Viral Marketing

By Tom Dougherty

3 July 2014


Viral Marketing: A Virus Your Brand Can Do Without

viral marketing brandingViral marketing is great. But it must convey meaning. Brand is all about meaning. As a consumer thinks about or comes in contact with a brand, it should move them. And, incite a torrent of thoughts, ideas, images, and beliefs.

All of these connect the consumer with the brand on an emotional level. As a result, motivating them to choose or prefer that brand to the 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 money available to use in traditional marketing channels, the organization decided to “tag” them.

The tags said something like, “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. And as a result their friend would click on the link and subscribe. Then tell others about their experience through email or word of mouth.

Hotmail used its existing network. And ,the email network would“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.

Opportunities abound with the advent of Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Google+, and other social networks. Viral marketing has become nothing more that pop art. Look at Ray-Ban’s  viral marketing campaign.

A recent Brandweek article lauded Ray-Ban’s “viral” video’s “Catch” and “Bobbing” for garnering millions of views.

A big problem

The problem is that in these videos the viewer, and  potential consumer is left to chance. They are 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.

Ray-Ban’s brand, which is about being “genuine,” “timeless,” and “cool”. And, neither is paid off in these videos. 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”.

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 meaning. Its awareness without purpose.

Hotmail’s approach kept the power of the brand and therefore its meaning, equity, and potential. As a result, It for built preference in its message and provided a way in which consumers could immediately subscribe.  And, get more information on Hotmail and its brand.

With Ray-Ban very few even know what they are really watching. Most think only they are funny videos. At best a discussion centering around how the videos were made not about Ray-Ban. 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. Most of the viewers have no idea what they are really watching.


In the fragmented marketplace that exists today, the vast majority of mature brands, Ray-Ban included, need to worry less about awareness. As they already have awareness. And they need to worry more about building brand meaning and equity.  But, 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.  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

Marketers must remember that for a brand to be successful, the BRAND must control the flow. And therefor control the content, and meaning of the message it conveys. That is 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. This is inefficient and prohibitively expensive.

Ray-Ban is not alone. While the promise still exists to exploit viral marketing. Especially in a way that is truly brand-centric.

And designed to 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.