In April 1996, startup San Francisco agency Black Rocket launched a tiny TV campaign for an unknown search engine called Yahoo! It was the first work for the shop and the first campaign for the Web directory. It was also the beginning of a beautiful relationship. With slim budgets and offbeat humor, the agency has generated a memorable body of TV, print and radio ads that have tickled the public's fancy and helped turn Yahoo! into one of the most successful brands on the Net. By Joan Voight
In early 1996, Silicon Valley-based Yahoo! launched a search for a consumer ad agency. The company wanted to target a consumer group they called "near surfers," personal-computer owners who were connected to the Internet but hadn't spent much time on the Web. "We realized the near surfers were increasingly reflective of the general population," says Karen Edwards, vice president of brand marketing. "The category was at the point where broad marketing made sense."
At the time, "There were 50 search engines at the starting gate," recalls John Yost, agency partner. The goal: to turn a catchy name into a consumer brand and stay ahead of the pack. The young Internet company was also headed for an IPO and sought a leadership position in the marketplace. "They needed to build a big brand on very little," says agency partner and creative director Bob Kerstetter.
Finalists were Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., and Black Rocket, founded by veterans of San Francisco creative standouts Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Hal Riney & Partners (now Publicis & Hal Riney). RPA was well-versed in the workings of the Web and the purpose of search engines; Black Rocket was not. On the way to Silicon Valley for the first meeting with Yahoo! Kerstetter was skeptical about the whole search-engine idea. "I dunno," he told his colleagues, "I just don't get it."
But ignorance brought bliss. "Because we were so infatuated with the Internet," says marketing chief Edwards, "we needed an agency that could introduce some moderation." Black Rocket, she adds, "offered the attention of a small shop with the experience of four seasoned pros, and they showed a strong conviction about building a consumer brand."
During the presentation, the shop displayed a poster of 1,000 names of tech companies--in the middle of them all, in purple letters, was Yahoo! "We told them, 'If you can convince us it's cool, then we can convince others.' And they did," says Kerstetter, who became a convert once the client showed him how quickly information could be found.
In 1996, the Web was viewed as a rolling sea of confusion in need of beacons to light the way. Beyond the geeks, the rest of the world was approaching the Web with varying degrees of trepidation. "We decided to focus our attention not on current online users but on the future audience," says Yost. Limited research showed most people were excited to be part of the future but were blocked by fear, ignorance and skepticism. "Other tech advertisers seemed to be reinforcing consumers' fears with talk about the global, complex power of technology, putting their products on a pedestal."
The Yahoo! brand had to do the opposite, "positioning itself as a familiar face people could trust when they got online," says Yost.
"The technology was huge and complicated, so we knew the message had to be simple--what you would tell your dad or grandpa at Thanksgiving," adds Kerstetter. Agency partner and creative director Steve Stone says the tight deadline, two weeks after the agency won the account, helped. "[It] forced us to keep it simple, to whittle it down to one thing."
Much like Kerstetter's experience, the agency discovered there was a "magic moment" that turned casual online users into Web converts. "There is that time when you score the perfect piece of information, that moment of 'holy shit,'" says Stone.
A favorite agency example is the real-life, middle-aged Mrs. Trotter, who hated technology but loved growing orchids. "When Mrs. Trotter used Yahoo! to discover Web sites and chat rooms about orchids, she suddenly became a believer," says Yost. "Our creative strategy was built around dramatizing those 'magic moments' and the feeling of power that comes from finding help on the Internet," he says.
The campaign also needed to form a clear identity for the brand that would match its unpretentious name. "Our name kept us
honest," Edwards says.
Because Yahoo! was easy to use, the brand personality got reinforced. The tone of the advertising needed to take it further, magnifying the difference between Yahoo! and other tech brands. Rather than telling users the service was easy, a funny, irreverent tone would show them it wasn't complicated, says Edwards. "We figured fun and friendly equaled easy."
Casting was the key, but also a problem. The company was proud of its technology, and senior executives wanted cool, young surfer types in the ads. The agency pushed for ordinary people. The first ad featured an 80-year-old fisherman who used information from Yahoo! to catch a bunch of 250-pound fish. "Using characters like the old man stressed our point," says Stone. "It told
consumers if this guy could do it, anybody could."
The agency also created an audible cue to help people remember the brand, similar to the way traditional ad jingles are used. "The yodel was something loud and goofy. No one was doing that," says Kerstetter.
The yodel also sounded like a cheer, to represent the feeling of scoring the perfect piece of information on the Web. The tag was designed to turn the brand name into a verb and allowed for its use as a double entendre. For instance, many print ads playfully use the word as a code for sex. One ad shows a worried, middle-aged woman with the headline: "Is it possible to Yahoo! with the wrong hand?"
The client green-lighted the campaign concept, tagline and yodel at the same time it approved the first ad. "Originally, Karen [Edwards] didn't want a computer in the spots, which would ordinarily be a dream for a creative team like us," Stone says. "But we thought, 'To tell this story, we think you've got to have a computer.' "
The shop then had to find a director and 50 huge tuna. They found a model shop that could create the realistic-looking fish overnight. Erich Joiner, a colleague from Goodby, agreed to direct the work for reduced fees.
Three years, three more TV spots, seven radio ads and about 30 print ads later, the brand identity and basic ad approach have hardly changed. "In this industry, where others are always changing their names, their taglines and their positioning, we've stood out from the chaos by sticking to the same brand image," Edwards says.
Cheeky print ads use retro stock art and funny captions. Similarly, comical radio spots highlight everyday problems, such as shopping hassles and boring news broadcasts, that Yahoo! can solve.
A pair of recent TV ads introduced a man with an obnoxious pet monkey and a punk rocker who loves to quilt. "The monkey idea came from Bob [Kerstetter] after a couple beers," says Stone. "I think he has always wanted a pet monkey."
The new vignettes go beyond the characters' quest for information, showing how the service helps users connect with like souls.
While the ad executives used to be skeptical about the marketing expertise of online clients, "We surprised them by showing that, yes, you could do good work in this category," says Yost. Emblazoned on all company communications, the "Do you Yahoo!?" tagline is working its way into the online lexicon. Yahoo! is commonly used in the press as the representative brand for the Web-guide market.
Silicon Valley investors that fund online startups often use Yahoo! as a branding case study for their new ventures to emulate, while Edwards and her staff have won loads of Internet and technology marketing awards.
Tracking results in 1998 showed brand awareness is higher in markets where the TV ads appear. Company research in 1999 reveals that Yahoo!'s awareness among Web users is at 90 percent--and more than half the people on the Net visit the site every month. It has 60 million users today, compared to 2 million in 1996.
This year, IntelliQuest, a brand research firm in Austin, Texas, found that Yahoo!'s brand awareness has increased to 18 percent and is growing, compared to top Net brand AOL, which is
25 percent and shrinking.
Measurements by Media Matrix, New York, show Yahoo!'s site ranks first or second in the number of visitors it attracts in almost all the categories it is part of, such as finance and sports. However, it ranks far lower when it comes to repeat monthly visits.
Last Christmas, the company ran a full-page ad in the trade press to thank Black Rocket. In the ad, Yahoo! said it was "The world's most grateful online company." In addition to its compensation, the shop was given an undisclosed amount of Yahoo! stock. Since 1996, the client has grown from 35 to 1,000 employees; the agency has grown from four to 25 staffers.
Client and agency won't rest on their laurels. As the industry changes and the service moves into e-commerce, the brand will need to evolve. Specialized competitors, like eBay and CNet, have learned from Yahoo!'s user-friendly branding strategy and are challenging the leader with fatter ad budgets.
Future ads from Black Rocket will need to retain the company's accessible personality, while showing a more complex range of functions, say industry analysts. Yahoo!'s ad budget of $20 million will probably remain smaller than rival online brands, but its ads will likely become more "ambitious." In any case, the attitude is sure to remain.