The viral icing on the brand cake

But first you have to bake it, editor Emily Wexler tells brands in our October issue.
October cover

This story appears in the October 2014 issue of strategy.

When the $12.5 billion merger between Tim Hortons and Burger King was announced in August, many consumers were up in arms. It wasn’t because Tim Hortons would change the look of its restaurants to resemble BKs, or that it would start eliminating menu items, or selling Whoppers with Double-Doubles. It wasn’t because prices would go up or they’d shut down Tims locations. It wasn’t any of those things because nothing had actually happened yet – it was the mere possibility of those things.

Imagine your brand is so ingrained in a country’s culture that the possibility of it changing has people protesting on Facebook and calling for boycotts. Now that’s a powerful brand.

When we chose Tim Hortons as our overall Brand of the Year winner, the BK merger hadn’t happened yet. It wasn’t until our associate editor Megan Haynes had started writing the story that the news hit. But the coverage and reaction to the merger reinforced why it was chosen.

This was an interesting year for Tims – it got a little riskier. It played with innovative concepts like serving beer. It created buzz-worthy activations that went viral. And is there anything riskier than a massive merger? Time will tell if the risks pay off.

It could be argued that all of our Brand of the Year winners went viral this year, one way or another.

By now most people know about WestJet’s success with its “Christmas Miracle” video, in which it gave out gifts to unsuspecting passengers. A similar stunt by a different brand might have felt forced, but WestJet spent years building its reputation as caring for its customers.

TD went viral with its “Automated Thanking Machine” that also handed out gifts, again tying into its reputation for being good to those who bank with it.

You could argue that Herschel is a brand whose products themselves have gone viral – from zero to “everyone on the sidewalk has one” in five short years.

And Beyond the Rack, which lives online, has amassed a 13.5 million member base and gotten the attention of big brands like Shoppers Drug Mart.

For this year’s BOYs, going viral was the icing on a cake they had been carefully baking for years. Read about their journeys here.

The other big story that came and went as we were working on this issue was the Ice Bucket Challenge. While by now it’s safe to say we’re all a little iced-out, it serves as a fascinating case study of a brand going viral unintentionally (the brand being the actual ALS societies). What do you do when you’re suddenly the most popular thing on the internet and you had little or nothing to do with it? The ALS Society of Canada handled the whole thing like pros, and big brands could learn from this non-profit (check out the story here).

And in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t dump a bucket of ice water on my head, but while many questioned the intentions and efficacy of the whole thing, any initiative that brings millions of dollars and attention to a deserving cause is okay with me.

So which brands will go viral in 2015? It’s anyone’s game, really. Just remember that it’s the icing. You need to bake the cake first.