What happens when the free branded swag runs out?
That’s a dilemma facing several seemingly normal, everyday people who were made social media famous “accidental influencers” by brands. But what happens once the viral fanfare goes quiet?
PRWeek caught up with three people who were thrust into the spotlight via a brand. They shared how their 15 minutes of fame altered the course of their lives.
Carter Wilkerson had a chance to pursue the influencer lifestyle, but decided against it because he knew it wasn’t right for him.
Wilkerson received global attention four years ago when he posted a tweet asking how many retweets he needed to get for a year’s supply of free chicken nuggets from Wendy’s. The fast-food chain replied with “18 million,” and thus, the #NuggsForCarter campaign was born. Wilkerson didn’t get that far, but he garnered 3.42 million retweets and Wendy’s gave him the free nuggs anyway.
Wilkerson has 78,400 followers on Twitter and even ended up in Katy Perry’s music video for her song "Swish Swish.”
So what’s Wilkerson up to now?
Thanks in large part to Wendy’s, he is a senior marketing major at the University of San Diego. Ultimately, Wilkerson says he is pursuing a career in dentistry and hoping to attend dental school after graduating this year.
“I chose marketing because I enjoyed my experience with #NuggsForCarter and wanted to explore the field,” Wilkerson says. “As of now, I plan on taking a gap year between undergrad and dental school. I was hoping to use the time to explore some internships or entry-level marketing experiences to keep my options open.”
Wilkerson isn’t yet sick of Wendy’s chicken nuggets, even though he ate “close to 500 or more” when they were free to him in 2017.
“Over a year or so, I visited Wendy's close to three times a week and got nuggets every time,” he says. “I don't get the nuggets as much [now] because they aren't free and Wendy's is a bit far from where I live, but still love what Wendy's is doing, especially the spicy nuggets.”
Wilkerson is not working with Wendy’s or any other brands now and is putting most of his effort into his studies and professional development.
“I sometimes think about ‘what ifs,’ especially in the sense of becoming an influencer,” says Wilkerson. “While I think I could've done it, it seems like a hectic and stressful lifestyle. While I don't regret my decision to be like most other teens going to university and such, I do often wonder what it would've been like if I had at least tried.”
He adds that he will always be thankful to Wendy’s for the experience.
“They all helped me decide to go into business school and understand the ins and outs of large corporate advertising and marketing,” Wilkerson says.
Jimmy Bennett, Wendy’s VP of marketing, says the chain is all about forging authentic connections with consumers.
“I love that this example showcases the power of how a simple and honest interaction with an individual like [Wilkerson] can be amplified in a big way when fans trust a brand enough to come along for a fun ride,” Bennett says.
Abby Lovett, SVP and MD of retail at Wendy’s PR agency partner Ketchum, adds that the #NuggsForCarter campaign was a “seminal moment” in demonstrating the value of social listening and the opportunity for earned media.
“In partnership with Wendy’s, a lighthearted social media exchange was transformed into a full-blown earned media bonanza,” she says.
In 2017, Josh Avsec and Michelle Arendas were normal Kent State University students. But they were transformed into social media stars overnight, thanks to Tinder. The dating app, through which the pair met, sent them on a first date to Hawaii based on a humorous tweet Avsec posted about the two avoiding each other over the previous three years.
Before Tinder’s campaign, Avsec had 730 Twitter followers. That number is now at 25,500.
“The Tinder experience gave me an army of followers overnight,” he says. “My Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter blew up in such a small amount of time. It was truly amazing to see all of the love and support surrounding the Tinder story.”
Avsec says he is no longer in contact with Tinder, but notes that the brand gave him one of the best experiences of his life. He also does not work with any other brands.
Avsec, who is now a zoologist, says his main focus on social media is his passion for animals. After the Tinder campaign, he graduated from college and went to live in South Africa to show his followers a rare side of some African animals. He then moved back home and accepted a job as a zookeeper and a big cat trainer.
“I shared all my unique experiences: everything from the ears of a sloth to the call of a tiger with my social media followers,” Avsec says. “Currently, I am back at home in Cleveland working as the caretaker for some incredible animals inside the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.”
The way Avsec uses social media has changed “drastically” ever since his Tinder experience. Before that, he was not used to having such a large following on his platforms.
“I needed to decide what I was going to do with it,” he says. “This is why I chose to focus on sharing my animal experiences. Over the last few years, my followers have become wildlife warriors themselves and we have had a wonderful time experiencing the natural world together.”
Avsec adds that he and Arendas have not been in touch for a while, but he “looks forward to catching up with her at some point in the future.” Arendas declined to comment.
“Given that the team who ran this is no longer at Tinder, we’d avoid commenting on their strategy,” says a Tinder spokesperson, when asked to reflect on the campaign.
Last year, Sherwin-Williams fired Tony Piloseno from his sales associate job because he made videos for his personal social media pages during work hours with company equipment. At the end of the year, upon reading the viral story of his firing, Piloseno was then hired by Florida Paints and given a studio where he could continue making his popular paint-mixing videos.
When this went down, Piloseno was already a social media star, mixing paints on his TikTok channel, @tonesterpaints, which at the time had more than 1.4 million followers.
Almost one year later, Piloseno is still working with Florida Paints as they manufacture the products for his brand Tonester Paints. The studio that Florida Paints set up for him has turned into Tonester Paints HQ. It is the area where Piloseno develops content, has meetings, ships and packages the online store orders and completes daily tasks as the owner and CEO of the company.
When Piloseno joined Florida Paints, he worked in the store retail setting to familiarize himself with the company and its products.
“My current day-to-day tasks include all the steps of developing a new startup company for Tonester Paints, which includes sales, operations, marketing and pushing to grow the brand each and every day,” he says.
The @tonesterpaints channel got its start from solely being on Tiktok. But after the Florida Paints partnership, Piloseno began creating content for other social media platforms. Since creating a YouTube channel in February 2021, Tonester Paints has gained over 600,000 subscribers on the platform.
“I would say the platform I focus mostly on today is Instagram,” says Piloseno. “I have learned that Instagram is more suitable for users focusing on home projects, DIY and art-related content, which is perfect for the audience Tonester Paints wants to reach.”
Florida Paints and Piloseno work together on marketing campaigns for both companies.
“Our goal is to get the word out to everyone about the cool and exciting world of paint and color,” he says.
Piloseno’s major takeaway from his experience with Sherwin-Williams is that big companies will only let new ideas come from certain people.
“Companies fail to realize that their front-line workers are the ones who have the most insight about their business on a day-to-day basis and they are the ones that can create true innovation,” he says. “I learned that I was not the kind of person to work in these types of corporate environments. I am at my best when I am creating, changing the norm and being authentic: All traits that billion-dollar companies fear.”
A Sherwin-Williams representative did not reply to requests for comment.
This story first appeared on PRWeek US.