A Brand’s Virtual Universe

The best brands create worlds unto themselves. Apple, with its dancing silhouette iPod images, urges you to jump into its rockin’ world. Firefox lets devotees with technical skills join its community and create add-on applications to enhance its browser, creating a richer and more involving product in the process. (Nontechies can always volunteer to market the browser.)

Imagine combining that world creation with the fun and engagement of advergaming, and you’ll see why I got interested in start-up agency The Brain Bridge.

The venture began when 23-year-old teen-lit author Ned Vizzini turned to 25-year-old pal Adam Collett for help promoting his latest title, “Be More Chill,” online. The book revolves around the concept of a Squip — an electronic “pill” that the main character, Jeremy, takes to make himself, well, more chill. The device gives him advice, mostly on how to handle girls. Vizzini wanted Collett to create a product Web site for Squips, as if they were real. Instead, Collett suggested creating a universe (they call it a “squipiverse”) of sites: squipnews.com, iwanttobecool.org, celebritysquip.com, and 11 others.

“We got funding from his book publisher to do that, and then went into business,” Collett told me.

The squipiverse experience differs depending on how you enter, but it turns into a fascinating chase that takes readers from site to site to discover other parts of the universe. After the launch, ordinary people started to become engaged, so much so that they volunteered to write Squip News articles and sent in Celebrity Squip spottings. Collett says the agency has received “thousands” of email messages from people inquiring about Squips.

More recently, Collett and Vizzini signed on to promote “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” a book by Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. To do that, they decided to create an online world set in the period in which the book’s action takes place. They invented a period equivalent of the Web — called the Fluctuating Frequency Field, or FFF — and even a 1911 version of Wi-Fi (Ho-Fi, for Horseless-Fidelity). Colloquially, the FFF is called “the Mesh.”

“It was very important to come up with a narrative of how this all happened,” Collett said. “We’re Nikola Tesla fans, and we decided that he had invented something that’s similar to this. Instead of saying you’re online, you say you are ‘enmesh.’ Instead of a blog, you have a ‘meshlog.'”

What has resulted is a network of Web sites describing both the imaginary technology and the daily life of people in 1911. There’s a community site called moisheslist (where visitors can post, a Mesh News site, and Mesh Vision, a “moving pictures” site. There’s also a site designed to engage those who stumble upon it and get them wanting to find out more. Many of the elements link to one another, but all ultimately lead to triangle1911book.com, the only site that overtly promotes the book itself, linking to barnesandnoble.com.

Von Drehle is intrigued and excited about what the young men are doing.

“Most sites promoting books, they’re pretty standard, pretty conventional advertising. Whether what these guys are doing ultimately is going to work or not in a commercial sense, I find it pretty exciting and provocative as an attempt to leverage the power of the technology in a more creative way,” he said. “It seems to me the idea is to get people to go and have fun in this alternative universe of a 1911 World Wide Web out of curiosity. It’s a mystery; it’s a puzzle to try to figure out what on earth it is. That’s what interactivity is. It’s making the person on the other end invest some brainpower in it.”

Von Drehle’s executive editor, Joan Bingham, was the one who initiated the relationship between Grove Atlantic and The Brain Bridge. She says she reached out to the Web because of her dissatisfaction with existing book promotion techniques.

“I’ve been so frustrated by the conventional author’s tour,” she told me. “We’re considering bringing one author over from Australia for $7,000. It’s just not cost-effective. There just has to be a more effective way of promoting books.” (Note: None of the parties involved would divulge the budget for the Triangle 1911 project.)

The Brain Bridge isn’t the only company to employ such techniques for online marketing. Probably the most elaborate network of sites was erected for the Steven Spielberg flick, “A.I.”, back in 2001. BMW, with the help of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, recently took a mysterious viral approach to promote its Mini Cooper, with sites describing mysterious sightings of giant robot-like creatures roaming the English countryside and another site detailing a scientist’s experiments at making robots from Mini Cooper parts.

Still, Collett and Vizzini are the only ones I know specializing completely in what they call “interactive contextual advertising.” (They’ve even done some of this work for Amsterdam, Netherlands, based agency StrawberryFrog.)

Of course, the important question is, does this technique sell books, cars, movie tickets, or whatever else? I don’t have metrics — and those who try to get them are unlikely to get many meaningful metrics (other than traffic and, in the case of books, referrals to online book stores).

On a subjective level, the Triangle 1911 thing doesn’t seem to work as well as the squipiverse did. There’s this big contrast between the lighthearted tone of the online work and the tragic events described in the book. The 1911 sites also seem aimed at a fairly young audience, not necessarily the same people who’d be interested in historical nonfiction. Von Drehle disagrees.

“It’s true to the book in that what they’ve done is try to take [site] visitors imaginatively into the world of 1911, and in a nonfiction way I tried to do the same thing,” he told me. “The story of the Triangle fire is obviously a very serious matter, but it’s not just a tragedy and the book is not just tragic. There’s a lot of life in it, and it really does make an effort to capture not just a 30-minute event, but the whole world in which it happened. That was a world of young people who had exciting and interesting and, in many cases, dramatic lives.”

Speaking of young people with interesting lives, The Brain Bridge guys plan to expand from serving solely publishing clients into other areas, such as music or film companies. Keep your eyes on this young agency that’s doing some really chill things.

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