In a podcast interview earlier this week, musician and professional opinion generator Kanye West took the opportunity to sound off on his feelings toward online shoe retailer Zappos and its CEO, Tony Hsieh.
"I got into this giant argument with the head of Zappos that he's trying to tell me what to focus on," West told the podcast's host, Bret Easton Ellis. "Meanwhile, he sells all this shit product to everybody, his whole thing is based off of selling shit product."
Instead of brushing off or ignoring the comments, Zappos did something unusual. The company and Hsieh both posted a link from their Twitter feeds to a page on Zappos.com featuring photos and a handy demonstration video of their newest item up for sale: a toilet plunger.
Zappos's crackerjack copywriters titled the plunger the "Zappos.com Gear Sh-t Product." The ostensibly earnest product description beneath the photos reads, in part: "Interested in buying sh-t product? You’ve come to the right place! Here at Zappos.com we happily sell sh-t products to everybody! This is the throne, everyone has been watching."
The company's response, if a bit on the crude side, was undeniably funny and turned a potentially damaging comment by an influential celebrity completely on its head. It was an effective dig at Kanye that didn't rely on strident language or ad hominem attacks. And the customer reviews for the "Sh-t Product" were glowing.
To be sure, this is not a classic Twitter war, that thoroughly modern exercise in shouting at the wind. But it's a good example of when using social media to enter a fight actually seemed to be beneficial. Turning an attack to your advantage requires a deft touch, says Dave Kerpen, the cofounder of Likeable Media and author of "Likeable Social Media and Likeable Business."
"If someone picks on your brand, always respond, positively and creatively," he says. "Zappos did just that: They responded in a positive, fun, and entertaining way to Kanye, which will lead to earned media, traffic and buzz."
The plunger stunt was especially impressive given how spontaneous it was. "We don't have a formal process or team to respond quickly to media events," Hsieh told Inc.com. "The Kanye thing was just a random fun idea that someone came up with [Tuesday] morning and then a bunch of employees from different departments jumped in to help make it happen quickly."
Kerpen draws an important distinction between responding and starting a war yourself. "Picking a fight in social media is never worthwhile. People perceive negativity, as, well, negative, and the risk to your brand is not worth it."
Unless, that is, picking fights is already a recognizable part of your brand. West has made headlines recently for an extended Twitter rant against Jimmy Kimmel and a viral video in which he directs his rhetorical wrath toward unnamed traditionalists who are bent on stifling creativity. ("We're led by the least noble, the least dignified, the least tasteful, the dumbest, and the most political," he told a group of students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design the day before his Zappos comments came out.)
West has yet to respond to the toilet ad via Twitter or other medium though, so for now it appears that Zappos has gotten the last word. Hsieh even added one more subtle barb. "As for Kanye," he said, "I admire him for always being on brand."