Brand hashtags are a burden. They're a burden on consumers, on brands themselves, and they are getting out of hand. I'm not talking about the hashtags you attach to your brunches and selfies. I'm talking about the hashtags that brands loosely attach to their bus stop sign or billboard without a whole lot of thought of what they are asking of their audience.
The hashtag (aka "pound sign") started as a simple way to organize our social worlds, and to their credit, they are incredibly efficient. Searching #Venice on Instagram brings up a 5,890,272 photos and videos of nauseating romance along the canals of Italy's historic port. Clicking #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter brings up a powerful and important conversation on a platform where people can have a voice.
It was only a matter of time before brands jumped on the bandwagon and ruined the fun for everyone. They thought they could create a movement or conversation around their experience through a bespoke political election. The branded hashtag then exploded. It went viral alongside the viral videos it became attached to. Brands use it to create a culture around their campaigns in some effort to remain socially minded. But just because the hashtag started with social media, doesn't mean that any piece of work is appropriate for social sharing. You can't just badge a hashtag on a campaign or idea and say, "look, it's social now!" When the New York Police Department decided to get positive conversations going about the work they do within the city, their #MyNYPD hashtag turned into a continuous feed of examples of police brutality. McDonald's famously experienced a similar reaction in 2012 when they asked people to share their #McDStories. Badging the hashtag onto a poster, tweet, or piece of media with little or no thought about the long-term discourse to come can easily backfire.hashtag; they though people would search for and engage with them just as much as they sought out the #GrandCanyon, #Glastonbury, or a
Brands have dramatically overestimated their influence with the hashtag. They forget that creating culture around a campaign is, in essence, an oxymoron. You cannot create a culture within a few months. Culture creation, or even a slight cultural adjustment, takes years. Culture is established through repetitive action, dialogue, and experimentation. It is embedded in people's lives, their behaviors, and their unconscious thought. This idea--the dialogue between people and the world they lived in--took time, not a tagline. To think that a branded hashtag could create a cohesive movement that yields a culture would make the famous sociologists and anthropologists of our time turn in their graves.
It's somewhat laughable that, for example, Bud Light thinks I'm going to use #MakeItPlatinum in my Instagram post. Likewise, does Volkswagen think I'm going to be telling my Twitter followers to #GetHappy? Or perhaps Match.com thinks I'm going to tell the world that I #LoveMyImperfections? Sure, I might not be their target audience and I understand why a brand would want to aggregate moments of people using their products, but in a world where purpose and experience are major drivers of consumption, a hashtag flagrantly used without conviction behind it is just plain lazy.
Brands become strong when consumers identify with their message and they have a compelling point of differentiation from their competitors. The hashtag asks the consumer to engage with them on a whole other level. The likelihood of consumers becoming brand advocates is slim, even more so when the idea you're asking people to promote is a short-lived movement that ends when the next campaign comes out. Even more so when you're a dating site.
Now, in spite of, my opinions and preferences, there have been some interesting and reasonably successful branded hashtags. Procter and Gamble's #LikeAGirl hashtag has been successful in centralising the discussion around female empowerment. The difference here is that P&G has genuinely committed to the cause. They have built a brand around this movement and they continue to invest in it through Olympic team sponsorship and educational partnerships with TED. They have built a world around a single-minded idea that connects to the minds and hearts of a lot of people. While P&G has leveraged a select product range as an opportunity to join the conversation and effect change surrounding the cross-cultural issue of gender parity.
Unless brands are genuinely invested in creating a long-term difference in our society, don't insult consumers--and especially don't insult the famous academics of our time--by punctuating your crappy tagline with a hashtag. Brands are kidding themselves if they think badging a hashtag onto a piece of communications will get people to genuinely mobilize around their product and soak up their sappy idea. Consumers mobilize around brands through the powerful experiences they deliver. Experiences that are humble, yet memorable; rooted in strong insight and brand values; and executed in beautifully connected ways.