Online Marketing: What Works?

Amsterdam's Picnic '06 conference offered insights into advertising's future, from creating Internet buzz to social networking for customers

The Internet's big, it's powerful, but how the heck do you use it to sell beer? That, glibly put, is probably the marketing question of the age. And Amsterdam, both freewheeling and mercantile, with a burgeoning creative scene, is probably as good a place as any to try to answer it.

From Sept. 27 to Sept. 29, several hundred marketing types gathered at a renovated gas utility plant in the Dutch capital for the Picnic '06 conference. At the top of the agenda on Sept. 29: the future of advertising now that the 30-second TV spot is no longer the center of the marketing universe.

No one went away with ultimate answers, but there were plenty of insights. No. 1: In the age of YouTube and MySpace (NWS), marketers can't tell consumers what to do anymore. "Consumers are starting to outgrow us," said Joseph Jaffe, consultant and author of Life After the 30-Second Spot. "They know what to buy and where to buy it, and they don't need us to tell them anymore."

Waving your product in the face of consumers is out; entertaining them is in. So Heineken, the Amsterdam brewer, stages urban hip-hop festivals and doesn't reveal until the end that it's the sponsor. The beermaker also produced a series of short films for the Internet featuring a pair of goofy Dutch football fans named Marco and Marko. The films were recognizable as promotions only from Marco and Marko's bright Heineken green hats. "Heineken is asking for attention rather than buying attention," said Herwin van den Berg, the brewer's marketing director for the Netherlands.


  The low-budget Marco & Marko films drew 900,000 Net viewers, which is exactly the kind of cheap, effective marketing that brand managers love. But it's hard to pull off such successes—and firms that can do it are in increasing demand. To generate buzz for Japanese sneaker maker Onitsuka Tiger during the soccer World Cup last summer, ad agency Strawberry Frog shot a film featuring a chorus of overenthusiastic Japanese teenagers.

Dressed in white choir robes with the Onitsuka pattern, the teens sing a fractured English fan anthem with lines like, "Kick the ball in goal," and "lovely referees!" The aim, said Brian Elliot, creative director for Strawberry Frog in Amsterdam, "is to be a part of the culture."

Even harder is to come up with an idea that generates buzz online but also fits in with a more traditional global marketing campaign. As a World Cup sponsor, German sportswear maker Adidas needed a big idea that would play in 30-second spots but also work in print advertising, public relations, product placement, and on the Net. With the help of another Amsterdam firm, 180, Adidas built a campaign called +10, the idea being that football is about how an individual forms a bond with his 10 teammates.


  Adidas launched the campaign with a clever bit of product placement: At the end of a televised game, French soccer icon (and Adidas spokesman) Zinédine Zidane stripped off his jersey to reveal an undershirt with the +10 logo. Later, Adidas commissioned top players from World Cup nations to recruit teams off the streets of Europe, who played impromptu national matches. Adidas broadcast 90-second highlight films on the Internet. The games themselves attracted press and TV attention.

Then Adidas turned the tables and let two young Spanish boys pick a football dream team. That resulted in a TV spot as well as a short film, viewable on the Internet, in which David Beckham and other members of the soccer pantheon play a pickup match in a vacant lot, with the two Spanish boys acting as coaches. The game ends when one of the boys gets called home to supper by his mom.

Companies are even trying to co-opt the MySpace concept and create communities of their customers. KLM, now a part of Air France (AKH), has created a networking site, called KLM Club China, that links customers who fly frequently to China. The idea is that contacts are everything in the Chinese business world, and KLM can help its customers connect.


  There are also clubs for KLM golfers and frequent fliers to Africa. The Dutch airline hopes to boost customer loyalty and generate extra revenue by selling advertising on the sites. "Maybe our business is connectivity," said Dirk Kronemeijer, KLM's vice-president for business innovation.

Interesting, but how many companies have really figured out how to exploit the opportunities of new media? "A lot of them get it, but at the same time there is still demand for traditional work," said Lee Feldman, chief creative officer of New York-based Blast Radius, which bills itself as a customer experience innovation firm.

Strawberry Frog's Elliot noted that he's seeing more senior managers than he used to. "In the past 12 months, there has been a sea change," he said. But he added that unconventional ad campaigns are still regarded as risky in the corporate world. "The new marketing manager has to have no fear."

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