TRENDING: Where do brands go when social media fails?

by Louise Burgers. The last week was a Twitter tragicomedy. What should brands be doing when social media networks start imploding? What is the next social strategy?

by Louise Burgers. This year is a lot. Social media is a lot. From the Instagramed war in Ukraine to Twitter almost starting World War 3 last week, this post-pandemic world is putting serious pressure on brands. Not just from the last few years of economic freefall, globally; and a stressed consumer who is battling to afford a basic food basket each month; but because it seems that brands are constantly under threat on social media.

Earlier this year, I asked my post-graduate students (mostly millennials or Gen Z) which social media network they reckoned would fail first. It was unanimous: Facebook. Because during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became a bitter, divisive place that allowed the peddling of fake news, while continuing to bombard us with ads we don’t want. Now it’s marketing an embedded Metaverse with weak strategy and losing millions. It’s become a platform that doesn’t know what it is anymore. At best, it’s a local market and car boot sale – a great place for micro-business to sell homemade wares or trade used goods; and to gossip about the potholes and whatever else is wrong in the neighbourhood. Basically, it’s your ascerbic auntie down the road.

But, since Elon Musk bought Twitter, that too, has become an unsafe place for brands – but it’s more like the hate-spewing, gun-toting uncle that everyone avoids when he’s drunk. That all important ‘blue tick’ that verified an account as authentic – especially for brands and politicians and celebrities – was at least a brand value that they could rely on in a nest of toxic twits. Reducing the price to just $8 a month to democratise the cost for everyone, led to mob rule on the platform last week. While the takedown of many bigoted politicians was satisfying and some fake brand content was outrageous; it was also dangerous, targeting arms companies and some of the more trigger-happy nations. Not everyone gets the joke on social media!


This is what The Verge had to say: “On Thursday evening, after a full day of chaos on the timeline, Elon Musk’s Twitter halted new enrollment into its $8-a-month Blue subscription offering. Offering anyone the chance to slap a “verified” badge on their account had led to widespread impersonation of government officials, corporations, and celebrities. The resulting mayhem, which led to memorable hoaxes from accounts misrepresenting themselves as Eli Lilly, Tesla, Lockheed Martin and others, had triggered an advertiser pullout and a general sense that the platform had descended into chaos.”

The Verge further reported that brands that fell victim in the fake account orgy, haulted their advertising campaigns, contributing to further losses: “Eli Lilly paused all its ad campaigns on Twitter. The move potentially cost Twitter millions of dollars in revenue, according to the Washington Post. (A “verified” fake account impersonating Eli Lilly had said insulin would now be free, and it took Twitter six hours to remove the tweet.) The pharmaceutical giant is one of many large companies pulling ad dollars from Twitter in recent days. Companies including Volkswagen and Pfizer have paused their campaigns, and large advertising firms like IPG’s Mediabrands and Omnicom Media Group are advising clients to do the same.”

According to Gizmodo, those few fake tweets cut $15 billion out of Eli Lilly’s market cap. “Twitter verification has proved to be an utter shitshow, and the company doesn’t seem to have an answer yet as to how it’ll fix it. The $8 monthly price tag for a blue checkmark allowed some of the worst accounts on the internet, including neo-nazis and transphobes, to gain an extra bit of legitimacy,” Gizodo reported.


After a parody troubled timeline, Musk finally reversed the $8 verification, but not before the freefall on brands and politicians in particular, caused hours of damage. No matter how funny some of them were and how toxic we all know social media can be, this was real brand damage, cost real money, and had real world consequences. It’s a distastful story about how to break a billion-dollar brand in a matter of minutes. And not just any brand – a global communications platform used widely by news networks, brands and influencers, not to mention Musk’s own personal brand. No doubt the business schools are scrambling to write up case studies on how not to do business, ‘the billionaire way’. It’s also a clear warning that not everyone is good at everything. Musk should stay in his lane. Communications is not his forte.


While many brands could laugh it off and adopt a wait-and-see attitude; or threaten to pull their advertising to pressure Musk to resolve the situation, advertisers are exiting. In a company that admits it’s losing money daily and where staff and back-end systems are in turmoil because of mass layoffs; how long will brands stay? How long before they start investing in alternative social media and more in their own content marketing platforms, to safeguard their brand fans and loyal customer base?

The short term social winners will be LinkedIn and TikTok; the long term winners will be content marketing strategy and owned media – email newsletters, apps, events, bespoke experiences, investment in SEO; and hopefully,  innovation in new platforms and communications channels. It is an inevitable step, given the need to own access to your customer base without it being threatened; and to bring in the data needed for the increasing hyper-personalisation of marketing.

More than 10 years ago, leading social media strategist, Melissa Attree, who was working for a global ad agency at the time, told me that it was very important for brands to build their own platforms to engage with their customers, while using social media purely as a tool to build that customer base and drive traffic or subscriptions to their own website, newsletter or apps. Given the rise of social commerce as the next big thing, social strategy needs to be specific in dealing with the social insecurity presented by the social media networks when they are in crisis. Brands must be under no illusion that they own their audience on social media. They are just renting them.


WATCH: The best and the worst of Twitter last week.



Main image credit: Seen on Twitter (irony for days!)



Louise Burgers is the Publisher, Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 25 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She also lectures post-grad students in Marketing and Advertising Communications. Specialising in local and Africa consumer trends, Louise is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger this decade.


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