Instant Branding: Viral E-Mail, Part 1

Remember when the Beagle landed on Mars? It was a big day, tapping into a collective sense of science fiction and fact we’ve inherited over centuries. It represented possibilities: Would life be discovered on the red planet? Would the Beagle’s discoveries move humanity one step closer to living in space? The latest chapter in exploration captured the world’s attention. And it offered the opportunity to leverage what was probably the world’s cheapest branding platform. News of exploration in space offered access to a vast audience in cyberspace!

Possibly you’re one of the reportedly 50 million people who, at the time, received an email showing the Martian surface. If you did, you’d have noticed, in the corner of the landscape, a McDonald’s sign planted in the dusty earth and nearby the title, “Life found on Mars.”

The price tag attached to this great advertising? Zero. Why? The concept wasn’t created by McDonald’s. Who hasn’t, since the dawn of astronomical research, wondered whether there’s life on other planets? “Life on Mars” as a concept can be applied to anything. It happened that McDonald’s seized the opportunity and applied the age-old query to its own witty brand promotion.

Is it possible to plan such an eventuality?

Just days ago, I was one of 35 million recipients of an email containing a picture taken in Disneyland. On closer inspection, I saw the iconic figure of Donald Duck lying prone in front of the famous Cinderella Castle. The title,”Bird Flu has hit Disneyland.”

It was another joke made in the face of global events, understood by all of us as colluders in the ironic art of making light of what’s serious. Like life on Mars, the bird flu epidemic is newsworthy and has the potential to attract an enormous amount of attention to any brand that might, for whatever reason, associate itself with it. Both examples use humor as a vehicle to ensure distribution. Both offer an opportunity to position brands in a new light. And, in the bird flu example, it takes the brand to the very edge of acceptability (a subtle demarcation that defies firm mapping). For this production and distribution, the cost to the brands was close to zero.

This “instant branding” is an untapped way to build your brand. A friend of mine, Peter Weedfald, SVP of strategic marketing at Samsung, said in a speech at a recent symposium in New York, “The future of marketing is not to count on TV, radio, or print advertising. The future is to create your own virtual marketing network and enable your message to be instant with the press of a button.”

Today, Samsung has a network of thousands of Web sites tuned to promote messages from Samsung as soon as the timing’s right. Guess what. Samsung is the one of the most successful brands in North America.

Here are some ingredients for instant-branding success:

  • Firm brand values and organization-wide commitment to them
  • Insight into popular culture
  • Courage
  • Judgment
  • Prudence
  • Coordination
  • Moderation

In part two, I’ll give you tips on putting these ingredients together.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.