Advertisers love positive word of mouth: It costs them nothing, and it's sincere. For years marketers have recognized the potential of the Web as a word-of-mouth enabler ("viral marketing" is the preferred catch phrase), but their success in using it this way has been mixed. Advertisers also fear word of mouth, of course, because it is outside their control. The Web amplifies bad word of mouth, too. Today's column looks at one advertiser's attempt to drum up positive Web buzz, and tomorrow's will examine another company's brush with a viral message it apparently didn't like.
Dr Pepper/7Up is currently rolling out a new milk product available in five flavors, under the name Raging Cow. "We describe it as a milk-based drink 'gone wild' because there are outrageous, intriguing and delicious flavor combinations," a press release says. Raging Cow is being promoted through blogs.
There's a regular old Raging Cow blog—the gimmick seems to be that the drink's cow mascot is writing the entries—but it's basically irrelevant. The interesting part of the campaign is that it has enlisted six blogging teenagers. It's easy to see why a corporation would like the idea of bloggers operating under the auspices of its brand: The one thing that still binds together the astonishing variety of blogs today (which range from political punditry to youthful confession to eclectic link-collecting to niche-specific news-gathering) is the idea that they are more grass-roots and thus more authentic than the "mainstream media." For pretty much the same reason, the Raging Cow strategy has annoyed some members of the blognoscenti. (At least one boycott effort has emerged.)
According to Dr Pepper/7Up, its blog team is not being paid, although its members are given drink samples and promo materials and the like. What's more, they are supposedly not obligated to say anything at all about Raging Cow and can even say that they hate it if that's what they really think. One of the blogs, Sparkley.net, is written by an 18-year-old high-school student named Nicole, who lives in a suburb of New Orleans. A typical entry begins, "As you all know I got the job at the carwash," etc. There are prominent links to other Raging Cow bloggers (there used to be one to the Raging Cow site itself, but it's disappeared) and also to unrelated sites. There tends to be no direct discussion of Raging Cow, although there are occasional non sequitur entries like "Have you seen this cow?" with a link to the drink's site.
Reaching out to the elusive grass roots, I sent Nicole an e-mail to see if I could speak with her. Shortly after, I got a phone call from a publicist at Dr Pepper/7Up, who said she would be happy to arrange a conference call. The three of us had a chat.
I was most curious how Nicole had been approached and why she decided to participate. It turns out that she was approached because she had some experience: Last year she participated in a smaller marketing campaign with a blog element on behalf of Nokia. That campaign was run by the Richards Group, a Dallas ad firm, which contacted her for a second go-round for Raging Cow. Nicole says she then rounded up several other young bloggers, who were among her "best friends online" and who she figured would be right for the project. Eventually they were all brought to Dallas to try the drink. Nicole says both she and her mother, who came along, "loved it."
So why did she want to do this? "Just to help out," she said, adding that the commercial connection "doesn't bother me." Next year Nicole will be going off to college, and, it turns out, she hopes to land an internship with the Richards Group. "Now that I've delved into the whole advertising thing," she said, "it's really something that I love doing."
I also asked Nicole why she had sent my inquiry to the Dr Pepper people and why she figured someone from the company needed to be on the phone while we talked. (Standard procedure, the publicist interjected at this point.) "I'm only 18 years old!" Nicole said. "I might mess up and say something I don't mean."
Actually, though, she answered my questions like the marketing pro that she aspires to be. I had also wondered whether she thought, as the conventional ad-world wisdom always says, that people her age are particularly savvy about marketing, and thus more smartly targeted by nontraditional campaigns like this one. "Yeah, I do," she said. Watching a TV commercial, she added, "You see that it's an actor." But strategies like Raging Cow's, she continued, are more convincing because they rely on word of mouth, which is much more "real."
There are three possibilities for how a campaign like this one will work out. One is that it will go precisely according to plan—the target audience will take the bloggers' endorsements at face value, try the drink, and love it. Another is that there will be a blogosphere backlash: The same "viral" dynamic will boomerang, and drinking Raging Cow will make you look like a Whimpering Sheep. But the third possibility is that both of these things will happen at the same time. People will recognize the fakery but try the drink anyway. It would work, in other words, just like a regular old ad campaign. And at this point, that's probably the best outcome that Raging Cow can hope for.