Risks and Rewards of Viral Marketing

CANNES, FRANCE Viral marketing is a risk, but the rewards can pay off big time, according to advertising executives from Burger King, Microsoft and Volvo.

The three each presented successful case studies during a panel discussion about the burgeoning advertising medium at the International Ad Festival here today.

Russ Klein, chief global marketing officer of Burger King in Miami, discussed his company’s strategy to make “Have It Your Way” become a part of pop culture, what BK calls social currency, through a variety of viral marketing techniques. These include product placement on reality TV shows and Web sites such as “Subservient Chicken” by Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami.

“It’s more important to be provocative than pleasant sometimes,” he said, because getting noticed is what counts. At the same time, it’s also important not to wear out your welcome, he said, explaining that when Burger King was mentioned on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno 17 times in 60 days, BK cancelled other publicity so as not to become overexposed.

Klein also warned brands to “measure public dialogue over the long haul,” rather than on a case-by-case basis, because “social currency is a trajectory, not an event,” and not all coverage will be positive. The result of BK’s efforts: a consecutive 16-month rise in same-store sales.

Christopher Di Cesare, director of global games marketing for Microsoft’s XBox, talked about “I Love Bees,” the online campaign created to promote the Halo 2 video game. Consisting of fake Web sites and utilizing pay phones and GPS technology, the game created so much buzz it began crashing message boards created around the game.

“Our mantra was to mobilize the core and feed the masses,” Di Cesare said. His team made sure it had the right personnel to work on the campaign, aimed to “keep ’em guessing,” and “entertain and engage,” he said. It worked: the game had $125 million in sales on the first day it was available.

Tim Ellis, global advertising director for Volvo, discussed “The Mystery of Dalaro,” a viral campaign created for the Volvo S60 last year in Europe. Volvo created a Web site featuring a pseudo-documentary about a small town in Sweden where 32 people bought the same car in one day. Another Web site, purportedly created by the director, disputed the authenticity of the original documentary.

It wasn’t easy to convince the Volvo board to go for the viral idea, Ellis said, but passion about the campaign sold it through in the end. “The price [of viral campaigns] is simply willingness and commitment to ideas,” he said. “If you’re willing to make that commitment, you have to take risks and break rules.”

The result of their dedication to the idea was that sales of the car “broke every sales record,” according to Ellis.