(By Ron Faris)
“During the wake of the recession in 2009, we at Virgin Mobile faced the awkward decision to potentially cancel our music festival (as others had done, fearing that fans couldn’t afford the ticket). At the time, swine flu and job layoffs headlined the nightly news. Our goal was to put forth a new energy that would focus on optimism. We embraced the cultural winds and declared our festival free of charge to the public. We created a VIP lounge whose admittance was only offered to those who had been laid off (and those guests were pampered accordingly).“
There was once a running joke at Virgin Mobile when it came to our marketing spend: What Virgin Mobile would spend in one year, AT&T would spend on one episode of “American Idol.”
Many disruptive brands struggle with how to best manage their marketing budgets while they strategize around how to dethrone their incumbent Goliaths. Smaller companies, of course, don’t have the advertising spends to compete with their competitors on traditional vehicles, and they’re far more susceptible to shifts in the competitive landscape. A simple budget cut can render them “dark” during peak months on TV, causing their consideration levels — a key metric for brand directors trying to compete — to dwindle. Marketing execs then end up “re-launching” their own brands to new audiences on a loop in a struggle to make up for lost time.
This is exhausting and, more importantly, it isn’t working.
If ever a David were to save his strength to fight Goliath, the first step would be to eliminate needless spending on changing campaigns for re-brands, and focus more time on changing the conversation. Literally.
Social conversation is the only way small brands can get an edge on the big guys.
True brand affinity — or brand “lust” as we like to call it at Virgin — breaks down into three key ingredients: Rational, cultural, and emotional. The Goliaths typically play in the rational space; this is the arena that appeals to the part of the brain looking for a good deal. The core campaign message is very specific and clear, and it’s usually about value. The problem is, when several competitors share the same rational message about value, the Goliath with the loudest voice (i.e., the highest media spend) wins.
For your brand to break through, you need to appeal on two more nuanced dimensions: cultural and emotional. You need to create and share a point of view that your prospects find enlightened and unique. And to express that point of view is to speak your mind freely — as a brand — not about what you have on sale, but about something bold that will stir a customer’s interest.
Cultural marketing starts by creating your own topical breaking news about trends your customers care about, making your brand hyper-obsessed about a specific niche or topic. When you tap into something that your audience can relate to, you’re tapping into something cultural. Lululemon, for example, talks about yoga. Nike talks about fitness. But sometimes the delineation isn’t always clear.
At Virgin Mobile, we tapped into something more abstract: the absurd phone etiquette that seemingly preoccupies us all. It wasn’t about showing a happy customer using Instagram; it was instead about the relatable folklore surrounding a woman who’d rather Instagram a pizza she was eating than respond to her jilted ex’s desperate texts.
This example taps into two cultural and relatable norms – our smartphone-obsessed society and a relationship gone bad. They require more thought and customization than typical marketing messages around the rational, but also result in an ownable voice that Goliath can’t touch.
Emotional marketing is even more nuanced. It requires tapping into, or reacting to, a larger, more shareable moment. And above all else, it requires a mastery of the element of surprise to create something emotional. If a cultural trend occurs, the response that creates an audience reaction is not to align with it, but to buck it. That, in turn, makes the moment emotional. And true emotion is what fuels something shareable.
During the wake of the recession in 2009, we at Virgin Mobile faced the awkward decision to potentially cancel our music festival (as others had done, fearing that fans couldn’t afford the ticket). At the time, swine flu and job layoffs headlined the nightly news. Our goal was to put forth a new energy that would focus on optimism. We embraced the cultural winds and declared our festival free of charge to the public. We created a VIP lounge whose admittance was only offered to those who had been laid off (and those guests were pampered accordingly).
“Pink Slip Pinatas” were hung from trees and for a brief moment, young fans could celebrate a day of free music instead of stressing about getting a job. Virgin Mobile FreeFest was born with an announcement that earned nearly 500 million earned impressions and to this day (literally to the day — the 5th annual FreeFest was just held two days ago), the festival raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for homeless youth, celebrating good karma and the right to pay it forward. Similarly, that same year, Hyundai offered it’s legendary offer to buy back cars from people who lost their jobs.
Owning a breakthrough moment. A social conversation. These are admittedly scrappy tactics and taken alone, don’t make a cogent, annual marketing strategy. To really master this art on the cheap, you have to create a platform that can leverage traditional vehicles that gain mass reach while complementing them with the “fairy dust” of social storytelling that adds folklore to your brand and forges true emotional connection to reach the consumer.
Another good way of thinking about it is via the lens of a political campaign, which typically involves two forms of marketing: traditional (e.g., TV ads, billboards) and seeded. For example, a political candidate may run an ad that says she favors gun control — a marketing message that speaks to rational. The campaign’s social storytelling, however, may spread images that remind us of recent shootings to create context around the marketing message. “Haven’t we had enough? Isn’t it time we elect someone who controls our guns?” The social conversation tees up the ad, which is designed to reach as many people as possible with a simple, memorable message.
Here’s the way that works at Virgin Mobile. We would run ads that spread our core message: “For $35 a month, you get unlimited messaging and data and only 300 voice minutes.” Our seeded message on social channels was simply the following: “You don’t need voice minutes. No one talks on the phone anymore. In fact the people you talk to on the phone are people you probably don’t want to talk to (e.g., the cable guy, airlines, etc.).” Both seeded and traditional worked hand in hand. And if budget cuts killed our TV media (and oftentimes, they did), our social conversation was alive and well.
Goliath will always have the luxury of being omni-present in the consumer’s field of vision. But Goliath is not nimble. And to truly win a crowd, you need to pivot to tell the right stories they want to hear at the right time.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”