How Viber’s CMO Is Transforming the Mobile Messaging App Into a Lifestyle Brand

Growing its presence with first U.S. ad campaign

Unless you're a teenager, you probably haven't heard of Viber. That's likely about to change. The Tel Aviv, Israel-based messaging app has 664 million users globally. After opening a Boston office this year, it has launched its first big U.S. marketing push, a collaboration of Droga5, Essence and Laundry Service encompassing digital (Spotify ads), print (Fader magazine) and out of home (New York and Boston transit hubs), as well as partnerships with brands and social media influencers. Viber has been such a hit internationally that Japanese online retailer Rakuten last year spent $900 million to acquire it. Also last year, the company tapped marketing chief Mark Hardy, whose focus right now is communicating the brand's revamped image as Viber shifts from being an app best known for offering free international calls to a global lifestyle brand.

Adweek: This is Viber's first big marketing push in the U.S. Why now, and what's in store?

Mark Hardy: We currently have just over 44 million users in the U.S., so the brand is already quite well-known. The focus of our campaign is all about reappraising Viber. Since our launch back in 2010, the Viber app has changed a lot, and we want to ensure that our users, whether they're existing or new users, are aware of this.

What differentiates Viber from all the other messaging apps?

Viber originally launched as a free calling app, and since then we've taken lots of feedback and input from our users. We launched our free messaging, group messaging and video calling, and now we're moving ourselves into a space that's much more about Viber being an entertainment ecosystem. More recently, we released something called Public Chat, which is our take on a mobile social media platform that allows our followers to follow the conversations of celebrities, brands, sports and personalities, to read media, get news, follow jokes and so on. We also have a games market. So we're pushing ourselves forward to be a destination app where users experience a number of different entertainment and exciting content experiences. The campaign that we're putting together tries to show that we're not a tech app. We see ourselves as a lifestyle brand that is tuned into what our users are interested in and making sure that we deliver a great communication service but also lots of really interesting functionality.

How is Viber working with brands?

We'll work with brands or a media partner to create sticker packs based around their offerings or their products. What we don't do in Viber is carry really intrusive brand advertising. But we're always looking for opportunities to work with brands to create branded sticker packs, which can lead through to our Public Chats. We have this function called Free and Follow where a [brand] gives away a sticker for free and then the consumer that downloaded that sticker automatically becomes a follower of their Public Chat. So it's a great way for a brand to build up a following and to be able to engage directly with the people following their brand. It helps lift the lid off the organization where they can talk about their products and services, where it's not about advertising but it's about content marketing and kind of humanizing those brands.

How is Viber's sticker strategy different from other apps?

Like any platform, it's all about offering a unique point of view, exclusive content, specific characters. If you look at the best-selling or the most-used stickers in our store, we've got a number of characters that we developed. It's all about building equity in your own characters. We recently released animated stickers, and what we're doing now is tapping into the research to see what American users want. It's less and less about cutesy characters and more about stickers with attitude. I keep hearing the word "squad," and those youth-oriented expressions are coming out as the things that we need to have on our stickers.