaign on social.

It’s also worth noting that Tims’ rivals seemed to be paying attention, with Starbucks Canada promoted tweets appearing in the #TimsCoffeeCommitment stream (see picture above). “They wisely know that people with some connection to coffee are going to be on here and they’ve said ‘Let’s get into this conversation,'” said Cobden.

There have been some spectacularly ill-conceived campaigns using hashtags since they first arrived in 2007 (Research in Motion’s howlingly bad 2012 campaign #RIMJobs, or Susan Boyle’s #susanalbumparty anyone?) and this campaign doesn’t come close to approaching those levels.

The consensus among the several social/PR experts who spoke with The Message is that the short-lived Twitter blowback likely won’t cause any lasting damage to the Tims brand. It’s unlikely to win it any new fans, of course, but it might ultimately end up becoming nothing more than a tempest in a coffee cup.

Chris Powell