There's nothing notable about an event photo having a sea of fans holding cell phones in the background. So why did a particular image of Tiger Woods at the 2022 PGA Championship go viral? It's because of one fan, whom we now know is named Mark, who is holding a beer instead of a phone.
Lucky for Mark, the logo on his Michelob Ultra was perfectly facing the camera, and the Anheuser-Busch team pays attention to viral trends on social media. Michelob acted fast and turned the image into an advertisement. Starting on the shot of Tiger (with cell phone-clad fans behind him) it reads, "Some legends play in the moment." As the video pans across the photo to Mark it says, "Some live in it." The ad closes with, "It's only worth it if you enjoy it."
Michelob Ultra found Mark and offered him an advertising deal, which includes his image on shirts and hats, they have started asking fans to vote on commemorative #MichelobUltraGuy cans and @TheMichUltraGuy has his own Twitter. Yes, he will also be getting lots of Ultra.
Michelob isn't the only logo in that photo -- there are at least a dozen other brands represented (including two more on Mark's clothes). So, what set Michelob apart? Here are three lessons your brand can learn so you could be next:
Lesson 1: Pay attention and act fast
Because humans are a herding species, we look to others to know what is cool. It is in our nature to want to be part of the conversation before it becomes old news. As a human person, you get this and can probably respond quickly. Brands? They tend to fall behind and are notorious for using hashtags incorrectly days or weeks after something stopped being relevant. They are the business equivalent of a parent trying to use teen jargon in an attempt to be cool (and that is so not fire).
Using the terms correctly and understanding context is important, of course, but the timeliness is key. For your brand to ride the virality wave (and get the impressions-based benefits) you need to get in there early. Michelob's commercial is part of (and helped shape) the conversation because it came out almost immediately. Bonus: this also helps them to look smart and (to use my lame parent term) "hip." Opportunities like these pop up often if you look for them, but you need a team that is ready and empowered to act quickly (as another example: Oreo's "You can dunk in the dark" Super Bowl tweet would not have gone viral if it came two days later).
In short: Be ready and try some fun stuff to see if anything sticks. If your social media team needs ten rounds of approvals before they can post, you will miss the boat.
Lesson 2: You can frame the message
Leading up to the PGA Championship there was a lot of media coverage about how expensive the food and drinks were. So naturally, when the image of Mark started going viral there were lots of jokes about how he had to pawn his phone to have enough money to buy that $18 beer (yes, that was the actual price) or that no one else was drinking because they couldn't afford it.
While Lesson 1 includes the importance of knowing the context of any term or hashtag before you use it, that doesn't mean you need to get hung up on how everyone else is talking about something and always follow suit. Reframing the conversation to meet your needs can be a great way to change what people share and remember. In the case of Michelob Ultra, this is no longer a conversation about how expensive beer was, but of how witty and quick they were to respond (and about how people should get off their phones and live in the moment).
In short: Don't let the focusing illusion make you believe that the story you see people sharing is the only one available. Know what your brand represents, and find creative opportunities to say it.
Lesson 3: Do the right thing
Scrolling through the tweets, a theme of "They better have paid him for that" emerged quickly. In the case of many public events, participants sign waivers saying that their image can be used for promotional use without compensation, so legally Michelob probably didn't have to give him anything.
However, the bad press they would have gotten for that approach likely would have backfired big time. Because they did the right thing it remains a positive story. One more benefit? Because of human optimism bias, people will naturally want to be seen drinking Michelob Ultra at events on the off-chance they might be next. Win-win.
In short: Err on the side of doing right by people. Negative PR spreads much faster than positive stuff, so it is always a good business decision (in addition to being a good human decision).
Bonus Lesson 4: Have fun!
As Michelob says, "It's only worth it, if you enjoy it."