Salmon chaos: when promotional campaigns go wrong

  1. A plate of sushi with chopsticks
    Melissa Tredinnick

    Melissa Tredinnick Contributor

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    Chaos descended on Taiwanese government offices last week, as hundreds of people rushed to change their names to ‘salmon’. 

    This was in response to a seasonal promotion by sushi chain Sushiro, which promised discounts for people whose names resembled the Chinese word for salmon: 鮭魚 or ‘gui yu’.

    On 17 and 18 March, the restaurant offered sushi at a discount price for customers with characters in their names pronounced ‘gui’ or ‘yu’, and for free for those who had the exact same characters in their names. 

    As it turns out, changing your name is pretty cheap and easy to do in Taiwan, costing the equivalent of about £2. The so-called ‘salmon gang’ that formed as a result included people temporarily calling themselves everything from “Salmon Prince” and “Meteor Salmon King” to the more comprehensive “Abalone, Tuna, Salmon, Matsuba Crab, Sea Urchin, Scallop, Lobster and Beef”.

    Although this resulted in a lot of salmon being given away for free, and a heavy workload for the government offices processing the name changes, Sushiro reportedly considers the campaign a success and is already considering its next promotion.

    Officials have reminded the public, however, that they can only change their name up to three times. After that, they have to keep the name they've settled on – bad news for Salmon Dream Chang, who changed his name without realising he’d breached the limit, and is now stuck like that. 

    This isn’t the first time people have gone to extremes for a discount. Last year, Northampton-based Brooklyn Brownie Co. became one of the most recent businesses to discover people will readily get a firm’s logo inked on their skin for the sake of a deal, after it challenged customers to do so as an April Fool’s Day joke. The first five people to get the logo tattooed on them were promised a year’s supply of brownies followed by 50% off for life. The fact that four people actually took up the challenge came as a surprise to the company’s owner, but to his credit, he did hold up his end of the deal.

    It’s also not the first marketing campaign to attract unintended consequences. There are plenty of instances where online competitions or polls have been hijacked by the internet, like when a contest held by Walmart saw the rapper Pitbull sent to play a concert in rural Alaska. And who could forget ‘Boaty McBoatface’, the name chosen by the public for a polar research ship in a poll run by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)?

    Then there are the many examples of personalised social media campaigns that have resulted in highly inappropriate or offensive sentiments being displayed in various places, from Nutella jars to banners held by the UK’s top athletes.

    It all goes to show that if there’s a way to take advantage or make fun of a popular promotion, people will find it.

    For small businesses, this might not be a major concern unless their campaign happens to go viral.

    But there are lessons to be learned – for one thing, if you’re asking the public for responses, it’s essential to build in some kind of filter or moderation system. 

    And if things do end up getting out of hand, the best response is often to play along as long as it’s appropriate, before finding a tactful way to bring your campaign to a close, as the NERC did when it gave the name ‘Boaty McBoatface’ to a sub-sea vehicle, and named the research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough instead.

    You might also learn something from the success of these examples as publicity stunts. Aside from demonstrating the appeal of free sushi, Sushiro’s campaign showed the power of group mentality, and how effective trends can be to get more people interested in your brand. Plus, there’s a reason stories like this get picked up and reported around the world – people want to share and read about things that are funny, ridiculous and entertaining.

    Applying those principles to a campaign with slightly stricter boundaries could be a great way to engage with your customers, whether that’s through a light-hearted social media 'challenge' or a Twitter poll with limited options for answers. Just make sure you’ve checked for any loopholes first.

    Do you have any stories, good or bad, about engaging with your customers through a marketing campaign? Let us know in the comments below.