Viral PR Campaigns & What We’ve Learned from Them

PR campaigns can either soar or sink, with their impact ranging from the brilliantly executed to the cringe-worthy “oopsies” that have the potential to haunt a brand for years. Despite careful planning and many iterations of feedback from various stakeholders, even the most well-intentioned ideas can be misinterpreted, leading to unexpected or undesired outcomes. Let’s explore a few notable campaigns from recent years to uncover valuable lessons for navigating the complexities of modern PR.

McDonald’s Grimace Birthday Shake

As one of the more recent campaigns that took the world by storm, the Grimace Birthday Shake ignited a frenzy across TikTok, captivating Gen Z and leading them to create user-generated content. What would start as a seemingly normal shake review would take a dark turn, with some TikTokers passing out in a purple pool of the shake and creating a haunting spectacle. 

The result of this wildly popular trend generated a substantial surge in brand awareness that translated into tangible sales growth. During the summer of 2023, McDonald’s experienced an 11% increase in sales, attributed largely to the success of the Grimace Birthday Shake campaign. With this campaign, McDonald’s not only captivated audiences with a nostalgic mascot but also demonstrated the power and benefits that social media virality can offer a brand.  

Megan Thee Stallion + Planet Fitness

Renowned as the “hot girl” of the rap world and celebrated for hits like “Body,” Megan Thee Stallion is no stranger to fitness. Her social media is a testament to her active lifestyle, as she often shares her workout routines with playful voiceovers, adding a personal touch to her journey. Given Megan’s popularity and focus on physical fitness, she became an ideal collaborator for the “Mother Fitness” campaign from Planet Fitness. The campaign cleverly introduced Megan as a symbol of “big fitness energy,” incorporating a tongue-in-cheek approach to her involvement. Branded merchandise was made available for a limited time, with all sales profits benefiting Megan’s foundation that was established in honor of her parents. 

With her relatable fitness journey and magnetic personality, the Megan Thee Stallion partnership helped Planet Fitness connect with a younger, mainstream audience and resonated with fans who admire Megan’s authenticity and commitment to empowering others. 

Wendy’s “Rick and Morty” Pop-Up Portal

When we think of activations, the best pop ups are visually enticing and make sense for the brand. Timed with the fifth season launch of “Rick and Morty” in the summer of 2021, Wendy’s orchestrated a memorable collaboration, hosting an experience pop-up in Los Angeles where customers embarked on a journey through a custom LED drive-thru – like navigating a spaceship. Wendy’s offered a specially curated Rick and Morty-themed menu, featuring exclusive items like a limited-edition Frosty. The experience was further enhanced by towering inflatable characters, creating an unforgettable promotional experience. 

The collaboration struck a chord with both Rick and Morty enthusiasts and Wendy’s consumers alike, proven by the queues of eager fans willing to wait for hours to participate. This successful activation resonated deeply with both audiences, serving as an example of effective brand synergy and experiential marketing done right. 

Real Beauty Bottles by Dove

The Dove Real Beauty bottle campaign aimed to empower its customer base and celebrate diversity by introducing different packaging for its bottles that reflected various body shapes and sizes. However, this backfired, with the brand failing to resonate with its audience as intended. Altering packaging for such a campaign was a bold move to begin with, but it ultimately left many customers feeling self-conscious about their bodies rather than empowered – they preferred to just buy a basic product without having to think about finding a bottle that matched their waistline. 

This campaign serves as a reminder that while inclusivity is important, execution and consumer feedback are even more important. 

While it’s essential for brands to innovate and explore new avenues, not every campaign will resonate with its consumer base. Sometimes, simplicity reigns supreme, so recognize when it’s time to stick to the basics.