The Barbarian Group defends Subservient Chicken effort

In the July 10 issue of Adweek, Scott Johnson had a piece printed about some work we did a while ago, called subservientchicken.com. He said it was “boring.” I have some space here to have my response printed, so here it is: “You are totally right. You thought it was boring, and a lot of other people did too.”

And yet, by all reasonable accounts, as a piece of marketing, it was a spectacular success. For minimal cost and effort (adjusted for inflation, it cost about $17, I think), there were several hundred million visitors, great press and many chicken sandwiches sold. It helped redefine a boring brand amongst a valuable target audience.

Along the way, it spawned a wave of innovative online marketing and copycats, and turned into a poster child for how to do “viral marketing” (a term used incorrectly 95 percent of the time, by the way). That’s awesome, that worked. We’re interested in finding out what works. We learned something we all suspected—that the Internet is useful in getting the word out to a large number of people with a small amount of money, using the power of interpersonal communication.

We found another useful tool. We wanted to see if viral advertising could work. We now know that it does. Scott’s right in this sense. There’s no need to prove it again. When your marketing needs call for busting out the “viral” tool, now you have something to back up your plan to the suits. You’re welcome. For those of us who care where advertising is heading and how we can make it better, though, the job’s not done.

We think the notion of “brand consistency” is dying. Dead. Should be dead, anyhow. We never really understood it in the first place. If, as many people say, you should think of a brand as a person with his or her own unique identity—let’s use me as an example—it seems like it is perfectly natural that I talk and act in a different way when I am at work, or at a bar, or talking to my mom. You would never accuse me of being “inconsistent” for acting differently in those situations.

Applying the same personality to everyone doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. Take fast food as an example. Lots and lots of different types of people eat at Burger King: men, women, truckers, kids, parents, college students, busy people, grandmothers, stoners, etc. The best way to appeal to all of them at once is to make a television commercial that shows a tasty sandwich, and says there is a restaurant nearby where for a minimal price they can buy and eat the aforementioned sandwich the next time they might be hungry. But sometimes you want to talk to just one of those groups. And now we can do that much more easily.

One of the most amazing things about the Internet is that it is self-selecting. You can, of course, target people just like with other media, but the most exciting and effective work is when you get specific, when you make a statement or joke or experience that is really tailored to a narrow audience. It’s like having 1,000 “boutique” agencies for every possible subculture. When you do that right, it really only hits the radar of the people that you want it to hit, and is completely ignored by everyone else.

Let’s say you want to talk to a youngish audience, who is going to be on the Internet late at night, and they spend a lot of money on fast food but have no brand loyalty. Let’s say we can make that person laugh, perhaps by dressing up a guy in a chicken suit and making a Web site where you can make the chicken-man do what you say. And let’s say that the next time that person is out and has the munchies, there is a BK on one side of the street and a McDonald’s on the other side of the street. And they giggle and say, “Heh. Subservient Chicken,” and head to the BK. Success! If you want to talk directly to a certain group, they will really appreciate it if you create something they know is for them, and only them.

Subservient Chicken was really successful, but was absolutely in no way meant to be creatively fascinating for everyone. That’s for the Super Bowl or something (and good luck with that). It was supposed to do its job (make the stoner laugh, and hopefully buy a sandwich) and prove a point: that you can do something really weird and dumb for a fickle audience, for very little money and with very little branding, and still create effective advertising.

Benjamin Palmer

co-founder and president

The Barbarian Group, Boston