When Tech Is Second Nature

SAN FRANCISCO You’ll know advertising has turned a corner when every creative team consists of an art director, a copywriter and a technology specialist, and ad campaigns matter of factly use technological advances — as well as words and images — to leverage a brand. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer, as an increasing number of ads and campaigns prove technology is as powerful a creative tool as a hilarious script, a striking design and an iconic celebrity.

The utilization of new technologies is hardly worth a second thought for the many consumers already living in a high-tech world. With electronic games, and gizmos and gadgets such as Wii, smart phones, iPods and PDAs woven into their lives, the use of leading-edge technology has become second nature.

Naturally, marketers are racing to catch up with these click-happy, tech-savvy consumers. They’re positioning themselves as innovators by tapping emerging technology for use in their creative work and, in some cases, to shape an entire creative effort.

Burger King’s online Subservient Chicken from 2004, in which typed-in words triggered the responses of a man in a chicken suit, and OfficeMax’s Elf Yourself microsite for the 2006 and 2007 holiday seasons, where people were turned into dancing elves, as well as other unique campaigns are proof that interesting tech tools can create marketing that is fun, engaging and certain to go viral.

Hot technologies can “serve as the key concept” behind a brand strategy, says Dorian Sweet, ecd at Tribal DDB. Some marketers “look at the technology [in any campaign] as an integral creative idea.”

Increasingly, a brand’s sex appeal is all about the tech, such as Nike’s 2007 association with Apple’s iPod for its Nike+ marketing. A sensor in the Nike+ sneakers wirelessly “talks” to runners via their iPods, syncing up music and verbal encouragement. Both Nike and Apple logos are used in the marketing, positioning Nike as forward-thinking. (Back in 2005, Nike used emerging technology in an interactive Times Square billboard: People were able to use their mobile phones to design a sneaker appearing on the sign and then purchase a pair.)

More recently, brands such as Adidas, Red Bull and A&E Television Networks have relied on technology-centric campaigns to grab consumers’ attention and tell the brand story.

To promote Paranormal State, a series about ghosts that launched in December 2007, A&E used an audio transmitting device connected to a billboard in New York. Working with Horizon Media and Holosonic, creator of the technology, A&E used the device to project voices in a discrete beam of sound, in much the same way a flashlight projects a narrow beam of light. People would hear the projected voices only when they were within the beam. The result: Random passersby felt like a voice was talking inside their heads, creating a sort of pseudo-paranormal experience. (People did not need to be using a mobile phone, iPod or any electronic device for the sound effect to work.)

The effort, which ran during the month the show launched, was designed to jolt innocent pedestrians out of their daily routines and to generate water cooler and online buzz about the show, which it did. One Gawker commenter responded to an item about the audio billboard, “Yipes! It’s a test, isn’t it? A test secretly sponsored by the CIA. Right?”

Adidas Enlists FBI Tech Tool

Although A&E could only freak out those who happened by, Adidas is reaching significantly more people on the Internet with a technology that allows for 360-degree views of videos.

As part of Adidas’ marketing campaign for its Team Signature basketball gear, the brand created the Basketball Is a Brotherhood microsite (adidasbasketball.com.) with 11 webisodes about a youth hoops camp hosted by NBA stars [Adweek, Oct. 29, 2007, “Adidas Calls the Shots”].

Adidas reckoned that basketball-crazed 13-to 18-year-olds would love to watch and listen to their basketball heroes up close, so certain scenes from the training sessions were shot with a 360-degree spherical camera by Immersive Media, with the footage used in six of the videos. Users who have Shockwave software can move their cursors over the videos and look in any direction they choose, essentially making each viewer a director of his or her own video. (The estimated one-third of users who don’t have Shockwave sees the content as a conventional video.) The result is that viewers feel almost as if they are on the gym floor with NBA greats such as Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics, Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs and Tracy McGrady of the Houston Rockets. The program, launched in October 2007, runs through this month.

“This campaign is about the on- and off-court moments that make a team more than just the sum of its individual players,” says Chris Kyle, vp of global brand communications at Adidas. By tapping into an emerging technology to help tell that story, Adidas seeks “to deliver insider moments to a global audience in a new way,” he says.

To pull it off, Adidas worked with multiple agencies: 180 created a TV, print, mobile and retail global ad campaign that promoted the webisodes; EVB crafted the site; and Taow Productions produced the videos and worked closely with Immersive Media.

Interestingly, Immersive’s camera technology, introduced three years ago, was used initially by the FBI to study the street routes of visiting dignitaries for security purposes, says Immersive CEO Myles McGovern.

Being one of the first youth brands to use the 360-degree video capability in its marketing “is a huge thing,” claims Adidas global communications director Travis Gonzolez. “It shows kids something they’ve never experienced before and gives them what they expect from us — leading-edge technology and production.”

The technology “lets everyman get into exclusive places where only the elite usually have access,” adds B. Scott Taylor, president of Taow. Rather than preaching to consumers, “it shows them that the brand is progressive and inclusive.”

Initial research from Taow found that viewers of the 360-degree video reacted like they were inside the action, says Taylor. Since users become the “directors” of the film, they can study their favorite players, hone in on background movements and comments, and replay the video to see reaction shots. “Each person has a different experience of the event,” Taylor explains. “It’s a new standard for storytelling.”

Taow research also shows that people were returning to the Adidas videos three to five times — increasing their exposure to product and brand elements — rather than spending one long session on the videos. By December, repeat visits to the Adidas microsite had jumped 5 percent, which was “significantly higher” than traffic increases at similar Adidas-branded sites without 360-degree video, according to Gonzolez.

If that jump seems a bit modest, perhaps it’s because Adidas doesn’t actively promote the video features. Ads for the site, for instance, don’t reveal anything about the interactive nature of the videos. “We wanted users to discover the new video features on their own, [to show] they can always look for something unexpected from our brand,” says Gonzolez.

Emotion Still Matters

The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same. Even though the technology driving a campaign may be new or sophisticated, its purpose still comes down to a fundamental of advertising: It has to tap into an emotional need, or risk ending up a fleeting novelty.

When looking for experiences to present in 360-degree video, for instance, Adidas found it’s better to focus on activities that people are emotionally invested in rather than events that offer only raw excitement, says Taylor. Research by Taow showed that people watched more video of a Notre Dame football game, for instance, than they did a seemingly more exciting video of a car speeding around a racetrack. College football fans are more emotional about Notre Dame and the heritage of the college and its football team than race car fans are about a single race, he says. “The game put [avid Notre Dame supporters] in a special place,” Taylor says.

To that end, Immersive is in conversations with NBC about behind-the-scenes and on-the-field Olympics coverage, and with the William Morris Agency about taking the cameras backstage at Hollywood events, says Immersive’s McGovern.

Tribal DDB’s Sweet warns that the use of leading-edge technologies has its limitations because not every audience will automatically care. Marketers, he says, should look closely at the special features and ask whether the new tech has enough sizzle to get people to take the time to absorb it.