Feb. 13, 2013 at 4:32 PM ET
It caught everyone by surprise, including the water bottle brand that suddenly found itself the unexpected beneficiary of a prominent product placement during a major political event broadcast live on national TV.
Tuesday night, in the middle of delivering the Republican rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union Address, Florida Senator Marco Rubio slipped. Or sipped, rather. As the world watched, Rubio dodged off to the side of the camera, took a slug from a half-pint Poland Spring bottle, and continued reading from the teleprompter.
[RELATED: Rubio response presents friendlier GOP]
Social media quickly lit up with posts and tweets mocking Rubio, and the inevitable wave of animated gifs and captioned photos soon followed. In an instant, Marco, and Poland Spring, became a meme.
While many brands would have salivated for a chance to be part of the national conversation in this way, and spend big bucks on hiring viral marketing experts to artificially stoke buzz, for Poland Spring it was a drop in the bucket.
"It would be nice if all of the enthusiastic response resulted in a sales bump," said Jane Lazgin, spokesperson for Nestle Waters, which owns Poland Spring. Lazgin didn't have figures available but said that their marketing office was "of course" monitoring all the hype.
Americans spend more than $100 billion a year on bottled water, with 54 percent of the population drinking it. With 4.5 percent growth last year, there's plenty of cash in the water.
So far the water bottler's response to being unexpectedly thrust into the national political limelight has been as cool and calm as the image of a Maine forest on its packaging. It wasn't until Wednesday afternoon that the brand posted on its Facebook wall a picture of a Poland Springs bottle looking at itself in an actor's makeup mirror. The caption read, "Reflecting on our cameo. What a night!"
In fact, the brand is so relaxed when it comes to social media that its Twitter account hasn't sent out a message since 2010. Lazgin says the bottled water company "listens and monitors" on all social media tools, but "Facebook is our way -- and it's worked well -- to build and engage with customers."
Contrast that attitude to the speediness of another food-maker, Oreo, which, while the lights were still out, grabbed onto buzz during the Super Bowl blackout by tweeting out a photo with the caption, "You can still dunk in the dark." It garnered numerous retweets, as well as plaudits from other marketers for reacting in real-time.
For his part, Rubio took the gaffe in stride, tweeting a photo of the famous bottle of water and telling Good Morning America on Wednesday morning, “God has a funny way of reminding us we’re human.” Late Wednesday he tweeted that he had gained 13,000 new followers since delivering his remarks and vowed to "start drinking #water in the middle of all of my speeches!"
Unexpected blips like these provide an opportunity for brands to catch a wave off the chatter and get a leg up on in the marketplace. Though the images on their bottles evoke gentle brooks and restful nature scenes, the bottled water industry is red with fierce competition.
"People are passionate about the water they drink," said Sebastian Rusk, CEO of Social Buzz TV, based in Miami, Fla. "Maybe I hate Fiji water and all of a sudden, thanks to a little comedy, Poland Spring is a brand I can relate to." That can change consumer brand preferences and drive sales.
Even though it's a political story, dipping into this conversation wasn't risky for Poland Spring as Marco Rubio is "totally fair game," said Rusk. "People don't like him or not like him based on his politics," so poking a little fun at him carries little risk of backlash.
"He needed refreshment and Poland Spring was there for that moment," said Lazgin. Which is understandable, she said, as "Water is the beverage of choice for Americans."
Spoken like a true incumbent.