Oreo, the Oscars, and Real-Time Marketing: How “Dunk in the Dark” Helped and Harmed the Brand Newsroom

By Matthew Rothenberg February 20th, 2015

Brand newsrooms across the land are gearing up for the 87th annual Academy Awards Sunday night, hoping to “newsjack” the event with pithy real-time content that upstages the big show. In the spirit of branded blitzkriegs on massive TV events, let’s think back to where we were for Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” on Feb. 3, 2013.

When the lights went out in the Superdome in New Orleans, halting Super Bowl XLVII for an agonizing 34 minutes, Oreo and its agency, 360i, were ready.

“Power out? No problem,” their tweet read, accompanied by a hero image that pointed out, “You can still dunk in the dark.”

With that witty and timely tweet, Oreo changed social-media advertising forever.

Well… sort of. Oreo’s tweet has definitely had an impact: Seizing a topical moment to offer a clever on-message observation has become the standard-practice for many brands. While its tweet was notable for its sheer minimalist charm, the response to it was positively baroque, and Oreo’s positive press made other brands avid for the same sort of attention. 360i wasted no time recruiting blogs and news sites to discuss the tweet’s success, which cemented it as the watershed moment for real-time marketing.

On the plus side, Oreo’s victory lap encouraged some brands to get out of their own way when it came to turning around content, streamlining stodgy approval processes in favor of a more streamlined approach.

As Seth Godin recently told Contently, “You need editors, not brand managers, who will push the envelope to make [a brand media property] go forward.”

At the same time, though, it prompted less-savvy players to jump onto the real-time marketing bandwagon, trying to capitalize on fresh topics with disastrous results. And to add insult to injury, Oreo inspired some truly misguided notions about the use and universal relevance of a brand newsroom. In fact, in the year following the Super Bowl tweet, the rush for brands to align themselves to every big-time event got so heated, it inspired AdAge to write, “Go Home Real-Time Marketing. You’re Drunk,” following last year’s Super Bowl.

Many brands are attracted to the mystique of a traditional newsroom and hope a rush of activity from creatives who are sharing a single room will help a piece of content go viral. At the end of the day, an operation that produces a modest output of social-media memes tied to relatively predictable events doesn’t bear much resemblance to a newsroom—and it doesn’t necessarily lead to ROI.

Looking to the Oscars, Shane Snow recently offered a tour de force of number-crunching, teasing out the cost per impression for media generated from the top branded “war rooms.” Snow’s bottom line: “Under generous circumstances, the best real-time marketing ad at the Oscars was nine times the cost of the most expensive other kind of advertising, and the #10 real-time marketing ad at the Oscars is 200 times more expensive than the most expensive type of ad you can typically buy… and 1,200 times more expensive than just paying for ad impressions on the same social networks for which you’re building war rooms.”

Ouch. And the issue isn’t just monetary—it’s existential.

At the most basic level, there’s a schism over the way “brand newsroom” is used in content conversations. To those of us who come from a journalistic tradition, a newsroom is a physical or virtual space that operates with a workflow to create different types of content and distribute it via the most effective platforms. A brand newsroom, then, is a newsroom built to deliver original content based on a clear branding vision.

As Alyssa Hertig described on The Content Strategist, the most successful brand newsrooms incorporate a mix of in-house and freelance contributors, as well as using a common set of tools to communicate and collaborate. For instance, Hertig describes how Coca-Cola broke out of its box by letting a freelancer named Laura Randall track a trend she’d spotted of Coke-themed weddings.

“That was not an idea that we can take credit for. That was Laura’s idea,” editor Jay Moye told Hertig. “And there are many more where that came from.”

Bottom line: Giving voice to a brand through simple messages is fundamentally different from generating news.

And while corporate brands are selling something other than the content—be it cookies or Samsung phones that are great for celebrity selfies—there certainly are cases when timely, original stories (or tweets) are key to the marketing message. In those cases, a newsroom is appropriate. But if the deliverable consists of a few quick branded takes on popular culture, setting up the infrastructure to newsjack a trend runs the risk of adding to the overhead a brand was trying to avoid in the first place.

As Seth Godin said about the “Dunk in the Dark”: “People tell that story as if it’s the greatest thing that ever happened. They leave out that it took dozens of people to work on it, when it should have been one person who loved Oreo cookies. And it didn’t actually sell that many more Oreo cookies.”

If you’re going to build a newsroom, you should do so to create newsworthy stories that can go live with the rest of the news cycle. And preferably, the newsroom should be run by someone with the journalistic chops to lead your brand into an editorial direction that’s offering more than just traditional marketing.

If there is a “Dunk in the Dark” moment during the Oscars, there will be a number of brands ready to take over our social media feeds with clever, opportunistic content. Even though a lot of these brands won’t need newsrooms or war rooms or whatever you want to call it, a lot of them will probably have them anyway. I guess we can thank Oreo for that.

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