You’re scrolling through Twitter and you see some funny banter going on between a variety of global fast-food brands. You casually click on KFC’s Twitter, and something catches your eye – the official KFC Twitter follows eleven people. You’re curious so you scroll through the names and get very confused. Geri Halliwell, Melanie Brown – aren’t those the Spice Girls? Yes, all five of them actually, but then who is Herb Sendek? And Herb Waters? In fact, KFC follows six random guys, all called Herb. Then it hits you, and a smile slowly creeps across your face. Eleven Herbs and Spices – that’s KFC’s famous recipe for fried chicken. Genius.
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It’s clever social media, and crucially it makes you feel clever because there is a bit of work required to figure out the joke. But what makes this work so well is the concept of shared references.
What are shared references? Think of your siblings, and how sometimes you only need to give one of them a look in a certain situation and you both burst out laughing when no one else does. They are the inside jokes that come from sharing certain memories, experiences or types of knowledge that are not commonly known to the general public. Shared references can be everything from greeting your friend Jonathon with ‘Here’s Johnny!’ (Reference to The Shining, which in itself was referencing The Today Show’s Johnny Carson), to understanding why May 4 is Star Wars Day (Reference to the line ‘May the Force be With You’, hence May the Fourth).
The power of shared references in marketing and comms is threefold. First, it’s relatable content, which creates a connection between the audience and the brand based on a feeling of mutual understanding. Second, it subconsciously divides consumers into those who ‘get it’ and those who ‘don’t get it’, with the former feeling a sense of superiority for being part of a select crowd that is in on the joke. Last but not least, the references can be localised as narrowly as you want, allowing you to create connections that transcend geographies, languages, and cultures. Think Chips Oman, a passion point for residents of the GCC, but probably unheard of outside the region.
The phenomenon of shared references is most evident in memes, probably the biggest purveyor of shared references in social media today, and a visual language that can be surprisingly expressive. Not far behind are gifs, which generally don’t have the text overlay that a meme does but are excellent for showing reactions. Brands can have a lot of fun with memes and gifs, as the cleverer and more obscure they are, the more satisfying it is when you work them out. A gif of Carole Baskin? Be ready to discuss whether or not she killed her husband. Keanu Reeves with a pencil? You’re being threatened with violence. Ross from Friends saying he’s fine? Things are absolutely not fine.
My favourite example of a shared reference was a few years ago on the Tottenham Hotspur FC Twitter page. The club was announcing the signing of Victor Wanyama, a Kenyan footballer, and needed a creative way to do it. Now, Wanyama had opened himself up to light-hearted teasing years earlier when he used his (at the time) new Twitter account to announce that “I had spaghetti and it was very nice I enjoyed it”. The deadpan phrase spread and evolved for all kinds of jokes (“I just fell off my bike and it was very nice I enjoyed it”) among football fans to poke fun at Wanyama, and became an inside joke for football fans on Twitter.
So how did Tottenham make the announcement? You guessed it. They tweeted “We signed Victor Wanyama and it was very nice we enjoyed it”, accompanied by a picture of the footballer posing with spaghetti sticks in hand. The tweet went viral and crucially it created a sense of camaraderie between the club and its fans, as a creative way of making an otherwise routine announcement. The best part? Last month, a full nine years after the tweet, Wanyama was playing for Montreal Impact in the MLS, and spotted a fan with a sign offering to trade spaghetti for his shirt. He walked over and duly obliged. Many in the stadium were confused, but it was a private joke between them.