Commentary: Faking it on Facebook

March 7, 2010
It was only a matter of time before brands started launching pseudo-humans on their Facebook pages. Portrayed somewhere between a "mascot" and a real person, these brand spokespeople obviously don't exist – but that isn't always disclosed on their Facebook pages.
Take Aramark's fictitious owner of its new proprietary university pizza brand, Topio's. Sal Topio, second-generation Italian American and "owner" of Topio's, was dreamt by director of brand development Susan Weller to resonate with food-savvy students. On Facebook, Topio talks of shopping at farmers markets and preparing for special catering events. He even waxes excited about the Olympics: "Loving the winter olympics! Why did I talk myself out of going to Vancouver this year -- ghar?!?" was an update from Feb. 22.
Problem is, the character's affiliation with institutional foodservice giant Aramark isn't disclosed anywhere on the page, possibly leaving some students to peg Sal the real owner of the two-pronged concept, now at American International College and University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
Some might say that setup is a bit misleading, or at least contrary to the spirit of social media, where businesses usually gain traction by disclosing more about their behind-the-scenes efforts. Further, Aramark is portraying its new brand with a home-grown, small-time persona that's almost the exact opposite of its true positioning and ownership. If students want to give their money to small businessmen, they might end up being duped into thinking Sal is just that by his breezy dialog.
Aramark leadership doesn't seem to have a problem with the scenario. "He [Sal Topio] is a fictional character/persona that we are not directly connecting to the company—just to the brand," said communications director Karen Cutler.
Indeed, many communications leaders think the move is a natural one for the social media space. University of Wisconsin Eau Claire marketing professor Dr. Chuck Tomkovick draws comparisons to other "real life" mascots.
"There are the icons, like the Maytag Repair Man," Tomkovick said. "Those guys don't work for Maytag. But those Maytag repair men have the ‘loneliest jobs' because they never break down. You know what? Maytags probably do break down and someone does repair them. So Maytag basically created a fictional representation of what their repairman is like, and that's good marketing. Now you just have a social media version.
"By the way, Betty Crocker was make-believe. People were writing into a creature that didn't exist. [The idea was] if we wrote to Betty she'd give us great recipes. But it was really Pillsbury."
Then again, the character might even go unnoticed. Social media consultant Nate Riggs, owner of Social Business Strategies, said most people don't friend people they don't really know on Facebook. "It may get ignored, which my gut tells me is the most (probable) outcome," Riggs said of Sal's Facebook page and persona. That would explain why most of Sal's 80 or so friends seem to have an Aramark or other institutional dining affiliation on their pages.
"I looked at the profile and it seems pretty vague," he said. "However, if it were made known that Sal was only a fictional character, he might actually resonate with students if the updates were humorous, witty, valuable."
And the most endearing thing he could do, according to Riggs? Give a comp every once in awhile.

Topics: Marketing

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