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As a marketer, I can honestly say that one of the world’s biggest (perhaps only in his own mind) celebrities referring to my brand as excrement does not seem like an opportunity. In fact, if it happened in our offices … well, it’s a good thing the windows don’t open, and we’re only three floors up. However, when we view the tête-à-tête of Kanye West vs. Zappos, we have a brilliant case study on how a brand’s true voice doesn’t always have to be so serious.

It started with Kanye speaking out on a podcast about a spat between him and Zappos’ head Tony Hsieh, saying, “I got into this giant argument with the head of Zappos, that he’s trying to tell me what I needed to focus on, meanwhile he sells all this shit product to everybody, and his whole thing is based off of selling shit product.” Now, let’s be clear: Kanye tends to get into a lot of spats. With anybody. Everybody. He might be in a spat with me now after writing this blog, so normally this would not be notable, save for internally at Zappos. However, Tony Hsieh decided that he was less than thrilled with Mr. West’s words and went forward with having some fun at the rapper’s expense.

Sh-t ProductZappos posted a listing for a $100,000 toilet plunger labeled “Sh-t Product,” calling it “the perfect gift for the man that has everything.” (No word on how many they have sold yet). The product description is littered with references to Kanye’s song lyrics and clearly is a reaction to his quote. This listing, of course, blew up the Internet in short order, bringing far more attention to the war of words than would have previously been on another Kanye attack quote.

Is this brilliant marketing? I sure think so. This shows me this brand is not afraid of self-deprecating humor, is willing to go outside of the traditional bounds to make a point and is willing to stand up for themselves when goaded. Is there also quite a lot of risk involved in a tactic like this? Absolutely. Zappos, which is currently owned by Amazon, has a responsibility to its stock holders to present the company in a favorable light, and certainly saying (even tongue in cheek) that you’re happily selling shit product to your consumers is risky.

The bottom line in an engagement like this is that, first and foremost, you can’t plan for these kinds of occurrences. Sure, you can assume at some point Kanye West might say something unflattering about your brand, but you never know exactly what. Being able to create responses in real time is essential, and understanding the risk and reward is crucial.

Kanye West photo by Natasha Richardson O’Neill; toilet image via