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Sharpie Takes a Wait-and-See Approach to #SharpieGate on Social Media

Sometimes lightning strikes for a brand — and that downward heavenly spark struck this past week in the wake of “SharpieGate” — the multi-day worldwide mediafest generated when POTUS modified an official weather map to indicate that Hurricane Dorian would impact Alabama.

Suddenly Sharpies became top-of-mind as the Twitterverse spewed forth a succession of hilarious neo tropes relating to this incident, generating thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars in earned media for the Sharpie brand.

When something like this happens, brands have a choice on social media — they can go with the flow, joining in the merry meme-making with (sometimes) witty contributions of their own; they can lay back and wait until the whole thing blows over; or they can actually drop the ball by doing something clumsy and ridiculous.

In Sharpie’s case, the “lay back and wait” strategy appears to have been employed. As you can see from Sharpie’s Facebook page, the brand itself appears quiescent, notwithstanding the fact that a fair number of commentators have suggested that the brand pipe up. “When is the Weather Sharpie coming out?” writes one. Another opines that “You guys need to get on this whole hurricane map thing. Just saying.”

A third (who may work in the marketing industry) writes “Hard to believe Sharpie isn’t taking advantage of their incredible luck. They really need to improve their social media game.” (This person is certainly correct — Sharpie’s official Twitter page hasn’t been updated since March, which is never a good look on social media).

At the same time, however, none of the nudging comments (some of which contain unflattering politically-tinged cartoons relating to the incident) have — at least at this point in time — been removed by Sharpie’s FB admins. One can argue that doing so would likely be seen as overly defensive, and likely to be perceived as taking a pro-POTOS view of the controversy. So Facebook — at least for now, seems to be a place where Sharpie can have it both ways — they can tacitly acknowledge the fact that Sharpies are on the tip of Americans’ tongues this past fevered week without plunging completely into the political fray (which might not play well in Georgia, where this company is based).

So forget about a “Presidential Sharpie,” a “Weather Sharpie,” a “NWS Sharpie” or a “FEMA Sharpie.” For better or worse, Sharpie will cede the field to 3rd-party meme-makers, and maybe that’s OK, given the perils of treading into the hottest political controversy to transfix the nation in the past 108 hours. “Leave it to the meme-makers,” Sharpie’s PR agency may well have advised them — “we’ll get all the positive exposure, but we can also say — if the White House calls — that we had nothing to do with making Sharpie a household name again, and that won’t be a lie.”

This approach may not be brilliant, edgy, or headline-worthy, but in Sharpie’s case it may be the sharpest tack to take given today’s supercharged political environment. At the same time, however, it’s likely that some marketing pundits will claim that a colossal opportunity to slipstream the brand further into the popular mind has been wasted. After all, what POTUS did is — at least on some level — is consistent with Sharpie’s existing branding, which, on the brand’s home page, is revealed to be:

BOLD TO THE MAX, PERMANENT TO THE CORE. It’s the Original Permanent Marker born for original, unruly, courageous, outrageous self-expression that always leaves a bold mark and never, ever fades from glory.

Steven Baldwin
Steven Baldwin
Author, Editor, Web Producer, New Yorker. Best known for bird-centric blog:

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