Viral Branding

Viral Marketing Branding: A Virus Brand Can Do Without

Even Viral Branding is All About Meaning

By Tom Dougherty

viral marketing brandingBrand is all about meaning. Ideally, as a consumer thinks about or comes in contact with a given brand, that brand should incite a torrent of thoughts, ideas, images, and beliefs.

All of these connect the consumer with the brand on an emotional level, motivating them to choose or prefer that brand to the myriad of alternatives in the marketplace. Awareness, however, should not be confused with building meaning, brand equities, or preference. This is exactly where the concept of “viral marketing” falls short, over-promises and under-delivers.

The Conception of Viral Marketing

What viral marketing began as and what it has recently become are two completely different things. The concept of viral marketing was borne out of necessity. In the late ‘90’s a fledgling free email service was having an extremely difficult time attracting new users. With little to no money available to use in traditional marketing channels, the organization decided to place “tags” at the bottom of all emails that used their service.

The tags said something to the effect of, “Click here for your free HOTMAIL account.” With the addition of that little tag, Hotmail exploded. The idea was simple, users would send an email to one of their friends, their friend would click on the link and subscribe and then tell others about their experience through email or word of mouth.

Hotmail used its existing network, a rudimentary social network if you will, and the email network in general to “worm” its way through the internet. Viral marketing was born.

The Genius of Hotmail

viral marketing brandingThe genius in what Hotmail did in the late ‘90’s has been completely lost in what “viral marketing” has become today. With the advent of YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Google+, Second Life, and other “social networks” and services, viral marketing has become nothing more that pop art with the term “art” used very loosely. Take for example Ray-Ban’s ongoing viral marketing campaign. A recent Brandweek article lauded Ray-Ban’s “viral” video’s “Catch” and “Bobbing” for garnering millions of views.

The problem is that in each of these videos, and the other less successful Ray-Ban viral marketing videos, the viewer, and therefore the current or potential consumer, is left up to their own devices to derive meaning out of what they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing. The video, “Catch,” features a guy in a green shirt throwing sunglasses at his buddy who “catches” them with his face. “Bobbing,” features the same two guys sticking their heads in buckets of water and each time they come up, they are wearing sunglasses in a variety of different ways.

Ray-Ban’s brand, which is about being “genuine,” “timeless,” and “cool” is neither paid off in these videos or even inferred. In fact, there is no mention of Ray-Ban at all, only a quick 3-4 second take of obscure writing on a dirty car window in the “Catch” video and writing on a dirty surfboard in the “Bobbing” video that says “Never Hide,” the title of Ray-Ban’s current marketing campaign.

Controlling the Power of the Brand

The Ray-Ban brand then becomes meaningless as whole and its meaning is diffused and fragmented over the millions of viewers who are individually “making up” the Ray-Ban brand meaning. Hotmail’s approach kept the power of the brand and therefore its meaning, equity, and potential for building preference in its message and provided a way, through a hotlink, in which consumers could immediately subscribe and get more information on Hotmail and its brand.

With Ray-Ban, if one reads the comments posted on sites like YouTube concerning their viral videos, very few even know what they are really watching. Most think only they are good videos with the discussion centering around how the videos were made not about Ray-Ban, its “Never Hide” campaign, or even sunglasses. So what is Ray-Ban trying to do?

Awareness Does Not Build Meaning

viral marketing brandingSome may argue that today, the purpose of this kind of marketing is to build awareness. In the case of Ray-Ban, this too is lost as again, most of the viewers have no idea what they are really watching. Moreover, in the fragmented marketplace that exists today, the vast majority of mature brands, Ray-Ban included, need to worry less about awareness building, as they already have great awareness, and worry more about building brand meaning, equity, and most importantly, preference which again, these viral videos do not do.

Instead, they trivialize the heritage of the Ray-Ban brand and make it more of a pop-culture joke than a brand that should be taken seriously. There is no doubt that these videos are entertaining to watch even garnering a Cyber Lion award, but unfortunately, that is where their effectiveness ends. (Read more about awareness here)

BRAND Must Retain Control. Even in Viral Marketing

What marketers must remember is that for any brand to be successful, the BRAND must control the flow, content, and meaning of the message it conveys if it wants to increase market share and all-important preference. The power of any good brand lies in its ability to connect with the target audience on a highly charged emotional level.

viral marketing brandingThis connection and meaning, however, can only be molded and derived from the brand itself, NOT from individual consumers. Rather than a single cohesive and comprehensive brand meaning, the brand would have as many meanings as there are current and potential customers, a marketing model that is inefficient and prohibitively expensive.

This is the essence of viral marketing branding. Ray-Ban is not alone in jumping on the viral marketing bandwagon. While the promise still exists to exploit this kind of marketing in a way that is truly brand-centric and can unleash the true power of brand, marketers have yet to uncover the formula. For most brands, viral marketing is a virus brands can still do without.