Instant Branding: Viral E-Mail, Part 2

Last month, I wrote about what I call “instant branding.” You see instant branding in email messages in particular. Because of their irresistible wit, the messages are passed on to friends to share a wry smile, regardless of the fact the senders know they’re distributing advertising for free.

One example is McDonald’s promotion that ran at the same time the Beagle exploratory spacecraft landed on Mars. Picking up on the old adage, “Is there life on Mars?” McDonald’s capitalized on an existing expression of popular culture, free of identified authorship, unrestrained by copyright, and available to all in the public domain. McDonald’s seized an opportunity offered by current events. It married news of the Martian landing with the life on Mars concept. It started the ball rolling with an email bearing a picture of the Martian surface; in the corner was a McDonald’s sign and the words, “Life found on Mars.” Chuckling recipients cooperatively forwarded the message to friends, spreading cheer and the McDonald’s brand.

Today, I’ll provide some hints on making the most of such opportunities. How do you spot the right wave of popular culture and ride it? How do you ensure an initial distribution will multiply your message’s exposure through email forwarding?

Part one mentioned some ingredients for instant branding success. Here’s how to mix them:

  • Values. Define the values your brand’s communication is based on, if you didn’t when you designed the brand. Consider Richard Branson’s Virgin. Virgin’s values are communicated provocatively, with humor and a challenge to established values. Your brand’s values are what define your brand’s identity. These values will lead you to discover interesting instant branding opportunities and enable you to make the most of them when the opportunity arises. You must be able to respond to any opportunities with unfettered immediacy, and you can only take such action if you’ve signed off in advance on what you’re allowed (and not allowed) to do. The requisite speed of responding to instant branding opportunities demands bypassing approval procedures.
  • Insight. Dedicate someone in your organization or agency to identify breaking news stories or news-driven trends. Be prepared to grasp opportunities as they appear. My experience creating instant branding campaigns demonstrates that timing is the alpha and omega of success. The faster you react, the better the distribution you secure. So, select people to keep an eye and ear on popular culture, current affairs, and personalities.
  • Courage. Create an instant branding team of two or three creative people. The team should meet, brainstorm, and generate five or six ideas to propel news-driven instant branding campaigns. Humor and irony will secure successful distribution. To this, add an edge to your message. This step requires you to be open and stretch your usual brand messages an extra inch. Where, for example, the McDonald’s Beagle email was a safe bet, Disney’s Donald Duck email ran the risk of missing the mark on some peoples’ humor. How far are you prepared to go? Your brand’s values are your guide. Brief the team and arm them with the mandate to go as far as they feel comfortable doing. Then, be prepared to accept the consequences of whatever they come up with.
  • Judgment. Be extremely critical. Can the idea create the right momentum and generate the right distribution for your brand? Always ask yourself: would your competitor send the email on because of its irresistibility? Be critical about the message. Does it coalesce with your brand, send the right signals? Speed is key to instant branding, so your enthusiasm may pose a risk to your judgment. Test the idea among a range of friends who represent a spectrum of personalities, religious persuasions, nationalities, and backgrounds. If you find they all sent the email on to others because they loved it, you’re on the right track.
  • Prudence. Don’t be overtly promotional. If your message is tainted by even a fraction of self-promotion, no one will forward it. The message must feel authentic. You’re asking consumers to spend their valuable time sending a message that promotes your brand. They do this free of charge. You owe these recipients a worthwhile moment of amusement or entertainment.
  • Coordination. Set up a distribution network. Say you have 100 employees. Each of those staff members will have 100 email contacts. A thousand primary recipients is what you need to secure the right momentum. Seek the agreement of everyone in your organization to support the brand when the occasion arises. With a coordinated send, you’ll secure instant distribution and ongoing momentum.
  • Moderation. Don’t do it too often. Overexposure can be fatal. Sending messages every day or week is overkill. Develop a means to time your messages to leverage opportunities without boring people. We all experience the irritation of over-communication, and our personal selection filters are tough membranes. Only the very best ideas can pass through the filter. Don’t expect to build goodwill by sending out half-good ideas just to send something out.

Instant branding is all about riding the right wave, at the right time, with the right balance of humor, irony, and brand message. You’ll never run out of a marketing budget for instant branding. Only running out of ideas can hold you back. What more could you ask for these days, when a tight marketing budget always seems the ultimate obstacle to spreading a brand’s messages?

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