COVER STORY PODCAST
It's a simple sales pitch, really: Hey, dude, spray Axe deodorant all over your body, and you will become irresistible to beautiful young women. But what Russell Taylor, the Axe vice-president, proposed doing with that straightforward idea was ambitious. He wanted to turn it into a truly global marketing message, one that would work in all 75 countries where Unilever (UN ) sells Axe. The solution that came back from advertising agency BBH was to invent a new phrase that guys would hear as an international expression of lust—a female wolf whistle heard 'round the world.
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The moment of truth came on Feb. 27, 2006, at a high-pressure meeting in a spacious conference room at BBH's London offices. Flanked on one side by marketing materials hidden under plain brown paper and on the other by windows looking out over London's ultrahip Soho neighborhood, BBH account manager Barney Robinson pitched the strategy to Taylor and his Axe marketing team. Robinson, an Elvis Costello look-alike dressed all in black, paused when the phrase his team had invented appeared on a screen, and a woman's sexy voice snarled out of a loudspeaker: "Bom Chicka Wah Wah." She made a sound like an electric guitar from a 1970s funk band. Taylor laughed out loud. He was sold.
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Over the coming months, Taylor's brand managers would work with BBH to unleash a torrent of Bom Chicka Wah Wahs on the world, through TV ads, videos destined for YouTube, and online games. Unilever, based in London, began rolling out the campaign worldwide a couple of months back. But from here on it will be up to millions of young people from Brooklyn to Borneo to catch the phrase and make it stick with the persistence of Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" or Paris Hilton's "That's hot!" Even after more than a year immersed in the plan, Taylor, a slim, blond Brit, admits trepidation about whether it will succeed: "You get a feeling of Bloody hell!'—because it's not what you normally do as a brand manager. It's an act of faith."
Better get used to it. Flying blind is the unavoidable consequence of coming to terms with today's most important demographic group: the tens of millions of digital elite who are in the vanguard of a fast-emerging global youth culture. Because of smartphones, blogs, instant messaging, Flickr, MySpace, Skype, YouTube, digg, and de.lic.ious, young people scattered all over are instantly aware of what's happening to others like them everywhere else. This highly influential group, many of whom are also well-heeled, is sharing ideas and information across borders and driving demand for consumer electronics, entertainment, autos, food, and fashion. Think of it as a virtual melting pot. As the population of the young and Web-savvy grows into the hundreds of millions, the pot is going to boil. "This kind of globalization is happening. It's still a young phenomenon, but it's growing fast, and it's going to take a lot of companies by surprise," says Soumitra Dutta, a professor at graduate management school INSEAD in France.
We're now at the busy crossroads where globalization meets Web 2.0. This presents both a challenge to the old ways of doing business and an opportunity to gain tremendous leverage via the right goods and services. To thrive in this era, companies will have to figure out how to engage young people from all over the world when they conceive of products and services. Businesses need their help in turning concepts into finished products and, especially, in marketing them. Another angle: Companies can follow the trail of blogs and social networking sites to find and recruit young employees all over the world.
The target customer for major brands is someone like Malini Agarwal, a 30-year-old radio deejay in Mumbai. After growing up all over as the daughter of an Indian diplomat, Agarwal settled down in the city and two years ago launched Friday Club, which organizes social gatherings and now has branches in four Indian cities plus Hong Kong, London, New York, and Toronto. The club's multinational members make plans, keep in touch, and share photos via social networking sites. "It's a global family," Agarwal says.
Or consider Brazilian Fabricio Zuardi, 27. He grew up 180 miles from São Paulo and found a job via the Web with Silicon Valley tech startup Ning Inc. Zuardi now lives in Palo Alto, Calif., in an apartment he located on craigslist.org. He has no traditional phone, preferring Skype Internet-based service. He doesn't own a TV. In his spare time he posts items on his blog or writes software that he contributes to open-source development projects. His taste in music is eclectic: Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, The Pogues. His friends are from all over, including Australia, Britain, Germany, and Slovenia. He has never met some of them face to face. "This is a generational shift," says Ning co-founder and Web browser pioneer Marc Andreessen. "A whole new generation grows up used to new technologies, and they're just different."
Zuardi and Agarwal represent the demise of the one-way globalization of American culture that reached its zenith in the 1970s and '80s. Then, U.S. marketers simply fed the worldwide appetite for Levi's, Coke, Madonna, and all things American. Now it's a two-way street. Americans are learning Bollywood dance steps at their local health clubs. M.I.A., an up-and-coming pop singer who has Sri Lankan roots and was brought up in London, intermingles hip-hop, reggae, and South Asian influences. And Japanese anime has swept the globe. One of the hottest anime properties is a Japanese TV series, Le Chevalier D'Eon, set in 18th century France. Within hours of each episode's airing in Japan, it's translated by fans into dozens of languages and posted illegally on the Web.
Addressing this vast market of globally dispersed young people will force companies to become new kinds of multinationals—plugged into the digital grid and quick to respond to shifts in demand that begin as tremors halfway around the world. Already a handful of companies have successfully navigated the digital Silk Road. Each has its own approach to a hard-to-nail-down demographic group. Tapping into the global video-game craze, DirecTV (DTV ) and international partners organized a professional league, Championship Gaming Series, and this month began broadcast tournaments on satellite TV. Meanwhile, Red Bull does little traditional TV advertising in the 100 countries where it sells energy drinks. More typical: a Web-based contest, Red Bull Art of the Can, where youngsters create sculptures out of Red Bull cans and submit photos of their handiwork. The prize: a trip for two to Switzerland.
This global-youth path will be full of pitfalls, too. Digital fads born in Japan could flop in Germany. And just because you can make a video and post it on YouTube doesn't mean you should. Japan's Hitachi Data Systems featured faded TV action hero Mr. T in an online video in a misguided attempt to promote its corporate data-storage technologies. Viewers hated it. Some observers wondered what Hitachi executives were smoking, selling such an obvious business-oriented product to a YouTube audience. "They should have put down the Web 2.0 pipe," quips David Parmet, principal of Web-marketing consultant Marketing Begins at Home.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Even for the most with-it companies there are trip wires. Nike Inc. (NKE ) attracted a million visitors from around the globe to its Joga.com soccer social networking site during the FIFA World Cup championship in 2006, but sometimes mashing cultures together just doesn't work. Google Inc. (GOOG ) learned that lesson after it launched the Orkut social networking site in 2004 and later saw its momentum in the U.S. fade a bit. As the site caught on in Brazil and Portuguese became its most commonly used language, some Americans were turned off.
Part of what makes this phenomenon so challenging for U.S. marketers is that America is no longer the center of the digital universe. The hippest U.S. cities share the Web 2.0 spotlight with London, Mexico City, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo. And while the U.S. is the home base for Google and MySpace, a new generation of Web services is breaking out all over. Habbo, the most popular social networking site for children, comes from Finland. Joost, which presents free TV programming, including Comedy Central, over the Web, is based in Luxembourg. Moo, a maker of calling cards for Web denizens, is located in central London.
American Web 2.0 companies generally think about just the U.S. market when they start up, but European upstarts often plan globally from the get-go. Moo was launched this past September with multiple languages and currencies. "We were international on Day One and in 100 countries in one week," says Chief Executive Richard Moross. The company even got a surprise order from a guy in North Korea.
There's a froth of excitement in Britain these days. Web 2.0 startups are popping up all over, venture capital is flowing freely, and suddenly, London is swinging again for the first time since the late 1960s. A group of young Web entrepreneurs who share a Soho penthouse jokingly call themselves Bloomsbury 2.0, but they have a lot more fun than author Virginia Woolf ever did in the early 20th century Bloomsbury literary salon. At a party the group held this spring on the penthouse roof, a young woman in a little black dress waded in a hot tub while a crowd quickly knocked off 36 bottles of Deutz champagne.
Unilever's Axe campaign shows how one company is coming to grips with doing business in this complexly wired world. While some of the best marketing ideas for Axe come out of London, it was a BBH creative team in New York that dreamed up the Bom Chicka Wah Wah Girls. The idea was to assemble a band like the Pussycat Dolls. So far the group has been featured on Axe Web sites, in videos circulated on YouTube, and in a performance tour in four European cities. Unilever has "done an excellent job of coming up with a big idea and making it work well in many types of media," says Mark Simmons, consultant and author of the book Punk Marketing. "They address it with an edgy humor that crosses borders."
Axe has been crossing borders since Unilever first introduced it in France in 1983. Three years later it jumped the Channel to Britain (where it's called Lynx for trademark reasons) and then gradually spread from country to country across the globe. The brand managers delayed entry into the U.S. until 2002 because it's a crowded market with a strong affinity for stick deodorants. Axe entered Japan only in March. "We are becoming truly global now as a brand," says Taylor.
It's also becoming truly digital. For the U.S. launch, the company posted three videos online that supposedly showed the "Axe effect" of women chasing men who used the spray. The videos were so much fun that millions of people forwarded them to friends by e-mail in a massive viral outpouring. Marketers also created an online game wherein guys indicated the kind of young woman they were interested in and got recommendations on which Axe fragrance to buy. These online shenanigans may seem trivial. But they helped Axe's U.S. business grow from zero in 2001 to more than $500 million last year.
Brand manager Taylor has something grander in mind, however. Axe must constantly recruit new customers from each batch of young men growing into adolescence, so he decided to revamp the product line thoroughly in a project code-named Neutron. After several years of planning, the rollout began early this year and is gradually wending its way around the world. The new Axe canister is black, with a novel twist top. The marketing concept is, of course, Bom Chicka Wah Wah. And the new fragrances were designed by renowned "nose" Ann Gottlieb, a consultant who created Calvin Klein's Obsession and other top perfumes.
Gottlieb's task was to design truly global fragrances. Previously, Axe offered variants based on local tastes. That was expensive and, Taylor felt, unnecessary. Because of the increased awareness of international grooming trends resulting from the Web, young men everywhere are becoming more open to perfumey fragrances, she believes. Gottlieb reformulated eight Axe variants. A key move was concocting fresh-smelling "top notes," the smells that hit you first, so they make a good impression even in sweat-provoking tropical climates. She tried out the new stuff in sniffing sessions with Axe marketers in locations around the world. The U.S. team demurred: One scent was too earthy for Americans. So she changed it. "Designing global fragrances is much more challenging, but in a wonderful way," says Gottlieb.
While Axe brand managers get customers involved in focus groups and marketing, other companies tap consumers for help in developing what they sell. Google utilizes a worldwide network of friends of employees to help it design new Web services. Google designers send out early mock-ups of Web pages for people in the network to comment on. "They're co-creating products. They're not writing software code but are offering a huge amount of insight to shape the products," says Google product manager Marissa Mayer.
KIDS IN CHARGE
Chicago startup skinnyCorp goes even further. One of its businesses, Threadless, a clothing and accessories company, runs online contests soliciting designs for T-shirts from people around the world. It selects finalists and then invites people to vote online for the best designs. The ones with the most votes get produced. To deepen the engagement of consumers in the process, skinnyCorp set up blogs on its Web site, where people can try out design ideas and get feedback from others. Designs come in from all over, and 35% of sales are international. "We have pioneered a completely different way of doing business," says Jeffrey Kalmikoff, skinnyCorp's chief creative officer. "It's a community-based business. You completely erase the R&D and a lot of the risk, because we just make what people want."
In fact, a key to the global digital youth market is that, at least so far, the kids are in charge. They're used to being pitched products; many of them welcome it. But they're turned off by clumsy attempts to win their approval and pry away their money. In many cases, rather than being entertained by others, they'd prefer to do it themselves: Witness all those wacky videos on YouTube. This has major implications for how products and marketing programs are conceived, planned, and executed. "It's going to change business and culture," says Vicki Lynn, president of Satellite Events Enterprises, a company that stages online events. "The old hierarchical system is falling away. It's now about the power of the people."
Inspiration comes from all over. American John Poisson, CEO of Tiny Pictures Inc., a real-time photo- and video-sharing service on the Web, got inspired to start his company while running a design group for Sony Corp. (SNE ) in Tokyo in 2004. For the first time, he was immersed in a culture where mobile devices were all the rage and kids used them rather than PCs for everything from instant messaging to Web surfing. Poisson saw that mobile computing would be the next major entertainment platform; that the trend, which had begun in Tokyo, would sweep the world; and that a lot of the entertainment would be created by kids themselves. This revelation came during a night out with a couple of blogger pals in a smoky dive in downtown Tokyo at 4 a.m. In a month he was in San Francisco planning a company that would let youngsters share pictures and videos while talking on the phone.
Even though digital youth culture has spread all over the world, it isn't expressed the same way everywhere. In Japan, young women are much less willing than their U.S. counterparts to make the first move in a relationship when they're in public, but when it comes to online behavior, all inhibitions are cast aside. So the Unilever team focused its Axe effect marketing in the online world. One of its viral videos pictured a Japanese boy snowboarding down a mountain as dozens of girls pursued him. It was a takeoff on a U.S. video that had been very successful: The quarterback of a high-school football team was tackled by a horde of cheerleaders in the end zone. "The strategy is to take the best of global practices and adapt them locally," says Dan Burdett, Axe brand development director for Northeast Asia.
The strategy worked. Within six weeks of the launch, Axe had a 12% market share. It happened even though, before Axe came along, men's deodorants in Japan were unscented.
One of the dilemmas of global youth marketing is that you can't control your message the way you could in the predigital days. Once a viral video or an online game is posted in cyberspace, it can be viewed by anybody in the world. David Rubin, the North America brand development director for Axe, recalls a time when he was getting a lot of pressure from headquarters to run an animated online game created by the British marketing team. It involved a young woman, a bed, and a feather. You can imagine the rest. He checked and discovered that, without him so much as lifting a finger, 40% of the traffic to the British Web site came from the U.S. "The idea isn't done somewhere in particular. It's just done. And it suddenly just happens. There are no borders. You can't control who sees it and comes to it."
Another surprise is how companies have begun tapping the global youth demographic to recruit employees. Organizations can bolster their staffs by using social networks to find just the right skills wherever they are needed. For example, Ning, a Silicon Valley startup with 10 nationalities represented among its 27 employees, follows blog postings and other cybertrails to find the most qualified candidates. The company provides software tools for consumers to build their own social networking sites, and it was through its own software that Ning located Fabricio Zuardi, living in remote São Carlos, Brazil. He had used Ning's tools to build a social networking site for people interested in music. This was May, 2006. Ning engineers liked what he was doing and engaged him in an online conversation. One day, Zuardi had the very pleasant surprise of finding a job offer from co-founder Marc Andreessen in his e-mail inbox. "For anyone in the world, the American dream is more accessible now," says Zuardi.
That doesn't make Zuardi an easy mark for a globalized pitch. The Brazilian isn't a huge consumer. All of his T-shirts are black. He doesn't own a car. Also...he doesn't use Axe body spray. Says Zuardi: "I think some of the marketing campaigns lack good taste." Bom Chicka Wah Wah, indeed.
By Steve Hamm