TORONTO • By midday Monday, Janet Riley was overrun with emails about the little boy and the cake.
Riley, the vice president of communications at Maple Leaf Foods Inc., was hearing from employees, 25, maybe 30 of them, all insisting that something had to be done.
The reason, by now, is well known: An eight-year-old named Jacob in Mascouche, Que., had wanted a Toronto Maple Leafs logo on his birthday cake. But a confused local baker took the order, searched Google for a logo and found the wrong one. Instead of the hockey team, Jacob’s got a cake that paid tribute to the purveyor of luncheon meats, hot dogs and poultry.
The crest-fallen boy refused to eat.
“He said he said didn’t want any ‘ham cake,’” his stepmother recalled later to the Canadian Press.
A consumer engagement manager at Maple Leaf Foods first saw a Facebook post from Jacob’s bemused stepmother over the weekend. The manager sent an alert around to colleagues at Maple Leaf Foods headquarters in Mississauga, Ont.
At first, the team thought it was “cute,” Riley said. “They were watching it.”
By Monday afternoon, CBC News published a story with a photo of young Jacob giving a thumbs-down to his ham cake.
He said he said didn’t want any ‘ham cake’
“It just gave us such a chuckle,” Riley said, “thinking about this little Maple Leafs fan who ended up with our logo on this birthday cake.”
Riley started getting emails from Maple Leaf Foods employees, everyone from the corporate treasurer to a facilities manager, all with the same sentiment: Send the kid to a Leafs game.
“That was what made us all realize that we need to act,” Riley said. “There were just a bunch of emails flying. So then I stood up from my desk and ran to talk to my team.”
The marketing team had also seen the story and was working on a similar plan. After a series of emails, the communications and marketing department agreed that Maple Leaf Food had Maple Leafs tickets and would offer them to Jacob, either in Montreal, close to his home, or in Toronto.
The whole process took an hour and a half, Riley said. By Tuesday afternoon, she said the plan was to cover the family’s trip to Toronto for a game later this month.
“There wasn’t much of an approval process,” Riley said. “This was certainly a non-controversial decision to send a little boy to a Maple Leaf game.”
Marketers who spoke to the Financial Post on Tuesday all said Maple Leaf Foods scored a clear win. But they emphasized that responding to viral news isn’t as easy as Maple Leaf made it look. It often requires marketing departments to achieve the near impossible balance of reacting quickly and reacting wisely.
“It can be harrowing to find your brand in the news unexpectedly — a lot of internal decision makers tend to get involved when the spotlight’s on,” said Erin Manning, associate managing director at Ketchum, a Toronto-based communications consultancy.
“The decision to respond — and how — needs to happen before the story runs away from you. In a situation like Maple Leaf Foods, if there’s a clear opportunity to control the narrative, seize it.”
In some cases, things can go wrong. If a story has political overtones, or if a brand amplifies a story in a way that winds up putting regular people under the microscope, it can backfire, said Helen Androlia, director of digital strategy at the Toronto advertising agency Juniper ParkTBWA.
“In this case, I would say this wouldn’t have a downside at all; this is the sweet spot,” she said in an email. “What most people don’t see is how complex a marketing team can be, or the amount of coordination, approvals and discipline that goes into moving quickly to respond.”