The notion of 'going viral' – having videos connected to your brand being endlessly recirculated on social media on sites such as YouTube – is a dream close to the heart of any marketeer.
A viral campaign can increase brand awareness exponentially, become the subject of discussion in other media, and ultimately increase sales – all at little or no cost to the company.
But can a viral marketing campaign be designed and built? Or is it all the result of a happy accident, connecting with the zeitgeist in an unplanned and random way?
Adrian Payne, a professor in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School, and Pennie Frow, a professor at University of Sydney Business School, have contributed to this discussion with their case study of the Blendtec 'Will It Blend?' marketing initiative.
Blendtec is a small American company that produces blenders for the commercial and consumer markets. Despite making a high-quality product that was well respected in the commercial world, its brand awareness in the consumer market was low, and so too were its sales.
All that was about to change with the appointment in 2006 of a new marketing director. On discovering that Blendtec founder and CEO, Tom Dickson, was in the habit of using unlikely materials such as blocks of wood to test the robustness of his blenders, the marketing director devised a series of short videos that asked the question, 'Will It Blend?'
The videos feature the CEO – a chubby, middle-aged man dressed in lab coat and safety glasses – reducing bizarre items to dust using one of his blenders. Objects have included marbles, golf balls, a TV remote control, an iPad and an iPhone.
The marketing results were as remarkable as the videos. The initial campaign was reported to have cost $50, but achieved six million views on YouTube alone in the first five days.
‘It’s easy for the suits to hand this over to someone else, but this is the wrong approach’
– ADRIAN PAYNE
Quality of the product
"My interest here is how people use technology to do something different, or achieve success in social media," says Payne.
"What we saw with Blendtec was a willingness to look outside the traditional parameters of the marketing practices in that industry, led by a new marketing director finding innovative ways of using social media to market an existing product."
And what the videos revealed, in an oblique and humorous way, was the extraordinary quality of the product.
"You just don't expect a blender to be this durable, and it's a great example of building a great product, and having a great story surrounding it."
But for Payne, the YouTube video was just the first step, as it led to the mainstream media talking about it.
"Don't sit on your laurels. Use this as a base to build on for other channels and other audiences," he says.
A big issue here for Payne is that when established companies try to get into social media, they often hire 'young people' to do the job for them.
"It's easy for the 'suits' to hand this over to someone else, but this is the wrong approach. People at the top of organisations themselves need to take a deep interest in social media," he says.
"Integrated marketing activity is an older term, but it's a good description of successful modern marketing – a consistent approach to building the brand."
Knowing your audience
"For a company to emulate Blendtec's success, it has to be authentic – true to their brand and what they do, and true to their audience," says Shannon Stone, founder of Creative Content Studio.
According to Stone, the Blendtec campaign was authentic in the sense that it came out of something they were doing already – for quality assurance purposes – and then turned the idea one degree.
"They thought, let's open this up, pull back the curtain so that others can see – and then let's try it with other things," she says.
Stone's advice to a client wanting to emulate Blendtec is to be very clear about what are you trying to achieve.
"Blendtec specifically wanted to move from B2B to B2C, but your aim could be sales or brand awareness. Then you should ask, what are you already doing that can help you achieve that goal?
"Importantly, Blendtec are really respectful of the channels they are using, by recognising what works well on any channel. YouTube was the key to driving their goals, but they were willing to go 'outside the box'."
But are viral videos a long-term strategy for brands?
"Viral videos will have longevity into the future, but you can't rely on it always working," says Stone. "Importantly, there's no guarantee that viral videos will translate into sales. Blendtec have done a lot of these, but the effect of their bizarreness could diminish over time."
So what else is required to translate brand awareness into sales? For Stone, the most important thing is to know your audience. She quotes the example of an online fashion retailer who employed a YouTube 'influencer' to subtly promote their brand. The campaign directed a record amount of traffic to their site, but didn't achieve any sales from doing so.
"The influencer was targeting teenage and university student females. But the retailer was dealing with a premium product – $300 shoes. The brand didn't do their own research to discover the influencer's expertise was with a different audience," Stone says.
‘As soon as people can sense that you’re trying to create something viral, they see through it and it loses its appeal’
– CRAIG GIBSON
Art as much as science
"For something to truly 'go viral', it needs to resonate with people and give them a reason to share it," says Craig Gibson, senior client strategy manager at iProspect Brisbane.
"The thing you're sharing is a proxy for your own personality and opinions, from your political views to your sense of humour."
Specifically, in the Blendtec campaign, the emotional responses were those of surprise and humour.
"It's the joy of the unexpected – the character and the action – the incredulity of what the product does. The weird juxtaposition of this straight-looking guy doing a wacky experiment," Gibson says.
So, can you engineer a viral campaign from scratch?
"You can try," says Gibson. "It all comes down to the excellence of the idea and execution. It's an art as much as a science. Companies can try to do this – just as TV and movie studios do every year – but nothing can guarantee success."
Gibson notes that every year, the SuperBowl becomes a focus for the world's best creative minds in TV commercials. However, following a power cut in 2013, Oreo's off-the-cuff 'You can still dunk in the dark' Twitter post went more viral than any of the big-budget ads, proving that success always comes down to great ideas and execution.
So how could a company seek to replicate the Blendtec success?
"Be self-deprecating, and don't take yourself too seriously. Brands need to understand that they aren't relevant to everyone. Where they usually go wrong is in wanting, for example, to make the logo bigger, when this is almost always the opposite of what people actually want to see," says Gibson.
"As soon as people can sense that you're trying to create something viral, they see through it and it loses its appeal. My advice for any campaign is to look for what will resonate, and to put the audience first and the brand second – which is exactly what Blendtec did."