Cranium’s cult of personality keeps the love alive
Julia Roberts is one are you? A Craniac that is—one of the millions of devoted fans of the wildly popular board game launched six years ago by company co-founders Richard Tait and Whit Alexander. After selling its first million brain-tingling games with only the word on the street the company has had to beef up its mainstream ad budgets to keep up with competitors like Milton Bradley and soon-to-be parent company Hasbro. But at its core Cranium is still a brand consumers fall in love with one recommendation at a time—thanks to its passionate and ever-growing cult of self-described brand co-owners called Craniacs.
They show up in buses just to see where the games are made they talk to Tait on the phone (he regularly calls customers that email feedback) and they eagerly participate in focus groups literally having a hand in shaping the next great game. It’s the kind of grassroots support that can lift an underdog brand on its way up and then stick around to keep it there once it starts swimming with the big fish.
“Word of mouth continues to be our most effective and most powerful marketing tool ” Tait says. “That feeling of being small close to customers being nimble—we’re eager to be an important brand in today’s world but we never want to forget how we got there.”
Tait points to a few unconventional marketing tactics that leverage the brand’s closeness with its fans to keep the WOM groundswell alive. First he says break through the clutter. In 2005 Cranium bypassed traditional promotional channels and instead struck a deal with America West Airlines putting trivia video segments on flights. “When [passengers] got off the plane we hoped they talked about it and said ‘We just played this amazing game.’ So [the program] was a combination of both trial plus thinking about how do you generate fuel and ignite that word of mouth.”
Second Tait says change the channel. Product experiences in unexpected but relevant places create an element of surprise that can fuel future WOM. For example in 1998 when Cranium couldn’t get shelf space because of the uh monopoly by older more established game companies he partnered with Starbucks to sell Cranium in 1 600 of its stores. InStyle readers last year were delighted to find a pullout Oscars trivia game created by Cranium. And lovers of the game can personalize Cranium game cards turning them into marriage proposals. Now thousands of personal engagement stories come with the name Cranium attached.
In September Tait combined all the tools in the arsenal—killing the clutter changing the channel and most importantly creating opportunities for fans to spread the Craniac joy—into a massive live event that spanned the country. To launch its newest adult party game Cranium WOW the company identified 1 000 fans that fit the target demo (socially connected women ages 25 to 34) then gave them the tools to host a game-night party. Cranium gave hostesses coupons to drive post-game retail visits and created a website where players could jump online and share post-game experiences. The events reached 15 000 people in one night breaking the record held by Scrabble for most games ever played at one time—a nice added p.r. hook. Tait says the events sparked a surge in sales and was “one of the most successful launches ever” (Agency: Houseparty Irvington NY).
Alltel surprises delights and endears in new markets
Like Cranium and Dodge Alltel Wireless is giving potential customers something to talk about by creating branded experiences in unexpected yet relevant places. Through its Random Acts of Kindness campaign the cell provider pops up unannounced in new markets where the brand has recently acquired a local provider and plans to open new stores. To kick off the Phoenix-area effort last October Alltel sent out a troupe of Good Deeds Guys including Kurt Warner and Chad the Alltel TV ad guy to visit grocery stores gas stations and coffee shops and thank consumers by buying bags of groceries tanks of gas and breakfast for everyone in the restaurant. At local in-store events athletes like Warner and Larry Fitzgerald held Wireless Autograph sessions where they recorded voicemail greetings on consumers’ phones. Alltel also hosted a free outdoor Goo Goo Dolls concert for 2 000 attendees at the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza. On site consumers could tour the Alltel Freedom Rig a 53-foot tractor-trailer and product showcase. Phoenix residents and new customers were also invited to take advantage of a music-themed holiday promotion that included a phone and music downloads. The rock concert is the first event of its kind for the brand that has opened 20 stores in the area and plans to open 10 more by the end of 2008 (Agency: GMR Marketing New Berlin WI).
Changing consumer perceptions about all of the headaches that come with cell phone plans is no easy task but Lucie Pathmann director-marketing publicity at Alltel Wireless says the guerrilla events and the concert did the trick driving consideration for the brand up by generating positive WOM that spread like wildfire. “The surprise factor is what really takes hold when we’re in a market ” Pathmann says. “Especially in a smaller community word of mouth gets around. ‘Hey have you seen the Alltel guy? He’s going around buying people stuff. He just bought my breakfast for me.’ So you actually get people looking for him.”
Pathmann admits it’s tough to measure post-event ROI on WOM initiatives but says that tracking media impressions is still a viable strategy especially in tight-knit cities where word travels fast among smaller populations. “The media can really give you a sense of how a community embraces a program and how that program has taken on its own life in a community. Based on the results we received strictly from a media impression standpoint they were phenomenal. We feel like word of mouth took hold and media impressions backed that up.”
Word-of-mouth strategies have become more prevalent in Alltel’s marketing budgets and it has backed it up by shifting staff and Pathmann’s role in the org chart to better service the grassroots WOM and community-level outreach. “Essentially what my group tries to do day-to-day is to find experiential ways that we can connect the consumer with our brand and then garner WOM and media impressions ” she says. “When we assess something we really want to make sure we service those two objectives. Because again that will all lead to awareness and consideration in the marketplace. It is a cheaper way to touch a consumer one-on-one.”
JetBlue lets go and watches brand equity soar
You know the old saying “If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If it doesn’t it was never meant to be.” Well there’s a nugget of truth buried in the corny Hallmark moment that applies directly to event marketing. And JetBlue gets it like nobody’s business. Sure the brand has always had a cult-like following inspired by its once revolutionary no-frills low-cost brand proposition and its reputation for top-notch customer service. But seven years into the biz JetBlue is still earning brand fans and starting conversations by creating events that empower consumers to run with the message. Like P&G said you have to let go.
To support its 2006 Sincerely JetBlue multimedia campaign the airline traveled to 12 major markets with a fuselage-turned-confessional called the Story Booth. Consumers were invited into the mobile video studio to stand in front of a green screen and then begin their story with the words “Dear JetBlue.” Their tales of exceptional service and happy flight experiences were captured and then artfully repurposed into animated TV ads featuring the voices and faces of passionate JetBlue customers—a creative and cost-effective way for a growing brand to maintain the small friendly airline equity that gave it its start. By the end of the tour 1.2 million consumers stopped by the booth and 2 000 stories were recorded. “We know that over 80 percent of our customers have recommended us to a friend ” says Sandford director-marketing at JetBlue. “Those are obviously huge numbers so what we try to do is look for additional ways to harness that word of mouth and give a megaphone to our customers who are really our biggest advocates” (Agency: Mr. Youth New York City).
Like Alltel JetBlue also uses surprise tactics in unexpected places to generate a little positive street talk in key markets. Last summer JetBlue-branded ice cream trucks toured New York City and San Francisco giving out free ice cream. At Thanksgiving it was free hot chocolate for Manhattanites. And last year it was giant boxes of the airline’s signature on-board snacks left in public places free for the taking. “We’re looking for things where there’s no disconnect so it’s like ‘Oh it’s JetBlue. I’ve heard they’re so nice ’ or ‘I’ve flown them and they’re so nice and now it’s 100 degrees and they’re giving me a free ice cream cone ” says Sandford. “We’ve had a lot of success with that type of marketing and we see it in blogs and in hearing people talk about it.”
Brown Forman skips show and tell and goes straight to “do”
Two years ago beverage distributor Brown Forman purchased French liqueur brand Chambord then set out to get its signature bedazzled bottle off the shelves and more frequently into the hands of bartenders across the country. The resulting trade influencer program mixed education conversation and a splash of luxury to get the industry buzzing.
Bartenders and mixologists are bombarded with sales pitches that usually take place in their establishments. Chambord’s first order of business was to get them out from behind the bar and into a more relaxed environment. High-end suites were selected in 10 markets to serve as venues for the shindigs and to provide an opportunity for a little peer-level elbow rubbing a key strategy for driving WOM in a tight-knit community with a lot of lateral movement.
Next to get the word out Chambord enlisted the help of 10 in-the-know local brand ambassadors who were tasked with identifying top influencers in the area. They attended weeklong training at headquarters in St. Louis then reached out to invitees in their areas. By hiring ambassadors with deep local connections the program served up the right people not just the top people. “We had a varied audience ” says Mike Tong brand manager-Americas at Chambord. “In Boston it was top mixologists in Dallas waitstaff from Chili’s. We wanted to get the message across not only to our top people but also to general trade because they all become ambassadors for us.” Tong is on to something often overlooked by b-to-b marketers—key influencers may not be at the top of the org chart but buried somewhere in the middle.
At the events the ambassadors talked shop one-on-one with attendees getting feedback about the brand while subtly delivering key messages that attendees could easily translate into customer recommendations. Chambord is made from real fruit and is all-natural for example.
“We spent a lot of time on what message we wanted to get across ” says Tong. “There was an underlying theme throughout these events and that was to educate bartenders without their thinking that they had been educated. You have to speak their language and you have to lead them through the door in the manner they want to go. We brought that to the table in a manner that wasn’t about ‘Here’s the five things you need to know.’”
Guests were invited to roll up their sleeves take a spin on the flavor wheel and play with the full bar of mixers and alcohols—something they rarely have the luxury to do in their own bars (Agency: Ammo Marketing San Francisco).
“A lot of companies that are going to the trade are speaking to them in a rushed and infrequent manner ” says Tong. “Our program took those individuals and put them in a comfortable setting that was conducive to engaging them.”
Now in its second year the program is delivering numbers worth drinking to: a 14 percent boost in volume within the program’s accounts and re-order rates up 17 percent. The qualitative research points to a powerful word-of-mouth effect at work too. Post-session surveys showed that 95 percent of attendees agreed they were likely to tell someone they worked with about the Chambord session. Eighty-nine percent would likely recommend it to a customer. Chatter in the industry about the events is so high among the 1 500 attendees from the first year that Chambord has more interested bartenders than it can accommodate in this year’s program. Cheers to that!
Victoria’s Secret gives girls something to talk about
Just four years ago Victoria’s Secret spun off a collection of loungewear lingerie and accessories for young women called Pink. Today the nearly billion-dollar retail brand can be found proudly emblazoned across the butts chests and backs of teenage and college girls across the country as well as all over their MySpace and Facebook pages. (Remember how the contents of your high-school locker told people who you were?) Launching a new brand is tricky enough. Being embraced by a finicky female youth audience whose talk value can make or break your brand’s cool factor—well that’s about as tough as it gets. “This age group is highly influenced by its peers and they take their word much more seriously than they do messages directly from the brand itself ” says Jennifer Peterson vp-marketing at Victoria’s Secret. “They really want that acknowledgement that this is in fact a good product or a good brand and something they should check out. Pink has a strong brand reputation and is a brand that a girl wears. She really wears it proudly. It’s not subtle. I don’t think you enjoy that kind of exposure unless you’re a brand that has that kind of credibility with the customer base.”
How did Victoria’s Secret win so many Pink ladies? Like Cranium and Alltel it mixed a little bit of surprise and delight with some truly unique event experiences added some JetBlue-style brand fans and campus outreach then topped it all off with some tech tools to empower brand co-ownership and to keep the brand buzzing between events. The result—an integrated mix ripe for lots and lots of girl talk.
In 2004 Pink launched its first store in Miami by dropping a mysterious 26-foot-by-26-foot pink and white polka-dotted gift box on the beach. Street teams worked the area for days handing out Meet at the Big Pink Box invitations on foot and via a pink and white polka-dotted Hummer. The big reveal event featured a fashion show live musical performances a dj and models in their underwear tossing t-shirts and other swag into the crowd. The brand expected 500 people to show up. It got 5 000. Plus 17 million p.r. impressions to boot (Agency: Mr. Youth New York City). All without the help of a single print or TV ad. Since then Pink has become the brand girls buzz about—long before they ever read about it.
Last July the brand followed up its inaugural World’s Largest Pajama party event in New York City with its second annual event held in Chicago. For one night Charter One Pavilion was transformed into a pink palace filled with bigger-than-life stuffed dogs and pink blankets. Attendees could enjoy a special live performance by pop-star Fergie take snapshots with girlfriends in the photo booth or buy merchandise in the pop-up shop. Pink invited girls at the event to take snapshots with their camera phones and upload them on the spot (Agency: Resource Interactive Columbus OH). The images were shown on an LED screen behind the stage throughout the event—a thrill for the girls and their BFFs who each had her turn at being a star of the Pink show. And what girl doesn’t tell her pals about that? “I think it’s being a very open brand ” says Peterson. “We’ve taken our cues from the Pink girl. The brand was very specifically developed and inspired and created for college girls and never varied from that path. Being really true to your positioning and talking and listening to her and creating an open dialogue are the keys to Pink’s success” (Agency: Relevent New York City).
Like JetBlue VS Pink’s campus rep program fuels WOM by letting brand ambassadors have the freedom to get the word out any way they want. “There’s not a lot of monitoring or checking up. It’s more to really engage her and let her run with it ” Peterson says.
This spring Pink will launch a national intern search leaning on its website and social networks to get the word out. “The web gives all our strategies reach and exposure to a broader audience ” Peterson says. “We are a very inclusive brand and we want to be able to engage and have as many girls participate as want to.”