Four Loko – aka Black-Out-In-A-Can – aka Liquid Cocaine – is causing quite a splash nationwide. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the alcoholic energy drink – already been banned in Michigan, California, Washington, Utah, and now Massachusetts – the most recent state to jump on the “anti Four Loko” bandwagon. For the economical price of $2.50, college students (its target audience) can buy a twenty-four ounce can that is equivalent to four beers, a red bull and a shot of espresso. Four Loko is owned by Chicago-based manufacturer Phusion Projects – founded in 2005 by three Ohio State University friends who were looking for an alternative to Red Bull and vodka. In fact, Four Loko is blamed for causing severe alcohol poisoning for nine students at a college party in Central Washington University—one female student nearly died*. Now, the Food and Drug Administration is getting involved by issuing a warning to all manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that they need to either pull product – or prove their products are safe.
However, the real buzz involves the egregious PR blunder by Phusion Projects issuing a press release regarding being unfairly blamed for the Central Washington University incident. The company clearly states that they have “taken a unique position and made a conscious effort to reject the social media marketing tactics that other companies embrace – including many of our competitors. There is no company-sponsored “Four Loko” Facebook page or YouTube channel.”
BrandChannel didn’t buy this statement. The brand guru resource launched an investigation into Phusion Projects bold statement and after some sleuth work— revealed some interesting social media marketing campaigns involving Phusion Projects. The article uncovers how the brand tried scrubbing its former marketing messaging on Fourdrinks.com and then points to a former “Four Shots” gallery screenshot (below) where drinkers were asked to show their “happy-face” by uploading photos with Four Loko. When questioned, the manufacturer blamed its interns for the creation of such highly professional sites.
The article continues to find more contradictions in Phusion Projects statement—finding several dedicated Facebook pages— while not technically “company sponsored,” some were issued by paid marketing representatives (aka college students) of the manufacturer. Some of these pages have since mysteriously vanished.
As much as Phusion Projects would like us to believe it has consciously distanced itself from social media and marketing to minors (hmm, bright colored cans in a variety of fruity flavors), it’s clear from BrandChannel’s thorough research that the company was involved in an orchestrated “viral” campaign. In fact, on YouTube a general keyword search returns over 5,000 results—many of them showcasing people chugging or shotgunning the drink. Four Loko music videos are incredibly popular– one by Gwop Gang has racked up over 1 million views.
In a digital age where businesses are desperately trying catch social media marketing fever, yearning to connect with their consumers through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—Phusion Projects found success; however, this brand’s apparent social media denial—perhaps an attempt to clean its image—is perplexing. Maybe to help counteract its negative perception, it’s time for the brand to create its own “official” Facebook page and YouTube channel. The power of social media could be valuable to Phusion Projects. It could allow them to take accountability for their out-of-control, harmful product and help prove they uphold responsible business practices.
So fellow social media hounds– what do you think about Phusion Projects social media marketing decisions? What could they have done better? Do you think there’s anything left to salvage from the Four Loko brand? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
* Source: The Daily Record, 10/26/2010