Smokey at the Grammys: Real Time Marketing in the Twitter Age

Sure Beyoncé and Jay-Z performed a duet, dozens of couples were married live by Queen Latifah and the Beatles reunited, but the best spectacle of the night at this year’s Grammys was owned by Pharrell Williams and, arguably, our own Smokey Bear.

In the kind of happenstance marketers dream of but can never predict, Pharrell – who took home four Grammys that night – showed up on the red carpet sporting a Vivienne Westwood hat that looked remarkably like the one worn by Smokey. Its unusual shape and size immediately caused a flurry of buzz on the Internet. Less than 20 minutes into the broadcast, the Twitter account @PharrellHat was born and “Smokey the Bear” was a nationally trending topic.


The power of the second screen experience is nothing new, particularly to those of us working in social media. Live broadcasting events like last night’s State of the Union have long been narrated by online commenters trading reactions, sharing quotes and submitting their best one-liners. But it wasn’t until Oreo’s involvement in last year’s Super Bowl blackout that the spotlight (pun intended) was turned on marketers. When the power went out during the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, Oreo responded immediately, tweeting a beautifully designed ad touting, “You can still dunk in the dark.”

Viewers loved it – resulting in 10,000 retweets in just an hour and a slew of press coverage. Critics claimed that Oreo’s single tweet had a bigger payoff than their TV ad, costing millions of dollars.


So it was with great excitement that the Ad Council, and our colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service – the co-creators of the 70 year-old Smokey Bear – wondered, “Did we just have our Oreo moment?” Along with comparisons to several other famous hats like the Arby’s logo and Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, the link between Pharrell and Smokey rose organically. Both MTV and Perez Hilton used Twitter to note the similarities early on. Once the topic was raised, Smokey’s social media agency HelpsGood immediately joined the online conversation.


The results were striking. Within 24 hours, Smokey’s Twitter followers grew by almost 25 percent. Organic search traffic to our campaign website,, increased by 123 percent.  In total, there were more than 36,000 tweets about Smokey, resulting in more than 58.5 million impressions.

Almost immediately, the press began including Smokey in the night’s round-ups. By the next morning, more than 180 media outlets were talking about Smokey, including The Today Show, CNN, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, New York Daily News, Elle, Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Adweek, NPR and She Knows. And today, two days later, the clips are still pouring in; People, Extra TV, USA Today.

So yes, we had a good night, but we also learned and reinforced some good lessons. The first: if at all possible, equip your social media team with the ability to respond in the moment. Too often fear holds organizations back from handing over the reins – even if just temporarily during a big broadcast – to those who have the ability to respond to users in real time.

Secondly: speed is key. With each minute you wait between the initial conversation spark and your interaction, you’re losing momentum. And on a platform with a shelf life measured in seconds, not days, momentum quickly translates into lost engagement, impressions and reach. Arby’s did a great job at reacting immediately to Pharrell’s hat, and they received the engagement to prove it.

And finally: don’t take yourself too seriously but stay true to your core message. You don’t know upfront which post will “go viral” or be picked up by press, so make sure each one conveys something about your brand that you can stand by. Yes, entertaining posts are more likely to get circulated, but Smokey pulled in his message, website, birthday and tagline wherever possible.

So while everyone’s eyes are glued to the TV watching Super Bowl 2014 this weekend, don’t forget to check in on Twitter to see the real game being played.



Meg Rushton

About Meg Rushton

As Director of Public Relations and Social Media, Meg works to promote the Ad Council and its more than 50 public service advertising (PSA) campaigns through the creation and implementation of PR and social media strategies. Prior to joining the Ad Council, Meg has worked in public relations, digital marketing, social media and corporate communications at Time Out North America, Random House Publishing, and Fodor’s Travel. She is a graduate of Vassar College with degrees in Media Studies and Psychology and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Find her on Google+ Twitter


  1. says

    Props to Pharrell for his fashion choice leading to such a serendipitous moment for Smokey. We’d planned to watch the Grammys for fun but didn’t realize that it would lead to Smokey’s biggest real-time marketing opportunity ever. It really took a coordinated effort to tap design and copy resources to make it happen on the fly.

  2. Steve Silberman says

    Like tobacco advertising good marketing for a program whose net results are negative.Heard the creator of Smokey has disowned it in light of current research on wildfires, forest management etc., although there is some “debate” especially from McMansion owners near forests and real estate interests.

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