Diana Bradley
Jan 28, 2022

TikTok and Nick Tran: What happens when brand stunts miss the mark

Everyone loves a good stunt. But they can get tiresome after a while if they don’t align with a brand’s broader goals.

TikTok and Nick Tran: What happens when brand stunts miss the mark

Brands have to be brave. After all, often the more interesting a campaign is, the more risk it entails. But without a strategic foundation, what’s the point?



That’s the problem Nick Tran reportedly ran into at TikTok. Tran was ousted from his role as global head of marketing from the video-sharing app after “blindsiding top management” with “bizarre” campaigns, The New York Post reported this month.

His ideas included TikTok Kitchens, a delivery-only service featuring foods made popular on the app. As part of that effort, the company was reportedly planning to open 1,000 ghost kitchens by the end of this year. Tran was also behind a creator-led NFT collection and TikTok Resumes.

However, Tran’s use of “stunt-marketing” campaigns was out-of-line with the company’s goals, a TikTok senior executive told The New York Post.

Alison Brod, owner of Alison Brod Marketing + Communications, says that she doesn’t agree that Tran’s ideas were “bizarre.”

“I thought they creatively tapped into categories that are very much a part of the TikTok community’s lives — fun food, NFTs and celebrity — we love TikTok for those things,” says Brod. “I thought creating a job market campaign was a clever way to help advertisers and brands in a time when finding people to work for them is challenging.”

But while Brod believes Tran’s ideas were creative and seemed to touch users and advertisers, she adds that they lacked judgment on execution and resources.

“One thousand local ghost kitchens would clearly be a huge distraction away from TikTok’s core goals — but a handful of very short term popups in key markets or a traveling truck, would have garnered the same amount of buzz and media and brand love,” says Brod. “The career recruiting could have been done perhaps on one special day with a call to action.”

PR consultant Jeremy Pepper adds that when he first saw the news about TikTok Kitchens, he thought the idea was “ingenious” but after reading the details behind the idea realized the effort was “half-baked.”

“Does this actually drive the company’s mission forward? I looked at [Tran’s] ideas and I thought: I don’t think they do,” says Pepper. “I can think of a lot of large companies that do stunt marketing. Brand recognition is important, but TikTok is still a startup, and you have to drive adoption and engagement forward.”

Tran’s situation, Pepper adds, is a reminder that marketing heads need to make sure other executives are aligned with ideas.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on reports when contacted by PRWeek and deferred to the company statement: “We can confirm that Nick Tran is no longer with TikTok, and we wish him well in his future endeavors."

Tran was not immediately available for comment.

Stunting the right way

The media likes campaigns that are interesting, novel and entertaining for readers, experts say. But reporters can grow wary of brands that are constantly pumping out silly initiatives all the time.

Creativity can miss the mark if a brand doesn’t have a fundamental understanding of what it stands for and why, experts say.

“Chasing the ‘shiny’ trend or jumping on a bandwagon is where I typically see misfires because it pulls the brand focus away from the reason to be,” says Wendy’s CMO Carl Loredo. “The difference between crazy good and crazy bad creativity can come down to one thing: does it make sense for the brand?”

When considering a stunt, Loredo says he always wants to understand the purpose to determine if it will propel or distract from the brand.

“We strive to delight our brand fans by sharing passions, meeting them where they are and listening when they interact with us,” Loredo says. “As a result, we have developed a good instinct for what will land and what doesn’t.”

One of the more memorable brand stunts in recent years was when IHOP temporarily changed its name to IHOb — the "b" standing for burgers — in 2018 as part of a campaign to promote its new grilled offerings.

People belittled, questioned and snickered at the stunt, but parent Dine Brands’ Q2 earnings that year proved that the campaign helped the brand reach its objective to boost foot traffic into IHOP restaurants at different times of day and increase awareness and sales of burgers.

IHOP’s then-CMO Brad Haley, who is now a marketing consultant, says he had to take a leap of faith with that campaign and admits that upon launch it wasn’t immediately clear if consumer sentiment was headed in the right direction.

“People were asking, ‘What are you doing to IHOP? You’re crazy,” says Haley. “One of the original founders of the company said it was the stupidest thing they had ever seen. But as the hours went by, it manifested itself as a good thing for the brand.”

The idea didn’t fall flat as a pancake, says Haley, because it delivered a solid business strategy.

Another example of a successful brand stunt was Twitter’s Manifestation campaign, which launched last week. It’s a billboard campaign featuring photos of celebrities and their tweets about career goals that came to fruition.

“They stayed true to who they are by tapping into their community and capitalized on a trend naturally happening on the platform: people tweeting their dreams into existence,” says Loredo. “With the simplicity of a tweet, they reminded the world of the importance in believing in yourself.”

What to avoid

For skilled marketers, it is fairly easy to come up with “crazy” stunts that are shocking. However, it is much more difficult to drive people to buy a brand’s products and have the public absorb the right message, notes Brod.

Studying history can help avoid issues.  

“We had a client who wanted to do a gigantic ice cube to promote a new frozen drink in the parking lot of their restaurant, and I had to explain what happened to poor Snapple when they put The World’s Largest Popsicle in the middle of a New York City street one year. It melted, causing an absolute mess and they got destroyed in the media,” Brod says.

When considering the ROI of a stunt, marketers also need to make sure projects don’t spin out of control on costs.

“Sometimes so much is spent on a stunt without perhaps saving some money for a personality to engage, because we know people follow people,” says Brod. “We also hear ideas where there is a fun visual, but nothing for a brand’s customers to actually buy or utilize in some way. And if there isn’t a value for their readers, consumer press won’t write about it.”

Doing a stunt for stunt’s sake that isn’t tied into CSR or into what the business is doing can make a brand come across as “disingenuous,” says Pepper.

Since Popeyes launched its blockbuster chicken sandwich in August 2019, it has created the Chicken Sandwich Wars, with rival fast-food chains rushing to catch up with their own extra crispy sandwiches, including competitors from Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC. 

The Chicken Sandwich Wars and IHOb campaigns generated a lot of attention for involved brands and helped to make them part of popular culture. But they have also inspired other brands to want to run copycat campaigns, notes Haley. However, if they are not done right or don’t fit the company, the result can make it seem like the brand is “screaming for attention” and can be a “disappointment,” he says.

“It’s like eating a mint after dinner,” says Haley. “It feels nice for the moment but there is no lasting benefit for the brand.”








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