Marketing: Dewing it alone

How the power of social networks could render traditional marketing departments obsolete.

When one of the highest-profile marketers in the country publicly muses about using social media to replace multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, other marketers — and the media that depend on them — take notice. Richard Musson, vice-president of marketing for beer giant Labatt Breweries of Canada, created just such a you-could-hear-a-pin-drop moment at the fall meeting of the Association of Canadian Advertisers when he detailed how social media dominated the summer launch of Bud Light Lime.

The Toronto-based brewer was delighted to find a hard-core Facebook community of drinkers campaigning for the U.S. brew to be brought to Canada, and decided to mobilize its online fans. “Rather than sort of ignoring these crazy people, we thought that they could be great advertising for us, so we spoke with them and we told them it was coming to Canada first, so they were very excited,” recalls Musson. Those online Facebook true believers were rewarded with swag in the form of T-shirts and other branded goodies, and were encouraged to spread the word about the impending introduction. “We continue to this day to communicate with them, and it is still to this day the biggest Facebook site of any beer in Canada,” he says of the 100,000-person-strong Bud Light Lime site.

Labatt’s success with Bud Light Lime has the company now rethinking how it carries out new product introductions and the “several-million”-dollar budgets of traditional multimedia ad campaigns. “It does raise huge questions about, you know, could you in the future have half the marketing budget and do it differently,” says Musson. “They were a bit shocked at the ACA when I mentioned it,” especially the media executives in the audience. “They weren’t too happy.”

What the marketing team at Labatt is engaged in, though Musson doesn’t use the term, is crowd-sourcing — harnessing the wisdom of crowds to tackle tasks such as product design or crafting marketing slogans that would normally be done by staff or contractors. This focus-group-on-steroids tool is gaining appeal thanks to heavily travelled social sites like Facebook and Twitter. In the U.S., the push to social-media marketing has been trail-blazed by the likes of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, beverage giants that, just like Labatt, are trying to capture the attention and affection of a young, social-media-savvy consumer set. At best for marketers, crowd-sourcing promises to keep their messages fresh as their respective consumer bases change. At worst, it eliminates the need for big in-house marketing departments altogether.

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PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew brand is into the second round of its DEWmocracy campaign, which allows fans to create and vote on a new Mountain Dew beverage flavour. The soft drink company has established what it calls a “Dew lab” of more than 4,000 online participants who learned about the effort solely by word of mouth. “We didn’t advertise the program.…The primary reason is that we really wanted this product development cycle to be done with loyal, passionate Mountain Dew fans,” said project manager Bart Casabona. What’s remarkable is Dew’s unofficial product development and marketing team is not receiving any reimbursement in the form of pay, swag or free product. “They have the ability to interact with a brand they love, to collaborate and co-create with the brand team and to be a part of producing products that they themselves will see on store shelves.”

PepsiCo is also betting heavily on social media for its critical Pepsi brand with its US$20-million Pepsi Refresh Project, which encourages consumers to vote for causes that they support in areas such as health, the environment, education and the arts, which Pepsi will donate to. Pepsi announced the project late last year when it said it would not be advertising during the Super Bowl for the first time in more than two decades.

In fact, at this year’s Pepsi-free Super Bowl, the most impactful and memorable ads came from Main Street rather than Madison Ave. According to a number of surveys and polls, The New York Times reported that two Doritos snack chips commercials (marketed by PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay unit) topped the lists of favourite spots. Both Doritos ads were created by consumers for a Frito-Lay online contest that attracted about 4,000 entries.

While it is true that not every company has the young and enthusiastic consumer base necessary to pull off such a contest, there is much to be gained by such crowd-sourcing efforts, said Jay Baer, president of U.S. social-media strategy company Convince & Convert. “One of the big mistakes that a lot of brands are making in social media is that they are just sort of corralling their customers and fans like cattle, saying, ‘We have 25,000 fans on Facebook,’ and then they never give them anything to do.”

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Baer says the current state of the art is being practised by the likes of Mountain Dew and Coca-Cola’s VitaminWater brand. “They used their Facebook community to create an entirely new beverage for the company. They picked the flavour profile, the name, the packaging, the whole thing.”

Crowd-sourcing does have some limitations, Baer notes. He compares the audience participation for Doritos’ make-your-own-video Super Bowl contest, which attracted thousands of entries, to a similar effort for Jim Beam whiskey, which drew about 300 entries, even though it made the process easier by giving participants video clips to work from. “I believe that is because Doritos’ audience skews younger and is much more comfortable with making a video.”

With younger consumers watching less broadcast television in favour of gaming and computer activity — and watching many of their favourite shows online — it is getting more difficult to reach them by way of the venerable 30-second commercial. For now at least, social-media efforts such as VitaminWater’s Facebook campaign is believed to be a valuable way to engage Gen Y.

Not everyone is sold on the approach, however. “I think crowd-sourcing by top-down command-and-control brand marketers by Pepsi is at best a publicity stunt, at worst abdication of what they’re supposed to do,” says marketing book author and entrepreneur Seth Godin. “We don’t want to buy what we invent. We want to be entertained, impressed, amazed, surprised and led. That’s what we pay them for.”

For Labatt, whose primary challenge is that its core audience of 19-to-25 year-old male drinkers turns over nearly twice a decade, Job 1 is “listening to consumers rather than listening to ourselves,” says marketing VP Musson. Labatt’s first attempt to engage consumers with social media was a multimedia campaign asking B.C. consumers to go online and vote to keep or kill the Kokanee Ranger featured in its long-running ad campaign. (After more than 600,000 votes were cast, consumers voted to kill him off.)

Labatt takes its new-media campaigns so seriously that its marketing department has a full-time “digital strategist” who serves as the eyes and ears for various brands. She alerts the marketing team when consumers are upset or excited about something concerning a particular brand. “The brand managers can’t spend all of their day looking at Facebook,” explains Musson. “She was told off by the office manager the other day for spending too much time on the Internet. She had to explain that her job was to look at Facebook.”