Sunday, December 9, 2007

You Got Elfed, and Other Viral Marketing Disconnects

[I just registered on, and in order to link to my blog, I have to write in the first few lines of my post. As Tanya Ferrell noted, this is a pretty slick marketing tactic.]

In the spirit of the holidays, I got elfed by my husband. In case you have no idea what I'm referring to, getting elfed means receiving an interactive dancing elf email, and in my case, with our family's heads superimposed on the elves.

And all in the name of promoting OfficeMax, the #3 North American office products retailer behind Staples and OfficeDepot.

Well, I didn't get elfed last holiday season, which is when OfficeMax first launched this viral campaign. This year, it was relaunched along with Scrooge Yourself.

But what the heck do these campaigns have to do with selling office supplies?

Before we get to that, I am reminded of other interactive viral campaigns. Namely Monk E-Mail by CareerBuilder, launched along with the office monkey ads during the 2006 Superbowl. And the Subservient Chicken campaign by Burger King, launched back in April of 2004, starting first online, then followed up with a television campaign.

But what value do these types of participation-based viral campaigns return to the host companies?

Increased Brand/Product Awareness
I'm on the fence with this one. I thought the Monk E-Mail was for until I just looked it up. And I wasn't positive exactly which fast food restaurant the Subservient Chicken belonged to...Chick-Fil-A was my next guess. Maybe its just been too long. As for the dancing elves...what exactly have they got to do with OfficeMax?

In the case of the Subservient Chicken, Joseph Jaffe (a writer and blogger who's articles I very much enjoy) mentions that the wrong question to ask is "Did it sell chicken?" and presumably get more feet in the door. The right question to ask is, "Did you know BK sold chicken?" And now you do. That's a good point, and one I hadn't thought of.

However, let's try to apply that logic to OfficeMax's dancing elves. Did you know associates dance at OfficeMax? No, wait...Did you know it's the holidays and there are elf dolls you can buy at OfficeMax? No, that doesn't work either.

Obviously, I'm saying this tongue in cheek, but I don't understand why the meaning behind the campaigns is so obscure. In regards to the Subservient Chicken, had to verify the "myth" that it was a BK ad campaign? I mean, if users don't see the connection, where is the value?

Positioning Strategy
I think this is more in line with the marketing strategy. Office supplies are boring. Perhaps OfficeMax wanted to spice things up. Now they are the fun office supply store. Right? That's what Bob Thacker, OfficeMax's svp of marketing thinks. "It gives OfficeMax a heart and a personality."

And for Burger King? In 2004, Greg Brenneman was called in as CEO to get the #2 hamburger chain back on track. The quirky advertising was part of an overall marketing campaign to target BK "superfans" -- 18- to 34-year-old men. According to BK's financial statements, in the three years following the ad campaigns, Burger King's revenues steadily increased. Was this due to the marketing campaign? They also introduced the $1 value menu, and their operating margins improved. These factors may have influenced the improvement. Also, some of BK's franchisees have argued the campaign turned off women and family business suffered.

OfficeMax has also seen financial gains in their income statements in the form of improved operating margins (though decreased revenues). However, they are also experiencing a large restructuring effort, so it's difficult to gauge the ROI of the campaign.

Overall, I think this is a long term positioning strategy, to set the stage for future corporate initiatives. I think that to expect a sustainable increase in revenues simply as a result of these fun ads is a mistake, mainly because their connection to the company is forgettable.

Search For a Larger Audience
People are increasingly choosing to spend more of their time online. And they are communicating with each other in a way that radio and television cannot. Brands are finding that this interaction helps promote increased word of mouth recommendations -- you can blast 30 friends with an email (telling them about a great new site called!) in a couple of seconds, but it would take a prohibitively longer amount of time to phone them all.

Also, these types of interactive, participation-based campaigns can help illustrate how considerate these companies are of the consumer's evolving lifestyle, and at the same time they help to keep the brand relevant and modern.

Furthermore, when brands are able to leverage social media and experiment online, they have the opportunity to discover how to create more meaningful ways to communicate to customers, and have a greater flexibility to adjust messages on a dime.

And simply from a cost perspective, brands can be in more places online than they can off. A one-page ad in the WSJ could eat up some companies entire annual marketing budget.

So What's My Takeaway
Having said all this, I continue to question the relevance of creating a great viral marketing campaign that has no clear, or even semi-clear, connection to your brand's function.

I think the Monk E-Mail stands out as the best viral marketing campaign of the three mentioned. Like the others, it is certainly entertaining and recommendation worthy. But it is about the office, which is about working, which helps the audience associate working to jobs, to searching for jobs, to using CareerBuilder to search for jobs. Even its URL let's us know it's part of the CareerBuilder site.

The other examples lose something in the translation. The connection isn't clear, and the value created is weakened. Maybe these brands see the obscurity as part of a long, long-term strategy, and I just can't see that far. But I will continue to laugh, and maybe elf someone later.

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