You Just got Iced!!

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook message from a friend- the subject read “Mike got Iced!!!!” Enclosed was a picture of my friend’s boy friend’s priceless expression of shock and horror- he had just gotten “Iced” after all. I however had no idea what that meant and asked my friend. When she explained the concept to me I must admit I was embarrassed for not already knowing what it was given my age and demographic.

For those of you who still don’t know what it means to get “Iced” I will fill you in. Some fraternity brothers at the College of Charleston started a drinking game showcasing Smirnoff Ice beverages. The idea is that the perpetrator “Ices” or presents his victim with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice (the more creative the attack the better). If his victim does not have a bottle of Smirnoff Ice on him then he must chug the entire bottle on one knee. Now, if the alleged victim indeed is armed with a bottle himself then the perpetrator is subjected to drinking both bottles. Needless to say, it is not surprising this game was made up by fraternity boys. The game has spread like wild fire across the country with students and young professionals suddenly watching their every step and shielding themselves with Smirnoff Ice (Goldman Sachs apparently had an attack in one of its offices).

While it is questionable if this game has affected Smirnoff sales, I can personally attest that suddenly refrigerators within my friend circle are suddenly stocked with the beverage. Some posts I found on the Internet claim that suddenly grocery stores are running out of the drink. There was a website, brosicingbros.com, (recently shut down) where pictures of victims getting iced were to be posted. Given the attention viral marketing has received in recent years, this was especially interesting to me from a marketing perspective.

A few years ago, Smirnoff itself released a rap video spoof titled Tea Partay that went viral. The fact that the video showcasing the brand went viral was considered a huge success. Now, when a drinking game again spotlighting the brand has gone viral, it is controversial whether the attention is good or bad. How to handle this rogue viral game is debatable. Smirnoff’s parent company did however release the following statement, “Diageo has taken measures to stop this misuse of its Smirnoff Ice brand and marks, and to make it clear that ‘icing’ does not comply with our marketing code, and was not created or promoted by Diageo, Smirnoff Ice, or anyone associated with Diageo.”

First and foremost, the public policy implications of “bros icing bros” were bound to be problematic for Smirnoff. The brand can hardly support binge drinking let alone underage drinking without expecting to face legal consequences and backlash from a more “mature” audience than the one participating in the “Icing.” Silence from the brand would only further convince skeptics that Smirnoff itself was behind the creation and promotion of the game. From an ethical stand point, Smirnoff simply cannot quietly promote the game. Hence, the website brosicingbros.com was shut down (with good reason). Promoting responsible drinking is just as important to Smirnoff’s image as the positioning of its drinks to “preppy and sophisticated” individuals.

However, what makes this scenario particularly interesting is that while in Tea Partay Smirnoff chose how to position and promote its brand, in the case of the Ice drinking game, Smirnoff has no control at all. In Tea Partay Smirnoff beverages are promoted in a positive light (obviously). Ironically, the point of “Icing” people with Smirnoff Ice is that it is a punishment. Nobody wants to get Iced and be subjected to actually drinking it! In the words of one of my friends (who is a boy), “Smirnoff Ice is just plain nasty.” Most boys in my demographic (early 20s, recent college graduates) don’t really like sugary beverages and are more likely to pick up an ice cold beer than a Smirnoff Ice. Smirnoff Ice is positioned as a “girly” drink. What is interesting is that college students and young professionals are taking advantage of this existing positioning to promote the drink in the complete opposite way of how it was intended (surely Smirnoff does not want its product to be considered a punishment). In essence the brand has been hi-jacked.

In the age of social media and user generated content, brands are increasingly eager to release viral marketing campaigns to reap the benefits of cheap but highly effective advertising- and increasingly frightened. Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? Some argue that though this game makes fun of Smirnoff Ice and those that actually like it, it is promoting the brand nevertheless. The product is flying off the shelves, Millennials are trying it, and perhaps they will change their minds about it. Even if the positioning is not what Smirnoff had in mind, perhaps the company should just be satisfied with the attention and increased sales- regardless of the reason why.

My response to this is that Smirnoff should not be too alarmed about the game and should not play the role of an adversary- in the short run. Angrily denouncing the game is a great way of encouraging the game even more, misuse of the product, and establishing the hijacked image of the brand- and alienating future customers. Rather, Smirnoff right now has the unique opportunity to capitalize on a passing fad. It also has the opportunity to quickly reign in a demographic that formerly never bought its products. However, Smirnoff must have control over its brand’s image and ultimately destiny. By supporting the game by silently allowing the website to continue Smirnoff would have only perpetuated the message that its beverages are “gross” or only for girls (and that the company condones binge drinking). So how should Smirnoff quickly change the minds of thousands of “bros” around the country to take its products seriously?

If I were in charge of Smirnoff’s marketing campaign, I would quickly (timeliness is of extreme importance, waiting too long gives the hijacked brand time to establish itself making rescuing increasingly more difficult) release a humorous video targeting the exact demographic playing the Icing game. Humor is powerful and Smirnoff catching the attention of this group’s attention could rein them in. I would also release more appealing flavors of Smirnoff Ice to men (dirty martini perhaps). This game has brought to light that a lot of people don’t like the taste of Smirnoff Ice- complaining the flavors are too sweet. The company should respond with new products that are more appealing to these individuals. Also, acknowledgement of the fact that some men may be embarrassed to drink the beverage may be the best way to win them over. The hard work is done- an unlikely demographic is purchasing the product, now the work is to keep them purchasing and purchasing for the right reasons. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Icing game as summer dies down and whether Smirnoff finds a way to keep these customers for the right reasons.

Customers misusing a product and hijacking its identity is certainly an issue in today’s world of YouTube and Facebook. Even if brands can’t prevent themselves from getting hi-jacked, they can control how they react to keep intact as best as they can the image they aspire for themselves. How brands respond is of integral importance to their future. I think a strategy that employs flexibility, humor, and acknowledgement of the hi-jacking might be the best bet for rescuing a hijacked brand.

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