I don’t know who first coined the term spokesthing, but I initially heard it on a “Mr. Show With Bob And David” sketch about a decade ago. Being the irreverent sorts they are, Odenkirk and Cross used it to poke fun at marketing/advertising types, and they hit the nail on the head. I won’t link to the sketch in question here because it is full to bursting with foul language, but if you desire to seek it out, I certainly won’t try to stop you.
Regardless, I just like the word spokesthing. It’s funny and gender-neutral and hints at the meta nature that marketing achieves at its most clever.
When I made the jump from journalism to public relations, one of my first tasks was managing the social media presence for Tillamook Cheese. One day, I thought it would be funny to tweet at people as if I WAS the Baby Loaf of Tillamook Cheese, and when a follower responded, “Is @Tillamook Cheese tweeting in first person? Brilliant!,” the character of Loafy was born.
Notice I didn’t say that the character was born when I thought of him. The character was born when one of Tillamook’s fans responded to him. That’s the way social media works. People don’t want to be marketed to anymore. They want you to have a conversation WITH them. When I realized this was a concept with resonance, I set about fleshing out the character of Loafy, and an entire mythology of my new spokesthing was born.
Recently, when AM:PM PR was hired by The Original WOW! Burger, a new gourmet burger joint soon to be debuting in the Portland market, I again started thinking about what makes for a great spokesthing. Creating a good character that will resonate with your fans is important, but as Pat likes to say, we were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason. You can be the cleverest boy in all the land, but if you don’t listen to what your customers are saying and respond to them genuinely, it’s all for naught.
One of my favorite spokesthings is Allstate’s Mayhem persona, who is played on TV by the killer character actor Dean Winters of “Oz,” “30 Rock,” “Rescue Me” and “Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles” fame. The commercials are short and humorous, and the Facebook posts carry that over well. Not sure why Allstate hasn’t brought this character to Twitter, where it would fit in well. My only complaint is the imbalance between the number of posts “likers” of Mayhem are leaving on the page and the number of responses Mayhem is offering. Clearly, the account is doing a great job of generating interest, but as a listening tool, it’s somewhat less effective.
Back when I was still managing the Tillamook account, I quite enjoyed posts by the Quiznos Toaster, more conceptually than consistently in practice. For some reason, I’m drawn to the notion of inanimate objects talking to me, which could explain part of my love for Tom Robbins’ “Skinny Legs and All.” Unfortunately, the Toaster got increasingly lewd as time went on, and it appears that Quiznos has now pulled the plug on him. I like to imagine a Hal 9000-esque scene playing out at the end there. The Kool-Aid Man had a funny Twitter account for a while, too, although whether it was ever connected to the brand remains a mystery to me. It no longer exists, which makes me doubtful.
Elsewhere, a slew of companies continue to try to convert their advertising spokesthings into social media spokesthings. From Bob’s Big Boy to Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah to M&M’s to the unholy insurance onslaught of Progressive, Aflac, Geico, etc., they achieve their objectives to varying degrees. The true measure of a spokesthing’s success in my eyes isn’t to transition the same old marketing messages over to social media. It’s to capture the imaginations of fans and inspire in them the desire to essentially create short bursts of fan fiction about you.
Even more, the goal of any spokesthing should be to disarm fans and followers and make them feel comfortable engaging in a conversation with you. If you can do that, and turn off your clever little marketer brain long enough to listen to what they have to say, then you’ve accomplished two invaluable goals at once – learning and creating. You’ve learned what your customers want and created a whole new legion of brand ambassadors in the process.