Whats the Buzz

Vespa Stealth Marketing

Consumers have long had a love-hate relationship with advertising. We enjoy watching music- and celebrity-laden commercials that are often more entertaining, humorous, or interesting than the programs they are sponsoring. We purchase magazines such as Glamour, Vogue, and GQ, which contain more ad pages than articles. But many consumers are tired of being bombarded with sales messages and are turned off by advertising. This is especially true of Generation Y, the age cohort born between 1979 and 1994, which is 60 million strong. The Generation Y cohort is three times the size of its Gen X predecessor, and its members constitute the biggest group to hit the U.S. market since the 72 million baby boomers, who are their parents. Having grown up in an even more media-saturated, brand-conscious world than their parents did, they respond to advertising differently and prefer to encounter marketing messages in different places or from different sources.

Marketers recognize that to penetrate the skepticism and capture the attention of the Gen Ys they have to bring their messages to these people in a different way. To do so, many companies are turning to a stealth-type strategy known as buzz marketing, whereby brand come-ons become part of popular culture and consumers themselves are lured into spreading the message. Marketers are turning their brands into carefully guarded secrets that are revealed to only a few people in each community. Each carefully cultivated recipient of the brand message becomes a powerful carrier, spreading the word to yet more carriers, who tell a few more, and so on. The goal of the marketer is to identify the trendsetters in each community and push them into talking up the brand to their friends and admirers. As the senior vice president at Bates U.S.A., who developed a buzz campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes, notes,"Ultimately, the brand benefits because an accepted member of the social circle will always be far more credible than any communication that could come directly from the brand."

A number of marketers have used buzz marketing successfully. Rather than blitzing the airways with 30-second commercials for its new Focus subcompact, Ford Motor Company recruited 120 trendsetters in five key markets and gave them each a Focus to drive for six months. According to Ford's marketing communications manager, who planned and implemented the program, "We weren't looking for celebrities. We were looking for the assistants to celebrities, party planners, disc jockeys—the people who really seemed to influence what was cool." The recruits' duties were simply to be seen with the car, to hand out Focus-themed trinkets to anyone who expressed an interest in the car, and to keep a record of where they took the car. The program helped Ford get the Focus off to a brisk start, selling 286,166 units in its first full year.

Vespa motor scooter importer Piagio U.S.A. hired a group of attractive models to find the right cafes in and around Los Angeles and to interact with people over a cup of coffee or iced latte and generate buzz for the European bikes.

Even ad agencies that are heavily invested in traditional brand-building techniques acknowledge that buzz marketing has become a phenomenon. Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference—which describes how a small number of consumers can ignite a trend, if they're the right ones—has become must reading among ad agency personnel. The chairperson and CEO of Grey Global Group notes, "Everybody has read The Tipping Point and is trying to figure out the underground streams to reach consumers. Everybody is experimenting with it." For example, Reebok conducted more than 1,000 interviews to identify young Canadian women who were trendsetters among their peers.The company then gave 90 of these women a pair of $150 U-Shuffle DMX cross-trainers to get the funky shoes on the feet of these urban trendsetters. The product seeding campaign helped make the product-line launch one of the most successful in the company's history.

Some experts note that the growing popularity of buzz marketing could well spell its downfall. If everyone does it, it will no longer be buzz; it will simply be obscure and annoying advertising. And when consumers recognize that every company is trying to create a buzz for its brand, they are likely to be turned off to the technique. By then, of course, marketers will have found another stealth way to deliver their sales messages.

Sources: Garry Khermouch and Jeff Green,"Buzz Marketing," BusinessWeek, July 30, 2001, pp. 50-56; "Firms Reap Fruits of Product Seeding," The Montreal Gazette, Sept.11,2001, p. D6.

direct-marketing methods such as telemarketing, direct mail, and direct-response advertising, rather than relying on mass media. Advocates of the approach argue that database marketing is critical to the development and practice of effective IMC.22

• Demands for greater accountability from advertising agencies and changes in the way agencies are compensated. Many companies are moving toward incentive-based systems whereby compensation of their ad agencies is based, at least in part, on objective measures such as sales, market share, and profitability. Demands for accountability are motivating many agencies to consider a variety of communication tools and less expensive alternatives to mass-media advertising.

• The rapid growth of the Internet, which is changing the very nature of how companies do business and the ways they communicate and interact with consumers. The Internet revolution is well under way, and the Internet audience is growing rapidly. The Internet is an interactive medium that is becoming an integral part of communication strategy, and even business strategy, for many companies.

This marketing revolution is affecting everyone involved in the marketing and promotional process. Companies are recognizing that they must change the ways they market and promote their products and services. They can no longer be tied to a specific communication tool (such as media advertising); rather, they should use whatever contact methods offer the best way of delivering the message to their target audiences. Ad agencies continue to reposition themselves as offering more than just advertising expertise; they strive to convince their clients that they can manage all or any part of clients' integrated communications needs. Most agencies recognize that their future success depends on their ability to understand all areas of promotion and help their clients develop and implement integrated marketing communications programs.

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