Chloe Kim was hangry. The snowboarder hadn’t finished her breakfast and halfway through the Olympic halfpipe competition, she was regretting it.
On the other side of the world in Richmond, Mary Beth Brault woke at 6 a.m., rolled over and checked her phone. Someone had sent her a screen shot of Kim’s tweet. “We’ve got to jump on this,” Brault told the public relations team at Hamilton Beach.
The company quickly tweeted: “Congrats on the gold! We’ll send you a @HamiltonBeach #Breakfast Sandwich Maker so you never go #hangry again!”
A slew of companies — Roy Rogers Restaurants, California Pizza Kitchen, even Oreo — joined in to promote their products. Vermont Smoke & Cure jumped in with a recommendation for its high-protein “meat sticks.”
“We don’t like to brag, but our breakfast sandwiches are also [gold],” tweeted Einstein Bros. Bagels, using a gold-medal emoji in the message. “We’ve got a breakfast of champions waiting for you when you get home.”
“Turn that hangry to happy with these digital churros and chocolate,” offered Cocoa Cinnamon, a shop in Durham, N.C.
“If you’re ever in DC, we got you,” added Red Apron Butcher.
It’s no secret that companies are investing heavily in social media, and the Olympic Games — like the Grammys and the Super Bowl — have become the latest marketing bonanza for brands hoping to get their 15 seconds of fame. The rise of Twitter-savvy Olympians such as Kim, Adam Rippon and Shaun White have allowed companies to join in without shelling out for costly endorsements and advertising campaigns.
“Twitter is an unbelievably direct point of contact,” said Natasha Case, co-founder of Coolhaus, a Los Angeles-based ice cream maker. “We saw Chloe’s tweet and said, ‘Why not put ourselves out there?’ It’s an organic strategy.”
“We’re thrilled with the engagement she’s gotten from fans and businesses,” said Lowell Taub, Kim’s agent, who noted that Kim had a deal with Oreo and Ritz Crackers before the Olympics.
Another dozen or so companies, he said, have contacted Kim’s team since her win with offers of free food, gift packages and potential partnerships.
“We’re only 72 hours out from the gold, but we’re working through all of those messages to see if there are any opportunities that are a good fit,” Taub said. “That’s the upside of social media.”
But such social media-fueled offers also increasingly overdone, says Lin Humphrey, a marketing professor at Florida International University.
Real-time marketing, he said, made a splash on Twitter five years ago, when the Super Bowl experienced a 34-minute power outage. Oreo jumped on the opportunity. “Power Out? No problem,” it tweeted. “You can still dunk in the dark.”
The tweet got more than 15,000 retweets and was “liked” 7,000 times. It was hailed as a watershed moment.
“It was so novel at the time that we all laughed and thought, ‘Oh, they’re playing along,’ ” Humphrey said. “But now companies are overdoing it. There are entire social media teams and PR firms monitoring Twitter around the clock, and all of a sudden, it doesn’t feel authentic anymore. It’s become too obvious.”
Executives at Ben & Jerry’s, though, don’t quite feel that way. When Kim tweeted from the Olympics that she “could be down for some ice cream,” the company was one of a dozen ice cream makers that tweeted back.
“It was pretty straightforward,” said Jay Curley, the company’s marketing manager. “We pay attention to what people are saying online, and we like to send out ice cream to our fans, whether they’re regular folks or celebrities.”
The company also contacted Kim’s agent and is preparing a cooler of ice cream — “a really nice smorgasbord of flavors” — to send to her, he said.
This isn’t the first time the Vermont-based company has been inspired by an Olympic snowboarder: In 2009, the company created a special flavor, called Maple Blondie, to honor Hannah Teter, who won a gold medal in snowboarding halfpipe at the 2006 Olympics.
“We’re a company that’s always put our relationship with our fans before traditional advertising,” Curley said. “In the 1980s and 1990s, when other ice cream companies were taking out ads on TV, our owners got in an RV and drove around the country giving out free samples. That’s always been in our DNA, but social media has made it easier to find those opportunities.”
It is unclear, marketing experts said, just how effective those Facebook and Twitter replies can be in getting customers to buy your products. While a presence on social media can help with brand recognition, it may not lead to a direct rise in sales.
“In terms of getting people to switch to your brand, we’ve found that tooting your own horn on social media is not a great idea,” said Koen Pauwels, a marketing professor at Northeastern University. “Consumers give a lot more importance to what other consumers say about you than what you say about yourself.”
But each of the companies that tweeted at Kim had its own motivations — and thoughts about what might resonate with the Olympic star. The co-founder of Coolhaus thought Kim might connect with a female-owned company in her home state. Roy Rogers, a fast-food chain on the East Coast, made a decidedly different pitch.
“Chloe Kim won the gold medal, and we have a Gold Rush chicken sandwich,” said Jim Plamondon, co-president of the Frederick, Md.-based chain. “We just thought: Gold Rush, gold medal, it’s a logical connection.”
The connection was also clear for Scott Porter, the owner of San Diablo Artisan Churros in Draper, Utah. He was on the couch watching the Olympics with his sister when a commentator mentioned another recent tweet by Kim. “Oh and I also had 2 churros today and they were pretty bomb so if you ever get nervous go eat a churro,” she tweeted.
“As soon as I heard ‘churros,’ it was like ‘bing, bing, bing,’ ” Porter said. “I stopped everything I was doing and realized this was a golden opportunity to connect with her. It’s not every day that churros are in the spotlight.”
He offered Kim free churros for life. (Then he took a screen shot of his offer and posted it to his company’s Instagram account, where it got 223 “likes.”)
“Her authenticity is really cool — she wasn’t pitching churros, she was just living her life,” he said. “That’s the new way of doing business in the social media world we live in: Everyone does sponsored posts and tweets, but this just seemed a lot more real.”
But, he added, he was still waiting to hear from Kim.