Is the Business Boom From Going Viral Always a Good Thing?


Brands should approach social media stardom with optimistic skepticism

TikTok can famously present established brands, artists and musicians with unexpected sources of attention, like when a clip of a skateboarder drinking Ocean Spray introduced some Gen Z viewers to Fleetwood Mac. But when audiences have access to new-to-them cultural territory, virality can have deeper implications for a brand than upsetting fan gatekeepers of ’70s music. 

The potential downsides of virality can be seen in the case of fashion and beauty influencer Alix Earle, who faced criticism earlier this year for endorsing Mielle oil, a product designed for textured hair. Earle joined the numerous white consumers who have been accused of appropriating trends from multicultural communities—a problem that can be exacerbated on social media platforms. Despite the controversy, Mielle went viral and saw a surge in business after Earle’s endorsement.

While brands have little control over the creators and consumers who independently support them, the reactions to Earle’s Mielle post show the modern consumer’s tendency to blindly follow the recommendation of a single influencer. That means virality—while it can be exciting and fun—should also be weighed carefully by brand leaders when making business decisions. 

Alix Earle got those WW putting Mielle oil in their heads and their wondering why their heads are greasy 😂😂😂. Baby it wasn’t for your hair type

— Dear Ashley… (@asj519) January 2, 2023

“What happens when those folks who just hopped on a trend decided to leave?” said Onye Okafor, co-founder and president of creator monetization platform Tulay. “Even if your product is trending, you have to stay centered around your core fan base.” 

Almost 40% of Gen Z prefers Instagram or TikTok for search over Google. When younger audiences base their purchasing decisions on influencer content, their preferences are likely to fluctuate when that creator moves on to a new fixation or brand deal.

Instead of automatically responding to virality with ambitious promises, marketers can treat these moments as audience research while encouraging consumer patience through brand transparency. To facilitate long-term business growth, brands must scrutinize the source of the virality and engage with user-generated content while controlling audience expectations, marketers told Adweek.

“Virality is something to pay attention to, but it shouldn’t be enough to turn an entire ship,” said Jeremy Kim, co-founder of hard seltzer brand Nectar, who said his startup “expanded too quickly” during the early days of TikTok fame. “If a new market really wants us, we’re going to move much slower instead of immediately jumping into 20 stores.” 

Approaching virality with practicality 

When reminiscing on viral product moments, Okafor thinks of last summer’s TikTok pink sauce craze. When creator Veronica Shaw (who is known as Chef Pii across social platforms) lured in the masses with her fuchsia-colored condiment, consumers were quick to call out the product’s inconsistent hue and flavor. 

Kim said brands often make rash decisions when they assume they will never be able to achieve virality again. Instead of overstretching to meet demand, he said marketers should first engage with these potential new consumers outside of social platforms. Nectar set up a brand phone number when it first went viral to better understand its new audience and receive direct consumer feedback.

Jayde Powell, a content creator and marketer who has worked with brands like Netflix and Peacock, said brands should post under the assumption that any piece of content could go viral. To prepare for a sudden wave of attention, she said marketers can set up a landing page for collecting emails, which will then be a space for brands to send out a newsletter to outline the services that they realistically can and can’t offer. 

While Kim said Nectar tried to grow too quickly during its early days, the co-founder sustained a social presence by recognizing that promoting a product is never enough to keep consumers engaged on social. Audience members were interested in Kim’s role in debunking Asian-American stereotypes, and Nectar continues to challenge the model minority trope with its unscripted and unfiltered interview podcast Under the Influence.

“That sudden boost in sales feels good, but when things die down you start to second guess yourself,” said Kim, who has focused more on building long-term brand love over “chasing high-octane moments.”

“Brands should strive for value and consistency over the hope of going viral,” he added.

Maintaining humility 

Consumers disrupting restaurant staff with elaborate orders is nothing new—tweens are notorious for bombarding Starbucks baristas with requests for a “secret menu” Frappuccino—but the pressure on employees to fulfill consumer demands has only been exacerbated by platforms with heightened potential for virality.

When a TikTok user popularized a Waffle House hack, one restaurant location went viral for deciding that a surge in foot traffic wasn’t enough to disrupt its work flow. 

Waffle House sick of y’all 😂

— esh. (@MYESHA_nuffSAiD) January 16, 2023

Not all brands can get away with frankly chastising a menu hack with a handwritten note, but Powell stressed that the brands wanting to play into these viral moments can learn from Waffle House’s style. 

Chipotle recently took the opposite approach by partnering with creators Keith Lee and Alexis Frost to add their TikTok hacks to its menu, but brands that don’t share the resources of a big chain can still appease consumers through an engaging practicality. 

An example of this approach could be “saying: ‘We know you guys love this new food combination and we’re going to give it to you, but you might have to do a couple laps around the store after you place your order,’” Powell said.

Powell also emphasized that the potential of the social media manager who goes rogue—possibly posting content with lines like “please like this so my boss will give me a raise”—carries a tone that can be applied to every corner of a business. Whether a brand is driving community on TikTok or disclosing in a newsletter that it is too understaffed to promptly fulfill orders, marketers who ditch self-importance and lean into humility encourage consumer loyalty and patience.

“If you get pressed into a viral moment, you can only act on the tools and resources that you have,” said Powell, pointing to an “era of marketing visibility” where audiences cling to humanized content. “Brands need to start pretending that they aren’t run by people who are also consumers.”


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About Author

Emmy Liederman

Emmy is an Adweek staff writer covering ecommerce. Emmy is a 2021 graduate of The College of New Jersey with a major in journalism and minors in Spanish and broadcast journalism. For Adweek, Emmy reports on the people, brands, technology and services in the evolving ecommerce space.

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