When Brazilian digital agency execs recently flew home from Cannes to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, they landed onto a terrain rattled by people-in-the-streets protests on a scale that's rarely been seen in recent Western history—and certainly hasn't been witnessed in the Americas through the lens of social media. So while such marketers grapple with the chaos simply as citizens of their country, professionally, they've also had to carefully monitor how their shops handle Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and other social media platforms for brand clients in an outlay rife with messaging quicksand.
The rules of engagement have changed in the last 10 days and may not be going back to normal any time soon, said Marcelo Tripoli, CEO of São Paulo-based SapientNitro iThink. Tripoli pointed to the possibilty that the unrest—which has reached fever pitch as Brazil hosts soccer's Confederations Cup—could last until the FIFA World Cup takes place in the country next year. A major sticking point for thousands of the protesters has been that their nation has spent billions of dollars on sports stadiums while government programs lack funding. So the World Cup looming on the horizon doesn't seem like it's going to calm a political environment that's forcing social media practitioners to adapt.
"If there are going to be people on the streets for the next year, we can't just [close] down," Tripoli explained. "We have to react in a positive way and enhance our brands by being part of the conversation in social media. In the coming days and weeks, it will be very critical to decide what's the best position for the brand that we are taking care of."
Numerous brands have hit the pause button on their social media plays, according to a handful of Brazil sources, while other marketers have had to delete messages due to Twitter and Facebook backlash. Alfredo Reikdal, general manager for Razorfish and Digitas in Brazil, said he's seen a whirlwind of activity where beer and consumer-packaged-goods brands temporarily got caught in the protests' online crosshairs before quickly pulling back once they realized their message struck the wrong tone.
"For citizens, this is very important and serious," Reikdal said. "People are not naive anymore. They can understand when brands are trying to take advantage of something. So our agency is are being very respectful of it."
Michel Lent, Pereira & O’Dell’s managing director in São Paulo, gave a similar appraisal of the challenged social marketing scene.
"We all—citizens and companies—have been carefully listening to what's going on in the country," he said. "As advice to our clients, we have been recommending to halt posting unrelated content on social networks when protest movements are happening on the streets. This is for the specific times and days with big crowds out there. During those times, we feel brands should clear the space on the time lines to let the political discussions flow."
From a broader advertising perspective, Fiat has seen its "Vem pra rua, vem!" ("Come to the street, come!") TV spot tagline usurped by the protesters. While the slogan has inspired dozens of protest-minded Facebook pages, the carmaker stopped running TV ads over the weekend. Fiat says that was part of the plan all along, but many believe the brand would rather be safely parked in a lot rather than entangled with what's happening in the streets.
"Some companies are stopping campaigns because they don't want to become connected to the movement," said Tripoli from SapientNitro iThink. "We actually haven't stopped any campaigns, but we've toned down some activations. … It doesn't make a lot of sense to [go forward] with a social media strategy if your brand is not prepared to connect with what people are talking about."
Meanwhile, Gabriel Baños, CEO of Flowics, a Twitter-focused vendor in Argentina, has been planning to open a São Paulo office in the coming months but hinted that the protest movement could push that development back. "I will say that I could see companies or investors saying, 'I am waiting a couple of months. I am going to postpone my investment in Brazil until the crisis ends,'" he said.
Though when the upheaval actually ends seems like anyone's guess.