Putting Customers to Work

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 11-08-2006

Putting Customers to Work

Click to the Coca-Cola Web site, and check out the growing collection of video clips and musical podcasts available via links on the front page. This is "The Coke Show," the online centerpiece of the soft-drink giant's newest global marketing campaign, driven by the slogan, "Welcome to the Coke side of life."

The video files include glimpses of a dancing superhero, an awkward social encounter and a guy so distracted by a pretty girl that he drives his bike into a pond. They are by turns hip, slick and playful, the better to reinforce a branding message aimed at equating Coke with youthful good times. And almost all these video clips and podcasts were created by people who are not employed by the $23 billion, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company or its ad agencies, and were uploaded to Coke's Web site—for free.

Coca-Cola, the No. 1 soft-drink company and one of the savviest marketers and largest advertisers in the world, is increasingly handing its precious brand over to its customers. "This is not a promotional thing. This is a part of a commitment on a global basis to connect with teens and other consumers," says Tom Daly, group manager of global interactive marketing for the Coca-Cola Company. How big a commitment? The company has dedicated some of the most valuable real estate on the Web, including the "Coke.com" and "Coca-Cola.com" addresses, to brand promotion, much of it user-generated, with corporate information now residing at another site.

And Coke is far from alone in its embrace of the amateur. Iconic brands such as Chevrolet and big-time advertisers such as Burger King Holdings Inc., among many others, are turning to customers for help in marketing products. That can mean everything from creating content for branded sites to producing original ads, distributing amateur and professionally produced spots online, and blogging about products for love or money.

The common thread is user-generated Internet content—sometimes produced with Web 2.0 tools and other social-networking technologies, sometimes created with applications as familiar as e-mail—that allows all manner of personal and corporate content to be shared with ease. Or at least, it's easy for the users.

For companies, turning customers into creators is not as simple as just inviting them to participate. It takes a fair amount of work, and sometimes fancy Web sites and major bandwidth, too. "Most people can't start just with a clean sheet of paper," says Coca-Cola's Daly. Entrants in the monthly "The Coke Show" video challenge, for instance, are given access to online computer graphics and editing tools, as well as thematic cues, and top contributors are rewarded with both exposure and prizes. That kind of capability and bandwidth requires planning, investment and cooperation among different parts of the business.

Coca-Cola's tech side played an enormous role in preparing the site, says Daly, but that was only part of the story. "You see the front-end manifestation of a strategy, but to bring together Coca-Cola's Web properties in a more strategic way required a tremendous amount of work," he says. "There was a clear recognition from the start that this must be a collaborative effort with IT and finance, not just some marketing guys coming up with something and throwing it over the wall. Decisions on the domain and use of trademark weren't taken lightly, either. Our team [which designed the strategy and the site] was physically co-located, with everyone from different areas sitting in the same space," Daly says.

Yet companies increasingly find the effort worth making. "Marketers want to play in the current where consumers are in charge of the conversation," says Ed Dilworth, an executive vice president at Campbell-Ewald, the big Detroit-based ad agency that created a customer-participation ad campaign for Chevy earlier this year. "Word of mouth, people talking across fences, or digital fences—if you can link content to community and somehow tap into that current of participant communication, you can get a multiplier effect on your investment. Many more people saw the Chevy campaign for its Tahoe SUV, relative to cost, than would have seen it for the same cost of traditional advertising. Dollar for dollar, this can be a phenomenal success when it works," Dilworth says.

Making it work, of course, is the trick. User-created content comes with its own set of risks, and requires companies to think as hard about their campaigns as they would about any traditional marketing effort. But in an increasingly connected world, where YouTube fetches $1.6 billion and the Technorati site tracks some 50 million blogs—and consumers have multiple media choices and several ways to avoid traditional ads—the do-it-yourself ethos is impossible to ignore.

Next page: Power to the People

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Power to the People

For Coca-Cola, the embrace of its customers is a strategic move, says Daly. "We have to stay constantly connected to the things that are important to our consumers, and we need to retain brand value and relevance in an era of Yahoo! and Google. Whatever environments attract teens on a global basis—the Web, mobile phones, gaming—we need to be there," he says.

But user-created content goes beyond chasing kids to their latest hangout. Coke sees it as a way of tapping into its core brand message. The homemade clips are meant to be part of a tradition that includes famous television commercials, like the one showing happy hippies warbling on a hilltop about buying the world a Coke, or "Mean Joe" Greene throwing that kid his football jersey.

"There is a huge inventory of messaging dating to the 1910s that at its core is about optimism, making positive choices, and positivity having value," says Daly. "Coca-Cola Classic has always found ways of being current, and the brand has always been in the hands of the customers. When they buy the product, they are making it their own. The challenge is to create an online expression of that point of view. Self-expression is another word for consumer-generated media. Rather than visiting a site where we tell the customer what the message means, we built it around people telling each other what it means," he adds.

Daly says the "Coke Side of Life" campaign, which launched in July (concurrent with the shift of the Coke and Coca-Cola .com Web addresses) is building momentum and showing signs of resonating with its target markets, although he did not provide sales data to back up that claim. Over time, the campaign will reach all 200 countries in which Coca-Cola does business, with Coke.com intended to be a primary destination for teens around the world. Musical uploads, including an alliance with Apple iTunes in Europe, figure large in the strategy. "People aren't singing about Coke, they are singing in an environment provided by Coke," says Daly.

He stresses that user-created content on the Web is part of an integrated marketing message, not an end to itself. "All channels play a role, and we do everything we can to tie it all together. Maybe TV makes you aware of an event, and you go, and blog about it, and other people read that and go to the next show, and someone ends up adding music to our site. It's a virtuous circle, online and offline, and the strategic thinking behind it is that it plays out in real life," adds Daly.

Next page: Roll Your Own Commercial

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Roll Your Own Commercial

The haters showed up in droves when Chevrolet allowed users to create ads for its Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle. But Chevy may have gotten the last laugh.

Last spring, viewers of NBC's Donald Trumpathon, The Apprentice, were invited to visit a Chevrolet Web site where they could assemble video clips, music and written supertitles into commercials for the enormous conveyance. Not surprisingly, given the political incorrectness of SUVs, some of the ads were less than respectful. There were versions that showed the Tahoe tearing across a desert while the onscreen text proclaimed it had been a rainforest before global warming. And plenty of contributions included references to the vehicle's lousy gas mileage.

Yet Chevy and its ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, left the negative spots online, and claim to be delighted with the campaign. "Tree-huggers don't really like full-size SUVs anyway," says Brian McCallum, a senior vice president at Campbell-Ewald. "The only filters we kept on were for things like profanity and racial slurs. The other stuff stayed." Why keep the negative ads up at the site? For one thing, says McCallum, it helps spark interest in the project.

And Campbell-Ewald's Dilworth says there are deeper reasons as well. "I think leaving them up is pretty important," he says. "If you are going to play in this dialogue-driven world, you have to accept that it's not for the faint of heart. The alternative is to remain closed, the way companies have been historically, and this is about marketing the companies, not just products. If you open the companies up, they gain credibility," says Dilworth.

They also gain traffic. "It is a very cool way to create buzz in the marketplace, and to do it more cheaply and efficiently than doing it all yourself," says McCallum. "Having John Smith from Paducah say, 'this is great' can go further than having manufacturers yell and scream 'we're the best!' " More than 600,000 unique visitors showed up at the Tahoe site, logging almost 6 million page views in four weeks. That's well above the traffic volume for other Chevy online programs. A promotion for the Impala, for example, was tied in with national television ads for two weeks and drew less than one-third the number of visitors as the Tahoe campaign. The Tahoe ads also showed up on YouTube and other video sites. "They were everywhere. It was kind of insane," says McCallum.

People didn't just come to the site, they stayed; visitors spent an average of 9.45 minutes on the site, he says, far longer than a typical visit to Chevy's sites. Meanwhile, companies can spend hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars on 30-second TV ads. "People treated the images as if they were a puzzle, and put them together as they wanted," McCallum says. "To do that, they had to interact with the product, dig to find out fuel economy and price, learn about the active fuel management that operates on 8 or 4 cylinders," and more, he adds.

That kind of performance on the Web takes some planning, says Dilworth. "Doing this requires an investment, and you have to prepare for it," he explains. "You have to know the volume of traffic you expect, and prep the IT group ahead of time. They can elect not to host it, to use a third party, if they don't think they can bear the traffic burden. It makes sense to run scenarios, including extreme possibilities, to decide how you want to play things like hosting."

Letting the customers involve themselves in the marketing process seems to be one way of grabbing and holding their attention in a media-saturated world. "We're finding that people are more receptive if they participate," says McCallum. "The goal is to get them to accept our marketing message in a nontraditional format, and to get outside those formats better than Ford or Toyota does," he says.

A critical point: Chevy is not looking to replace traditional TV and radio and print, but to integrate the Web, and its user-driven components, into a comprehensive strategy. That includes new avenues, such as advertising and participating at community sites like MySpace. "We're growing as the technology grows, and our strategies become more complex because people are harder to reach," says McCallum. "Our challenge is to find new, different and effective ways to get messages to the masses, or to a specific demographic," he says.

Campbell-Ewald and Chevy followed the Tahoe campaign with another user-driven effort, this one centered on the MTV Video Music Awards. Viewers were referred to a Web site, where they were told that Chevrolet's fuel-efficient cars require owners to spend less time at the gas pump, and asked what they would do with the extra time. They responded with silly video clips of their new leisure activities, which were uploaded to the site, and sent to places like YouTube and MySpace—complete with Chevy's tagline and familiar bow tie logo.

Elsewhere, the trend is picking up speed. Frito-Lay Inc. is partnering with Yahoo! Inc. in an ad contest that will culminate with a user-created Doritos commercial—made with online tools provided by Yahoo!—to be shown during the 2007 Super Bowl. And Current.TV, the site created by Al Gore, is running ad-making contests for several major brands including Toyota, T-Mobile and Sony, among others.

Next page: Distribution 2.0

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Distribution 2


Whatever the value of user-created content, the pros are not going away. Agencies and in-house staff may no longer have a monopoly on talent, technology and expertise, but paid production (not to mention strategy and planning) still has its advantages, and will be around for awhile.

Yet regular folks can play an important role with professionally produced ads, too. Television spots and straight-to-the-Web video clips can reach broad online audiences when fans choose to distribute them via e-mail or sites like YouTube. There is a word-of-mouth aspect to this kind of distribution, with people recommending clips to friends or members of social networks, and viewers choosing to watch. "You push traditional advertising at the consumer and hope they find it engaging, and that they are interested in your product or service," says Dilworth. "When a friend recommends something, you pay attention." And Web diffusion is free, or virtually so.

Burger King makes this kind of clip-sharing easy for anyone to do. The Web site of the world's No. 2 burger chain invites visitors to view several offbeat television ads, which include characters like anthropomorphic burgers, talking chickens with attitude, and the giant-headed king himself. The words "Send to a Friend" appear beneath the ads as they play; click on that link and an e‑mail form pops up, with "Your friend sent you an invitation to the BK Cinema" in the subject line and the URL for the clip library in the e-mail body, along with the familiar catchphrase, "Have it your way."

Another ad, for a beverage line called Smirnoff Raw Tea, has become something of an online phenomenon, with 1.6 million page views at the YouTube site alone. The spot, a gangsta-rap spoof featuring preppies and their not-so-hard-knock lives, owes a lot to another YouTube hit, the "Lazy Sunday" video from Saturday Night Live (that video, also a rap parody, became a Web sensation and single-handedly boosted SNL's coolness quotient). Smirnoff, made by $18 billion, London-based Diageo PLC, put its clip on a company Web site, then watched as it took on a life of its own via e-mail and viral adoption—all without any cost to the company beyond the original $200,000 production budget.

But Smirnoff may not have gone far enough, said marketing consultant Virginia Miracle. Writing in August at the corporate blog of Brains on Fire, a national naming and identity firm based in Greenville, S.C., Miracle, the company's director of word-of-mouth marketing, says Smirnoff should have made room for feedback and suggestions on the campaign at its own site. "Essentially, they asked me to come by for a visit and then didn't receive me as a guest," she writes. "Rude....Despite the video piece's popularity, the campaign could fail still." Smirnoff had no additional comment.

Campbell-Ewald worked on a similar "alt-distribution" scheme for an online campaign it created for Little Rock, Ark.-based telecom Alltel Corp., which made use of blog advertising and networks like MySpace. Dilworth says a successful viral spot can turn into a huge return on investment for the advertiser, but that creating such a spot remains more of an art than a science.

"The standards are much higher than in traditional television advertising," he says. "The old standard is that you have the money to run it, and it has something good for the brand in it. But for an online ad to succeed it has to be stunning, or at least really entertaining, or offer clear value in the form of things like coupons, or contain valuable information," Dilworth says.

Marketers can think of their communications strategy much as they would an investment portfolio, he says. There are safer bets with lower returns, and then riskier plays with big potential payoffs. "Customer distribution can make something into a home run," Dilworth adds. "You need some of those over time to get the higher return you seek."

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