L’Oreal’s Viral Model Experiment – A Sign of the Future of Digital Marketing or a Warning Sign?

If this isn’t a textbook case of the potential dangers of a brand seeking to venture into the unknown darkness that is what Huge Digital’s planning director Joe McCaffrey calls “Agile Strategy,” I don’t know what is.

A few weeks back, L’Oreal, the largest cosmetics company on the planet, announced it had signed a contract with a Belgian girl whose picture from the World Cup went viral. After realizing the attention she was getting, the girl, 17-year-old Axelle Despiegelaere, set up a Facebook page, which attracted more than 200,000 likes in just more than a week.

The folks at L’Oreal saw this as well, and, 24 hours later, they signed her to a modeling contract. Just 24 hours after that, L’Oreal released a video of Despiegelaere using their products at her local salon.

The amazing thing about this situation is that, within 48 hours, L’Oreal had found, signed, and launched the career of what was, just days before, an unknown teenager. Oh, and let’s not forget the more than 4.5 million hits the video received after being published.

Think about that. Four-and-a-half-million views. That’s about a quarter of the audience of an American Idol finale, which, aside from a minimal contract and a few production expenses, only cost them the time it took one of their interns to post to YouTube (sucks to be Ford right about now).

No $10,000-per-hour fee and no huge marketing budget/months of prep time necessary. What a great concept, right?

Not so fast. Alas, just as we were beginning to see the cracks in the stuffy, “old-school” style of the carefully planned/painstakingly coordinated three to six months media campaign, a picture of Despiegelaere standing over a dead antelope, holding a shotgun, appears on her Facebook page. Literally “shooting” her short-lived L’Oreal career dead.

The social media Gods giveth, the social media Gods taketh away.

An outspoken supporter of animal rights – they’ve taken a highly visible stance against animal testing of any kind – L’Oreal was obviously blindsided by the sudden, negatively charged publicity disaster they inadvertently created and immediately terminated the contract between them and what must have been a very stressed-out and Twitter-bashed Despiegelaere.

This latest twist to what is obviously a new, yet dangerous, force to be reckoned with in the world of digital marketing leaves many unanswered questions: With the potential of any video, no matter how small, going viral, is there such a thing as a test market anymore?

Is going the DIY/grassroots way of casting unknowns – from points anywhere – in spots and hiring local camera crews off Craigslist worth the potential downside of, say, Budweiser finding out the new, young Midwestern stud they just cast in their “Tough Guy” ad is gay?

Of course, all this chatter just adds to the buzz around the brand. Negative or positive – as long as people are sharing and viewing the story, brands like L’Oreal will reap the benefits. Even though they’ve severed ties with their new discovery, and had to do a bit of backtracking regarding saying she was the new “It” girl, the video continues to amass thousands of views/day.

There’s yet another angle to all of this.

Huge Digital’s McCaffrey feels there could have, indeed, been some planning behind the scenes at L’Oreal that would’ve made it appear to look like a random signing, but, what was, in fact, a carefully orchestrated, “Agile Strategy” campaign.

McCaffrey believes the “broad strokes” were sketched already – i.e., the plot was hatched to find a girl during the World Cup to turn into a L’Oreal spokesmodel – and, once they did, the other points fell into place.

“Campaigns around the World Cup, or any other large sporting event are, of course, prepared and planned for months in advance,” says McCaffrey. “What we are witnessing here, and in many other real-time marketing feats of late, however, is the agile approach to strategic planning. A baseline plan that is laid well in advance of the event, cementing the larger pieces that require the most advance planning (such as budget allocations, TV buying, heavy production, etc.). On top of the initial baseline plan, there are a number of flexible variables that will require less lead time. This ‘context layer’ on top of the baseline is where we look for inputs based on spikes in social conversation, culturally relevant news, or events and the sentiment around them. A brand’s ability to react quickly and adapt their plans based on these real-time developments will reward them a ‘return on agility.’ The quicker that a brand like L’Oreal is able to react to a real-time swell in attention around this individual, the bigger payoff for the brand. And considering how rapidly these viral sensations come and go, striking while the iron is hot is critical.”

Given the climate these days, no matter how much time you spend deciding where to strike, when you finally do, you’re on limited turn-around time, so vetting the “chosen one” to satisfaction may not be a realistic option if you’re a brand that wants to capitalize on the craze of the moment.

The next few months/years of digital DIY versus big budget ads should make for some interesting headlines down the road. Who knows? Perhaps, by this time next year, we’ll be calling it “Virtual L’Oreality.”

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