Only one thing's worse than being talked about, and that's not
being talked about. Oscar Wilde's words ring truer today than ever for
brands eager not only to get noticed but trusted, too. Word of mouth has
moved centre stage as consumers grow increasingly wary of corporate
speak. And tactics are getting subtler to encourage members of the
public to talk about a brand.
One approach growing in popularity is the use of brand ambassadors,
often "resting" actors, who by wearing, using or otherwise interacting
with a product in public become, in effect, a mobile outdoor medium for
a brand. True, there's nothing new about promotional stunts. But such
live events - variously referred to by exponents as "face to facers",
"happenings" or "adverteasers" - have become the flavour of the day.
Tactics range markedly in sophistication. Earlier this year, the
relaunch of Imperial Leather's range was marked by Gaby Yorath sitting
in a tub of lather in Trafalgar Square. Last year's launch work for
Imperial FoamBurst, meanwhile, included models covered in foam
"showering" in selected public phone boxes.
Hicklin Slade arranged for tai chi presentations in Soho Square to get
people talking about the Britvic soft drink Purdeys. Leo Burnett and
Starcom Motive, meanwhile, went further when they hired a man to eat a
Heinz Salad Cream poster on the Cromwell Road. Luckily, the poster was
made of a specially commissioned edible substance; unluckily (for the
poster eater, at least), it took him two weeks to complete the task.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are subtler ploys where
branded messages or products are placed in public spaces for consumers
The master in this most subtle of ambient arts must be the New
York-based marketing agency Big Fat Inc, which employs actors to stage
product skits in locations such as trendy bars or on public transport.
These involve actors discussing a product within earshot of bystanders;
the twist is no-one knows the seemingly casual conversations are, in
fact, scripted testimonials.
Despite the apparent growth in interest in such tactics, not everyone is
agreed on their effect - or their impact on brand communication.
"Our offices overlook Oxford Street where, it seems, it has become valid
to pay people to dress up as some loon or other and parade around once
or even twice a week; I saw three Supermen this morning," Hicklin
Slade's creative partner, Philip Slade, says. "Whether this sort of
activity generates much more than a funny photo opportunity, however, is
Slade believes that involving members of the public in any activity is
key. For its launch of the Carbon drink last year, Hicklin Slade hired
three actors to tour trendy bars promoting the brand. The unlikely
threesome - a dwarf, an eastern European ingenue and her driver -
promoted sampling by approaching consumers out for a drink and staging
"It was an extension of street theatre although punters didn't know it
was all from a script," he says. "Getting someone to represent brand
values is the trickiest bit. Get a brand ambassador right, however, and
it can be a fantastically valuable exercise. The people we recruited to
do these activities were chosen to embody the brand; fitness experts
rather than promotional professionals."
Getting the right "happening" for the brand is also key, says Gavin
Reeder, a planner/buyer at Starcom Motive, which worked on the Heinz
Salad Cream campaign. He believes that all too often stunts don't offer
sufficient scope to fit in with a product's broader brand strategy. The
poster-eating plot for Heinz Salad Cream, however, was an exception.
"It's rare for a stunt to be so on line with a brand strategy, but it
was timed to coincide with the relaunch and campaign line that 'any food
tastes supreme with Heinz Salad Cream'," Reeder comments. "Get the right
fit (between stunt and brand) and it can be one of the best ways of
getting people to talk about your brand."
But is it as effective a way of communicating a brand message? Yes,
according to Anna Carloss of Cunning Stunts. "It's far more viral than
it is about grabbing headlines," she believes. "It's about generating
word of mouth. Personal recommendation for a brand or product is the
strongest recommendation that a brand or product can get."
One tactic employed by Cunning Stunts for BMW's revamped Mini included
packs of holiday photos left lying around in bars which looked like they
had been left behind by other customers. Following this, good-looking
people walked up to strangers in pubs and gave them a handwritten
message with an 0800 phone number - under the pretence of fancying them.
When unsuspecting consumers rang the number, Mini had an attentive
Richard Lamballe, the account director at the HHCL & Partners outfit
Environmental Marketing, has some reservations about this approach,
Paying actors to hang out in bars, using or discussing a product, is too
underhand for his taste. "It's hardly the most ethical approach," he
Environmental Marketing recently created what it likes to call
"person-to-person" activities for the ITV shows Popstars and Survivor.
For the former it hired people to sing badly in public places and
reinforce the show's promotional strapline: "Nigel, pick me."
There are two ways to use this sort of live communications, Lamballe
believes. "You either do it for the photo opportunity or to hit the
right number of people by being seen in the right place at the right
The latter is fast becoming a driving force. And the reason's clear, he
says: "The right activity could be seen by 10,000 people who, in turn,
talk to another 50,000 about what they have seen."