LIFE AFTER THE TIPPING POINT

Influencers may build a brand, but some quickly get bored.

Influencers may build a brand, but some quickly get bored.

By the early 1990s, the Hush Puppies brand had all the luster of a worn crepe sole. So uncool was the once ubiquitous shoe that its parent company, Wolverine, was considering discontinuing it. But thanks to a group of New York City hipsters who suddenly began to wear the shoes, Hush Puppies, through no effort of the company's, became a minor fashion sensation featured in fashion shoots and magazines, and adopted by designers. By the middle of the decade, hundreds of thousands of pairs were being sold per year and the brand was revitalized, all on the strength of word-of-mouth approval from just a few well-connected young people. This is the piece of marketing lore that begins The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell's book on how ideas can spread - or become epidemic - with the support of just a few influential people. Since the book's publication in 2000, its title has become commonplace in discussions of the marketing world's latest sustained trend: influencer marketing. In its wake and with the influence of like-minded tomes, consumer brands of all sizes have put their marketers on the question of who holds sway on the judgment of consumers. In much the same way, politicians and other public figures have found ways to use peer-to-peer communications to gain credibility and popularity in non-commercial arenas. The tipping of everything from suede shoes to Howard Dean leaves no doubt that influencer marketing is here to stay as a way to vie for the precious attention of a target audience, whether customers, voter, or donators, without spending big advertising bucks. But, as these viral techniques become more embedded in the consciousness of PR pros, it's worth looking at just what function they fill within the marketing mix and in the life of a brand. Are they more than a flashy way of rolling out a product or introducing an idea or candidate? Is there life after the tipping point? For Hush Puppies, the answer wasn't clear-cut. Like any fashion trend, the word-of-mouth resurgence chronicled in Gladwell's book turned out to be ephemeral. "The brand peaked from a trend standpoint," says Barbara Scott, CMO at Hush Puppies. "It was part of a retro trend and based on shoes we call our Classics, which were the classic lace-up and slip-on shoes that were inspired by original Hush Puppies. It was great while it was happening, but it was relatively short-lived. Then the brand experienced a downtrend." Now the company's marketers are working to rebuild the brand, Scott says, "as a long-term proposition, not a fad." That has entailed an integrated effort that includes print advertising in fashion and an influencer-focused PR effort involving media relations, celebrity outreach, and product placement at events like the Sundance Film Festival. "What you can broadly term as PR is probably the most important component of our marketing," she says. "We've been on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, for instance. The fringe trendsetter who cruises around the East Village isn't necessarily going to pick up on it, but the young guy that shops in the mall will." Long-term strategies The Hush Puppies experience is evidence that not all word-of-mouth pushes have the same effect. It goes to show that the determining factor in the success of a viral marketing initiative is often down to exactly who is spreading the word about a product or idea. To avoid what Scott calls "hot flashes" of popularity, Hush Puppies has turned to consumers who likely won't turn their backs on the brand as soon as another comes into view. The experience also demonstrates that viral marketing, despite the focus on its frequent use to grab attention during product rollouts, can be used at various points in the evolution of a brand, a development that's part of the evolution of thinking about viral marketing itself. "It's become more concerted, more integrated in the way that people think about it," says Jeanne-Marie Baron, principal at Detroit's Eaton Baron & Partners. "It used to be an inspirational flash in the pan, but today people are thinking about it more in terms of the long term and as a component of an overall communications strategy rather than that flash that doesn't have anything to do with anything else you're doing around a product or an idea." Holiday Inn's recent viral e-mail program publicizing Best Breaks, a breakfast promotion, is an example of this. Having already conducted a traditional marketing push for a program that kicked off last year, the budget hotel chain was looking for a way to freshen up its messaging during the promotion's final months. It decided on a rich-media, viral e-mail campaign designed by media technology firm Oddcast. The Talking-Egg-A-Gram is a cute greeting card-type application that people can send to their friends. Though it had some of the inane catchiness of the late-'90s viral e-mails a la the Dancing Baby, the Egg-A-Gram is in fact wired into a business trend for the company: the fact that more and more guests are using the internet to book reservations. It also has the metrics that prove its usefulness. Over a two-week period in February, more than 5,000 people who visited the Holiday Inn website used the application; three quarters of those who receive the e-mail open it, and just under 40% forward the Egg-A-Gram to other e-mail addresses. "From a branding perspective, one of the things we know about online and particularly with viral elements is their ability to connect with and grow a larger community," says Mark Snyder, SVP of brand management for Holiday Inn Hotels and Resorts. "Whether a transaction results from the viewing of a viral message at a point in time, we do believe it deepens the connection of the brand with the user. If there's a transaction that will occur two to three weeks from now, we feel we have a better chance at being at top-of-mind for their lodging choices as a result of this." Potential backlash "Interrupting culture," as Snyder describes this process, can be a dangerous business, as some marketers have learned in recent years. For instance, one liquor company found this out the hard way when it tried to take the easy way out and create its own class of influencers by hiring model-types to go into bars and talk with patrons about a new kind of vodka. In an interview with PRWeek, Gladwell describes these kinds of tactics as having "huge potential for backlash because you're trading on people's innocence, and you're manipulating them." "This was never meant to be about manipulation," he says. "I was trying to describe a process where you could genuinely excite a handful of people who have social power, and they could go and do your work for you because they wanted to." Most PR pros agree that even in a commercial environment, these missteps are few and far between and that, overall, marketers are finding more and more effective ways of employing word-of-mouth techniques. Michael O'Brien, director of Ketchum's brand marketing practice, stresses that the promise of these programs is that they allow for dialogue, ways of getting feedback from audiences rather than pummeling them with flash. "We have to make these programs more than simply one-offs, to create programming that is more dialogue-based with these groups of people as opposed to a one-way communication," O'Brien says. "Creating dialogues with people who are meaningful to your brand has great promise in allowing you to get a temperature of the marketplace and to test ideas with consumers. In the absence of that, when you're just sort of spitting information at them, the value of those sorts of programs is dubious." ---------- Using influencers as a long-term strategy To reduce the fifth highest smoking rate in the country, the Ohio Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation in 2002 hired Cincinnati-based Northlich to create a four-year counter-marketing campaign aimed at young people. Like other cause-related media efforts, the agency created a brand - "Stand" - and spent a year building awareness by saturating its target audiences, 11- to 17-year-olds, with its antismoking messages through traditional advertising and public relations. The program's activities have involved a number of buzz-builders, including a petition drive that brought 52 Ohio youths to MTV's New York headquarters to deliver more than 8,000 petitions demanding that the network make its programming tobacco-free. But unlike many similar efforts, this program has built into it an influencer-centered mechanism designed to keep it going once Northlich's contract is up. Once the awareness was established - at a rate of more than 80% - the firm used an influencer strategy to help maintain the Stand program. It located dozens of highly motivated teens around the state who could recruit their peers into small, localized teams. At last count, there were 45 groups. "Someday they'll have a momentum of their own," says Greg Sendi, SVP and managing director for public relations at Northlich. "It won't be about plugging into an ad campaign or a PR campaign. It's going to be a living grassroots movement that, we hope, goes on indefinitely." To John Bloomstrom, Northlich EVP and group director and manager of influencer marketing, Stand shows that peer-to-peer communications, often viewed merely as a tactic, can be a strategy unto itself. "We see this discipline as having long-term application because over time we need to keep feeding these influencers so that they truly are experts and they have the latest information," he says. "They're real gatekeepers in terms of what they can do for your brand, and if you just treat them on a short-term basis, you're not going to get the extension."

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