Ecommerce marketing case study: Target shop assistant Alex becomes internet meme

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In November 2014, retailer got a leap in its digital coverage thanks to an unsuspecting teen heartthrob. Or was it all a viral marketing ploy in the first place? This case study looks at what should other brands (and their staff do) when they’re thrown into the spotlight?

On Monday 3rd November 2014, a suprising hashtag featuring a Justin Beiber-esque Target cashier called Alex started trending on Twitter.

The Twitter craze started when a customer at a Target store in Texas posted a photo of the teenager, who has been described as a Justin Bieber lookalike.

Soon, Twitter users soon took interest and the global trend #alexfromtarget took off.

The hashtag has been used over a million times and memes have gone viral as users wondered: "Who is Alex from Target?"

Within 12 hours, Alex was a top trending topic, had been written about on various news outlets and had amassed a total of 274,000 followers on a Twitter account linked to him. He’s also gained a few fake accounts along the way.

A Buzzfeed quiz asked readers: "How 'Alex From Target' Are You?"

On his own profile, Alex wrote: "Am I famous now?"

He even got a message from Ellen DeGeneres."Hey #AlexFromTarget, it’s #EllenFromEllen", the comedian and talk show host tweeted.

Target jumped on the bandwagon, too, tweeting: "We heart Alex, too".

A savvy ecommerce marketing marketing ploy or accidental hero?

Despite claims that this was accidental, Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares, the CEO of a new company called Breakr, has come forward to claim responsibility for the Alex phenomenon in a LinkedIn post.

Breakr was set up to connect “fans with their fandom” and help small content creators spread their messages.

“We saw two sides of the conversation happening with people joining in to support the hashtag just to trend it and the other side of people getting upset that a guy with good looks could become ‘internet famous’ with no work,” he said in his post. “In reality, when you look at the whole situation from a macro view you can see that if we can build an individual’s fan-base on Breakr, we can translate that powerful following into a bigger career.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Target was in on the stunt. According to Leonares, the idea to share a photo of Alex came from a member of Breakr’s fan base, and the photo already existing before the plan to take it viral.

According to the post, the company first sparked the the trend by having a Twitter user in London named Abbie (@Auscalum), who has 20,100 followers, tweet out a picture of Alex Lee.

He said the company then fueled Alex's popularity using its "YouTube influencers" who created a parody video for an account that now has 1,700 followers. During the time that the meme was taking hold, Alex's account jumped from around 2,000 followers to 560,000.

Twitter user @Auscalum, who Leonares calls "one of our fangirls," posted on Tuesday that she had never even heard of Breakr, though, after she received a flood of angry comments on her Twitter feed about her involvement. She wasn't even the photographer; it was more likely a girl named Brooklyn Reiff, who recognized Alex while in line at Target from a tweet her friend had sent previously.

Even Alex himself has denied the claims from Breakr, with this Tweet:

Can brands control memes?

Customers are empowered to amplify anything from a Tweet, from a bad call centre experience, to a photo from inside the store. When junior people are in the spotlight you can’t expect the same level of media training as the head of corporate comms.

However, they can ride the waves of success when it happens. In addition to internet stardom, it appears Alex may have won himself a spot on a holiday Target commercial.

The whole episode is strong reminder of the power and unpredictability of internet memes.

Target repsonded well to the phenomenon with timely responses on Twitter demonstrating that a savvy digital communications team can make a huge difference when a fast response is needed.

Whether the whole thing was planned or Alex is a true accidental hero may remain a mystery of our times, but one thing is for sure: teen heartthrobs and social media will always be a potent mix.

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