Was Hardee’s Clever or Clueless to Tweet about MyPillow Guy’s “Drive-Thru” Encounter with FBI?

Random Opportunities for Heightened Brand Exposure Can Be Enticing and Dangerous

10/7/22 – – What do you do when your brand gets pulled into a newsworthy but potentially controversial situation, associating it with something you really had nothing to do with?

While marketers tend to see such occurrences as serendipitous opportunities for “exposure,” experienced crisis counselors see red flags. Handled improperly, these chance events can turn into what I call “crises by association,” resulting in “collateral brand damage.”

On September 13, Mike Lindell, better known as the “MyPillow Guy,” was surrounded by FBI agents at a Hardee’s fast-food restaurant in Mankato, Minnesota. Lindell was on his way home from a duck hunting trip in Iowa. The agents approached Lindell’s car as he was in line to use the Hardee’s drive-thru window. Presenting a warrant, they seized his cell phone.

As you probably know, Lindell has come under fire for his criticism of the 2020 presidential election and his unrepentant defense of Donald Trump. MyPillow retailers, including Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond, JCPenney and Wayfair have dropped the company’s products from their stores, and Lindell is being sued by a voting machine company for defamation.

He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but Lindell still has some fans, especially in Minnesota, where he was born and founded his very successful company. MyPillow’s manufacturing facilities, which are located in Minnesota, not China, employ 1,500 Minnesotans. According to a recent Gallup poll, about 50 percent of Americans give the FBI negative job approval ratings, and there are plenty of people on the political right who believe there were all sorts of problems with the last presidential election despite being labeled conspiracy theorists and election deniers.

Hardee’s was probably not thinking about America’s political divide (a near 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives) when the company tweeted this in reference to Lindell’s FBI encounter at its Mankato restaurant:

“Now that you know we exist . . . you should really try our pillowy biscuits.”    

Predictably, the twitterverse erupted with praise (mostly piling on Lindell) and disapproval (I’ll never eat at Hardee’s again). Media responded with the same divided response. Headlines on platforms leaning right led with “Hardee’s Mocks MyPillow CEO” and left-leaning outlets proclaimed, “Hardee’s Offers Perfect Response to FBI Seizing Lindell’s Phone at its Restaurant.”

While Hardee’s corporate communicators appeared to welcome and take advantage of Lindell’s misfortune, the manager of another Hardee’s in Mankato (there are two in the market) took a very different approach to media response. Adam Mahowald told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press that he wasn’t even sure the encounter took place:

“I was here all of (Tuesday) and my girlfriend works at the (Hardee’s off U.S. 169), and neither of us saw any FBI raid,” he said . . . “I’ve had reporters and camera crews up here. We got a whole lot of attention,” he said, noting that relatives have called from as far away as New York about the incident.

It’s not surprising that a local manager, who knows his customers, would steer clear of controversy. The last thing he would want to do as the spotlight of public attention focuses on his town, where Lindell was born, is say something that could potentially turn off half his customers. Appearing to be political or taking any pleasure in the embarrassment of a fellow Minnesotan — a Hardee’s customer — would have been foolish, turning all the good that could come from “exposure” into “collateral brand damage.”

Mike Lindell’s reaction to Hardee’s tweet was uncharacteristically restrained. When asked by reporters about the company’s comment, he responded with one word: “Funny!” Good decision not to escalated the situation or say anything negative about the Mankato restaurant that, like him, employees fellow Minnesotans.  

I should point out that based on the industry analysis I’ve seen, most PR and marketing gurus disagree with my reaction to Hardee’s “cute” tweet. They encourage companies and executives to take political stands and tackle social issues. They insist that customers make decisions on where to shop and eat based on the public positions of retailers. What they too often dismiss is the overwhelming conclusion of consumer opinion surveys that people are more inclined not to buy from companies they disagree with then they are to buy from companies sharing their views.  

There are a lot of very effective ways to take advantage of a random event that draws public attention to your brand without getting political or ganging up on one of your customers. Additional advertising, special offers on your social media platforms that don’t reference (or make fun of) the awareness-heightening event may be more expensive and harder to quickly execute than a single tweet. But the options are worth considering.

Being clever should not be the primary objective when experiencing a Hardee’s/MyPillow moment. You’ll be better off in the long run by letting the media coverage play out, performing at your best while you’re in the news, and making sure your social media folks “do no harm.”

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