How ’bout them Dippin’ Dots?
One moment it’s a challenger brand with a niche following, just minding its own business and selling flash-frozen ice cream at places like amusement parks, sports stadiums, and convenience stores. The next thing you know, Dippin’ Dots becomes a national trending topic after its name gets sucked into a political maelstrom involving White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. And Dippin’ Dots came out smelling like a rose by capitalizing on a phenomenon I call the real-time news arc, which speaks volumes about how people and brands consume and create content triggered by news events.
The real-time news arc looks like this:
1. Random News Event Thrusts Brand into the Limelight
In the case of Dippin’ Dots, the fun started January 21 when Spicer sparred with the news media in his first official press conference as White House press secretary. Spicer’s behavior — angrily scolding reporters while making brash and dubious claims about the size of the crowd attending President Donald Trump’s inauguration — cast a spotlight on the political strategist and member of the U.S. Navy Reserve. What kind of press secretary would create a spectacle in his first news conference with the White House press corps?
That spotlight uncovered something very weird. As William Hughes of the A.V. Club reported on January 22, it turns out that on Twitter Spicer had been waging a one-sided war against Dippin’ Dots, the self-proclaimed “the ice cream of the future.” For instance, in 2010, Spicer tweeted, “Dippin Dots is NOT the ice cream of the future.” A year later, he added for emphasis, “I think I have said this before but Dippin Dots are notthe [sic] ice cream of the future.” Then he picked on Dippin’ Dots when the company declared bankruptcy. For added measure, he tweeted a complaint that vanilla-flavored Dippin’ Dots had not been available at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
Just what was Spicer’s problem with the ice cream served as a mound of happy little flash-frozen dots in plastic cups?
2. News Media and Social Media Start a Flash Fire
The A.V. Club story was just too good to resist, especially with Spicer’s name trending after his press conference tirade. The story went viral on social media spaces such as Twitter and Facebook, especially with highly influential people like Guy Kawasaki sharing it. Quickly news media such as the Mashable and The New York Daily News carried their own accounts, which fed a social media frenzy.
As reported in Digiday, Dippin’ Dots saw a spike in awareness, with close to 7,200 mentions occurring within a three-day period, per social analytics firm Brandwatch. But its social sentiment, as measured by negative or positive mentions, was mostly negative because of people commenting on the strange nature of Spicer’s hatred of Dippin’ Dots (which says something about how to interpret social sentiment — in this case, the brand wasn’t getting dissed by people talking about Sean Spicer, but its name was being associated with negative language).
Dippin’ Dots also saw a spike in search activity on Google:
Within hours, a company that had done absolutely nothing over the weekend to earn a spike in awareness was a topic of conversation.
3. People Create Their Own Content
It didn’t take long for enterprising content hustlers (including Courtney Love Cobain) to capitalize on the story, including Twitter jokes and memes like these, which are common elements of the real-time news arc:
Two business people, Andrew Cafourek and Nick Trusty, created a more elaborate form of content in a website, senddippindots.com, which makes it easy for people to send Sean Spicer a package of Dippin’ Dots at a cost of $6 “mainly because he’s going to be really annoyed by it.” Cafourek and Trusty told Mashable they created the site as a form of civil protest. The gesture also kept the real-time news arc moving, creating more news coverage for Dippin’ Dots.
The creation of memes is a popular form of having fun with news stories. In the era of Snapchat and Instagram, everyday people are visual storytellers. One of my favorite meme outbreaks occurred during the 2015 Major League Playoffs, when a bizarre incident involving a Pittsburgh Pirates short stop assaulting a Gatorade cooler inspired an explosion of amusing memes. Even Gatorade joined in the fun. Dippin’ Dots, however, held back.
4. The Brand Responds
Dippin’ Dots seemed to passively ride the wave of attention, avoiding any commentary. But as Digiday reported, behind the scenes, Dippin’ Dots’ marketing agency, Marketing Zen, was meeting with Dippin’ Dots CEO Scott Fischer and his marketing/communications team to discuss a possible response to the story. At first, Dippin’ Dots wanted to avoid inserting itself into a politically charged story. But the company decided that its silence was also a response and inconsistent with Fischer’s belief in transparency.
So on January 23, Fischer published an open letter to Spicer on the Dippin’ Dots’ website, which Dippin’ Dots posted on its social spaces. In the letter, Fischer professed that Dippin’ Dots “would like to be friends rather than foes.” He went on to point out that Dippin’ Dots “are made in Kentucky by hundreds of hard working Americans in the heartland of our great country,” an obvious nod to Donald Trump’s “America First” stance. Fischer then offered to treat the White House and press corps to an ice cream social.
The letter turned out to be a masterstroke, earning favorable coverage in news media such as CNN, Forbes, Fortune, The New York Times, and Washington Post — not bad for a business that was generating the wrong kind of news for declaring bankruptcy in 2011. Late in the evening of January 23, Spicer replied to Dippin’ Dots on Twitter by suggesting, “How about we do something great for the those who have served out nation & 1st responders.” Dippin’ Dots agreed and has proposed a Presidents’ Day event.
Dippin’ Dots came out ahead as a result of the real-time news arc. Here are some lessons to learn from its experience:
1. There’s a difference between creating a real-time news opportunity and responding to one
Dippin’ Dots didn’t ask for the publicity. The business capitalized on it. Because Dippin’ Dots had its name dragged into the limelight, I believe news media and everyday folk on social were more inclined to welcome a Dippin’ Dots response. By contrast, brands are held to a different standard when they try to create publicity by capitalizing on news that has nothing to do with them. When a brand creates real-time commentary on a news event, consumers correctly perceive its efforts as self-serving and hold the brand to tougher scrutiny. For instance, a number of brands were criticized for posting ads and commentary about Prince in the wake of his untimely death in 2016.
2. Act swiftly, but not recklessly
Capitalizing on the real-time news arc requires quick action before the story dies down. Tide, for instance, found itself a topic of discussion during the 2012 Daytona 500 when TV cameras captured footage of workers using Tide to clean up the track after a crash. Tide capitalized on the unexpected attention by quickly creating an advertisement using footage of the track cleanup. The rapid response was key.
But acting quickly doesn’t mean acting foolishly. Dippin’ Dots was wise to think through how it wanted to respond. As noted, getting involved in the story carried risk. Dippin’ Dots did not want to alienate its customers by being perceived as taking sides in politics. Striking back at Spicer with a knee-jerk snarky tweet might have backfired. Dippin’ Dots did not allow the pressure to act quickly to compromise its judgment.
3. Humanize your message
Dippin’ Dots did not issue an anonymous corporate response. The message came from Scott Fischer himself. By having the open letter come from Dippin’ Dots’ CEO, the brand showed the humanity behind the company. And he upped the ante. Sean Spicer had already taken shots at a company. How was he going to handle a heartfelt message from a person with a name and a face?
4. Be mindful of your tone and message
The Dippin’ Dots letter struck the right tone. Fischer was neither bland nor snarky. He showed a sense of humor (“We understand that ice cream is a serious matter. And running out of your favorite flavor can feel like a national emergency!”). He deftly commented on current events (“we’re creating jobs and opportunities. We hear that’s on your agenda too”). And managed to slip in a reference to his own company’s success without being obnoxious about it. The letter sent an effective message: we’re not going to laugh at you. We’re going to take the high road and extend an olive branch in this one-sided fight. But we’re not going to take your attack on a cup full of creamy, flash-frozen ice cream too seriously.
5. Create an opportunity for goodwill
The best part of the letter was the closing, where Fischer proposed treating the White House and press corps to an ice cream social. He transitioned the message way from the negative story and created a new narrative about honoring the White House and the press corps. This classy move demonstrated the wisdom of turning the other cheek and doing good. He also kept the story alive with a more noble purpose. And Spicer’s reply to honor the military and first responders built upon the goodwill that Fischer created.
The Dippin’ Dots/Sean Spicer story will slip from public consciousness soon, surfacing briefly again if and when the ice cream social materializes. But for 48 hours, the Dippin’ Dots saga created highly engaging entertainment and moments of inspired content creation, especially from the brand itself.
So how ‘about them Dippin’ Dots?