Brands Are Not Our Friends

Comcast sent me 10 pizzas. This isn’t nice; it’s manipulative.

Laurent Hrybyk

I didn’t realize how seriously companies take social media until last year, when I opened my front door and saw a delivery guy holding a stack of pizza boxes up to his chin.

Comcast had recently started advertising mobile-phone service where I live. Given that Comcast and AT&T were already the only local choices for broadband and cable, the move felt like an ominous sign of even more industry consolidation. I took to Twitter to air this worry. “It’s nice that Comcast is offering mobile phone service now,” I posted. “But until I can get Comcast delivery pizza I will remain empty inside.”

It wasn’t the best joke I’d made on the internet, but Comcast didn’t mind. The company saw my tweet and responded: “Hey Ian, you rang? DM us the address where you would like it delivered & we’ll make it happen.” I thought I was calling Comcast’s bluff by answering that I wanted gluten-free mushroom pizza, and that because I was a customer, the company should know my address. “Do your brand thang,” I quipped.

This was hardly my first digital interaction with a corporation. DiGiorno Pizza was my Twitter buddy for a while, although we seem to have fallen out of touch. I once scorned Jolly Ranchers, only to have the brand chat me up moments later. Northern Tool, a tool and machinery company, chimed in on a photo I tweeted of its catalog. Cinnabon helped me win a dispute about how to pronounce its product (“like James Bond”). I assumed these brands targeted me because I have a decent Twitter following and write often for The Atlantic. And I thought I knew how these conversations went—they were quick and lighthearted, mildly amusing if also a bit invasive. Mostly, they were forgettable.

Then the pizzas arrived. Ten of them, from a local place that delivers gluten-free pies. I was surprised, which is exactly the outcome Comcast was after.

In marketing, conventional wisdom holds that small surprises can yield a big benefit for a limited cost, especially if they go viral. Marketers have a name for Comcast’s pizza-delivery stunt: a strategy of “surprise and delight.”

About 15 years ago, before Twitter existed, companies paid agencies for “guerrilla” and “buzz” marketing; the agencies would surreptitiously seed conversations about the companies in chat rooms and on message boards, and report back on the sentiments they saw there. Then the social platforms arrived: Blogger, Myspace, YouTube, and others.

That’s what spawned the new social-media-management economy. Around 2010, when the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling reinforced the breadth and power of corporate personhood in America, businesses started developing online personalities. Now almost every brand is a #brand too. Spend enough time perusing corporations’ social accounts, and you’ll start to see distinct personas emerge: Wendy’s is catty; Arby’s is geeky; Charmin is, well, cheeky. This shift has ushered in a whole new job category. Companies employ social-media managers and online-content specialists to trawl Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms, looking for opportunities to engage—a favorite word of online advertisers—or in my case, to send pizza. (Because I sometimes cover issues related to Comcast for The Atlantic, I gave away as many of the pizzas as I could and reimbursed Comcast for the cost.)

It’s not just the big fish like Comcast. Steak-umm is a family-owned company based in Reading, Pennsylvania, that sells frozen sliced beef for making Philly cheesesteaks at home. I ate the beef occasionally in the 1980s, but I’d forgotten about it until I noticed the company on Twitter several years ago. At the time, it seemed ridiculous that a frozen-beef producer would be there at all. Still, I followed the account. Then, last year, I received a direct message asking me, personally, to share a petition advocating for Steak-umm’s account to receive the blue check mark that indicates an account has been verified by Twitter.

Steak-umm’s marketing team, I later learned, was trying to recruit followers and fans by casting the verification campaign as a Rust Belt underdog story: a regional frozen-beef company versus social-media hotshots like Wendy’s. The team told me that it had started by enlisting a few comedians and mid-tier celebrities who had mentioned Steak-umm on Twitter. But the process for reaching people like me was more sophisticated. Using a software service called Crimson Hexagon, Nathan Allebach, who manages Steak-umm’s social-media accounts, was able to home in on the geographic locations, interests, and social-media-usage patterns common to the younger audience Steak-umm hoped to connect with on Twitter. The software identified gaming, a sector I work in, as one of those interests—which made me a compelling target. (Many people singled out by brands on Instagram or Twitter may not know how they came to a company’s attention. Part of the answer is sophisticated software. Crimson Hexagon, for example, can identify objects and corporate logos in photos—a Pepsi T‑shirt, say, or a Mr. Coffee coffee maker in the background—enabling companies to discover what someone owns or uses even if the person doesn’t tag a brand.)

Matt Dickman, who runs digital communications for Comcast, told me that in the case of the pizza delivery, my original tweet would have been routed to Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile brand team, which explains how the company was able to find my address and ship pizzas there. The same infrastructure that allows Comcast to respond quickly to service issues on Twitter (in my experience, much faster than when you call) gives it a platform for clever marketing. In other words, brands have learned to go beyond reacting to customers’ complaints and anticipate what might enchant them—playing offense, not just defense. Which brings us to the case of the Kit Kat marriage proposal.

This spring, Haley Byrd, a congressional reporter at The Weekly Standard, posted a tweet mocking her boyfriend, Evan Wilt, for eating a Kit Kat bar by biting across its entire width rather than breaking off the individual wafers. Hershey’s (which makes the candy in the U.S.) sent the couple a box of Kit Kat bars with eating instructions, a cute gesture that Byrd thought was the end of the matter. But her tweet had gone viral, and behind the scenes, a Hershey’s brand-publicity representative, Anna Lingeris, conspired with Wilt to design a Kit Kat–shaped ring box, which Wilt deployed for his proposal in July. The result: a happy couple, and a haul of cheap publicity for Hershey’s.

Byrd has nearly 50,000 Twitter followers. But not everyone at the receiving end of an elaborate branding exercise has as wide a reach—and according to the marketers I spoke with, that’s fine. They seem to delight in their own endeavors as much as their customers are supposed to. Allebach sounded wistful when describing late-night therapy sessions with lonely, down-on-their-luck Steak-umm fans. Once, he told me, the company sent Walmart gift cards to a customer whose apartment had burned in a fire. Lingeris expressed deep pride in her role in Wilt and Byrd’s Kit Kat engagement.

Dickman said Comcast doesn’t pursue its surprise-and-delight affairs just to target “influencers,” a term he thinks is becoming meaningless. “The potential for something to be propelled forward by someone doesn’t really depend on how many followers they have,” he said. “It depends on how you treat them.” A positive experience can cement a customer relationship. Dickman cites the time a man asked Comcast how a friend’s son, who was in the hospital, could watch a Chicago Bears game, and the company gave him tickets. (The hospital granted the boy leave to attend the game.) “Nobody saw any of this,” Dickman told me, saying that any resulting publicity is “just a bonus if it happens.”

After the pizzas arrived, Xfinity Mobile told me something similar in a private message on Twitter: “There’s absolutely no obligation or request for you to write about this. In fact, we are just glad you enjoyed it.”

But it’s human nature to feel obligated when someone—even a company—does something for you. That can make the people on the receiving end of social-media marketing feel snared in corporate traps. The fire victim was probably appreciative, but will he later feel indebted to a frozen-meat company? Likewise, Evan Wilt and Haley Byrd’s union is now forever bound to a chocolate bar.

As for me, here I am—with some ambivalence—giving Comcast publicity for its pizza stunt, doing the very thing the company claimed it didn’t expect. Social media has made it easier than ever for companies to connect with people. These new, personal bonds between companies and customers feel uncanny—the brands are not real human friends, exactly, but neither are they faceless corporations anymore. Isn’t that the point, though? Branding’s purpose is to get under your skin, to make you remember an otherwise forgettable company or product. When the surprise wanes, that feels a lot less delightful.

This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “Why Comcast Sent Me Pizza.”