How to hijack with purpose

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? 

We’re not here to debate the philosophy of reality per se, but this is a question I often ask myself as it relates to brands attempting to “hijack” cultural conversations. The answer I keep coming back to is no. Talking to a packed stadium about Chinese food when everyone’s there to watch a football game is the same as talking to an empty room. This simply doesn’t fly anymore. Gone are the days when brands could merely talk at consumers and call it a day. For your brand to successfully hijack the conversation in today’s environment, you must have a reason—one that feels genuine to your brand. 

In 2013 the London-based retailer Harvey Nichols set out to hijack the holidays—Christmas, specifically—with their campaign “Sorry, I Spent It on Myself.” They humorously advocated giving menial gifts for family and friends so people could spend more on extravagant things for themselves. By finding a way to break through and own selfishness at a particularly generous time of year, they hijacked Christmas in a brilliant way. Their big gift in return? A Grand Prix Lion.

Important as it is for brands to be self-aware and understand how they are perceived and how consumers want to interact with them, it’s equally important to stay culturally aware, to help inform when or when not to engage. Engaging without purpose looks random at best and desperate at worst. You become the fallen tree in a silent forest.

Chester’s purpose

Earier this fall, with the 2016 presidential election approaching, we couldn’t help but notice that the political landscape had become filled with loud candidates making promises in increasingly outlandish ways. The louder the candidate, the more attention they got, irrespective of their platforms. The political system was definitely ripe for some mischief—even a little disruption—to shake things up. Politics had become such a circus, that maybe even a cheetah could win an election. It just so happened that we had just the candidate… a mascot with a huge personality and an even better platform: change for snacks. 

“More pranks in politics.” That was the goal. And who better than our very own Chester Cheetah, to add some mischief into the political mix? 

Since every good politician needs a fitting launch point, we found the perfect opportunity for Chester to enter the political arena: the race for Mayor of Chester, Montana. 

We created a mock campaign that hit all the key areas of a real political campaign to parallel what was actually happening in the world. Chester took to Twitter during the month of October and filled his feed with hundreds of pieces of “Chester for Chester” content, live-Tweeted both the Democratic and Republican debates and even launched his own “Orange party” merchandise store, all with one intention: to win the hearts and stomachs of the people in a meaningful way.

In staying true to the process, we didn’t shy away from the dark side of politics either. We pulled in the real mayor of Chester, Montana, who was running unopposed for re-election and had a good sense of humor, right into a good old-fashioned attack ad battle. The result was plenty of healthy —and hilarious—competition. 

We even rallied folks in the actual town of Chester to become our political (and brand) supporters in the mock campaign.

At the end of the day, this faux political hijacking campaign was an exercise in letting go for everyone involved. A month-long real-time political program involves spontaneity and a relinquishing of control that would make most marketers crazy. Giving Chester a purpose outside of his most famous reason for being—working as a mascot for Cheetos—is a scary thing to do, but embracing this purpose in genuine Chester fashion was critical. There was no teetering on the fence, no dipping our toes in the pool. With hesitation comes confusion and usually an unclear story or reason. If we wanted to truly hijack the political conversation, we had to do it with purpose, shake things up and make a real splash—or crash, in the forest.