From Duolingo to Ryanair, brands on social media have continued to stray from traditional marketing strategies in favor of a more raw, casual content strategy that relies on humor to connect with their target audiences. Often labeled as “unhinged brands,” these companies share content users might not expect from a brand, making them stand out on platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter) and TikTok.
Josh Rangel is a social media strategist currently serving as SVP at public relations agency Golin. In addition to sharing his own marketing-related memes, Josh provides strategic social counsel and strategy for a variety of clients, related to their communications initiatives, including McDonald’s, Grubhub, Dyson, and Allstate. We asked Josh what he thinks of the unhinged brands trend, if it’ll last, and why brands should or shouldn’t incorporate shock value into their online identities. Read on to hear his insights!
We’d love to get to know you, Josh. Can you share a bit about your experience in marketing?
I’ve been at Golin for 17 years and, over that time, my role has evolved from general public relations to the social media space. I’m not a typical social media manager as I’m not the one pressing send or engaging with a brand community, but I’m overseeing the framework and strategy for how our clients approach social on PR-led initiatives.
Before that, I was on the Unilever ice cream team, so I started social media accounts for brands like Klondike, Breyers, and Magnum. I managed those for years as the prototypical social media manager. As I grew, I brought in a team and shifted into more of a strategy role. Today, I’m focused on setting social strategies, helping clients understand culture trends, and influencer collaboration.
How would you describe the “unhinged brand” trend on social media, and how does it differ from meme marketing in general?
I think it’s about shock value — creating awareness and bringing in engagement by doing things you wouldn’t expect them to do. Different generations have different types of humor, and younger generations might be more attracted to a brand that is slightly unhinged because it reminds them of their interactions with their friends. To see a brand communicate the way you do is endearing, and it makes you want to follow them.
It takes a lot of hard work to break through and capture your audience’s attention. They’re scrolling through many different feeds and exposed to thousands of stimuli each day. Memes, shock value, and being a bit unhinged have an element of breakthrough for when you don't have paid budget and are trying to earn attention organically.
The unhinged approach doesn’t work for every brand, and it’s also probably part of a phase on social media that’ll change as time goes on. I think this trend also reminds users that there’s a real person behind the brands they interact with online; there always has been, but it's become more prevalent, given the role social plays in the marketing space. Sometimes I really like it, but other times it can be a little much. It really depends on what the brand’s goals are and the voice they’ve created on social.
What are some examples of “unhinged brands” that you’ve seen on social media, or brands that stand out well by using humor?
I wouldn’t necessarily say these ones are unhinged, but their voices are completely unique. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation on Twitter is educational and entertaining — and those are the two reasons people gravitate toward social media. Not too long ago, they shared a post about the difference between poisonous and venomous using a meme format. The Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources is really good too. They talk about wildlife in an unexpected way that not only helps explain their purpose, but also speaks to a younger generation in a funny and interesting way.
DEER HAVE ANTLERS - NOT HORNS. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.— Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (@OKWildlifeDept) August 16, 2023
ANTLERS SHED, HORNS STAY ON THE HEAD. THOSE ARE ANTLERS. A👏N👏T👏L👏E👏R👏S pic.twitter.com/FbwV4feXnB
When the wildfire team asks you to post "some prevention messaging" because it's going to be a hot, dry weekend pic.twitter.com/xXGGYWYNZl— Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources (@waDNR) May 12, 2023
These brands are using social media in a unique way that captures the attention of a younger audience, like the typical ones have done. You have your Duolingo, Ryanair, and Nutter Butter sharing content that some folks could interpret as unhinged, but if it ultimately works for their business, I think that’s OK. American Eagle on Threads has been testing a lot of different content, and for me, that’s what social media is. It’s a laboratory for you to experiment and see what works while reducing some of the things that aren’t producing results.
Again, it only works for a certain number of brands, and we’re seeing some fatigue from online audiences as it becomes a game of “Who can be the most unhinged.” It gets to a point of exhaustion when it’s less about having a purpose and more about one-upping other brands.
Do you think brands newer to the social game should try to mirror some of this strategy? Why or why not?
First and foremost, they should know how they want to portray themselves on social, what they’re willing to do, and who their target audience is. If it's Gen Z, I think your approach is going to be different than if you're going after somebody like me on the cusp of Gen X and Millennial. While I might not encourage brands starting out to be unhinged as a strategy, I’d urge them to speak in the same way their audience does. That could lend itself to shock value, but you have to develop your strategy based on who you are as a brand and who your audience and customers are.
As someone who’s been in the game for as long as I have and seen the ebbs and flows of different trends, it’s hard to say “You should start with this,” or “You should take this specific approach.” It could be a fad, and I think brands like Duolingo and Ryanair could probably pivot well if needed. They both do a wonderful job of owning their brand identity on and off of social media. Ryanair is not a luxury airline, and they’re not trying to be something they’re not — they have the self awareness to say this is who we are as a company. It’s incredibly important for brands to have that, because consumers are smart and they’ll know if you’re not being authentic.
@ryanair You’re more predictable than Max winning a grand prix #moreenergy #ryanair ♬ original sound - MORE ENERGY 😎
Your brand voice can evolve over time, and the best approach is to test out your ideas and see how the audience is reacting versus going all in on one specific strategy.
What’s some of your best advice for social media managers shaping an authentic brand voice on platforms like X, TikTok, and Instagram?
I’m a big proponent of the idea that social should be fun, even for brands. It’s a place people go to connect with friends and family but, outside of that, they’re looking to be entertained and educated. You have to speak the language of the internet in a way that makes sense for your audience; otherwise, they’ll tune you out. I’ll mention AARP because they do such a phenomenal job connecting with Gen X on TikTok and embracing the types of content that resonate with that specific audience.
When thinking about a brand voice, I often say there's a lot of internal reflection and research that you can do. Get real with what your customers are saying, dig into Twitter, check out Discord communities, and look at Reddit threads about your brand or industry. If you’re selling a product or service, look at reviews and identify the types of language people are using. That’ll give you a sense of tone and verbiage you could apply to your social media content. Your fans, especially your super fans, are a huge asset. Imagine you’re giving your biggest fan the keys to your brand’s social account, and ask yourself what they’d post.
Any last thoughts you have for social media marketers?
You’re doing great! As a social media manager, you’re on the front lines 24/7. You’re the eyes and ears of a brand in a world that’s constantly online, and it’s a tough job. Especially for social media managers early in their careers, don’t take negative comments home with you. It’s not personal, and 99.9% of the time it’s about the brand you’re behind. Also, do your best to take breaks and log off. It’s always going to be there tomorrow.
Social media marketers are some of the most important people in an agency or company, because they have to be connected to pretty much every line of business. They’re responsible for staying up to date on PR, marketing, sales, human resources, and more. As a social media marketer, you have every right to voice your opinions and request to be brought into conversations that impact the way your company is presented to the outside world.
You need to have a seat at the table because you know what will and will not work on social, but you can’t count on somebody else giving you a seat — it’s up to you to pull up a chair.