Since Lenovo bought IBM's PC business in 2005, the Beijing-based company has kept a low marketing profile in the U.S., despite its standing as the world's second-largest PC vendor, behind Hewlett-Packard. Then last year the company hired former Apple and HP exec David Roman as CMO in a bid to become a top-of-mind tech brand.
Lenovo's new partnership in an online youth science project, "The YouTube Space Lab launched by Lenovo," is a step in that direction. The sponsored global project is important enough to YouTube's parent Google that it was launched Oct. 10 with a promo and link on the Google.com homepage – the same space Google used for its tribute to Steve Jobs a few days before. Within 24 hours, 500 video entries were submitted to the contest, says Roman.
Lenovo is handling marketing, advertising, PR and educational outreach for the initiative in which its logo is prominent. "Our brand isn't well-known in the consumer space, particularly in the all-important youth market," says Roman. "Since young people don't respond well to advertising, we needed to communicate our identity as the brand 'for those who do' by engaging youth around doing something. When Google came to us with this idea, it was a great fit. After all, astronauts already use our ThinkPad on the International Space Station."
The Space Lab initiative, at YouTube.com/spacelab, challenges 14- to 18-year-olds to design a science experiment that can be performed in space. The two winning experiments will be conducted aboard the International Space Station and live streamed on YouTube.
Three days before the contest's official launch promo ran on Google.com, the initiative was unofficially released on the social networks of NASA and other space agency partners. Within those three days the contest's site got three million views, demonstrating both the power of networks and the "cool factor" of space exploration, says Roman.
Another measure: 25 days after a preview video was posted, showing a teenager's space gadget-filled bedroom becoming weightless, it had attracted 4 million views and about 3,000 comments. The contest site and preview video live on YouTube's five-year-old Space Lab channel - a curated selection of videos about space that has about 35,000 subscribers.
Here's how it works: Students have until Dec. 7 to submit to YouTube two-minute videos explaining a microgravity experiment in the fields of biology or physics. Judges will select 60 finalists. To generate maximum buzz, YouTube visitors will be able to vote for their favorite finalists from Jan. 3 to Jan. 10. Using that feedback and other criteria, judges will pick two global winners at the end of January. Their experiments will be performed on the space station and streamed live on YouTube in the summer of 2012. The winners will also get a trip to Japan to watch the launch of a space station-bound rocket or be able to participate in a training session at a Russian center for cosmonauts.
Ironically, YouTube is blocked in China by the Chinese government, so consumers in Lenovo's home country are unable to view the YouTube contest, vote on the finalist videos and see the experiments live.
For Lenovo, the Space Lab contest ties into the company's focus on space and on technology education. Contest partners include NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Each of these space agencies and many of the students entering the contest have robust social networks that can talk about the branded contest, notes Roman. "The truth is, they will control the branding story, not us. We just find a project that fits with our message and get it started. [In today's marketing world] we don't really know how far an initiative like this it will go."
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.