Is Viral Viable?

Viral marketing is entertaining and hip, but does it really do a better job of selling products than regular ads?

Trevor is your typical intern. A 19-year-old student at the University of Cincinnati, Trevor spends his workweek answering the phone, juggling personal assistant duties, and—most important—taking orders. Unlike most interns, however, Trevor the Mentos intern has a few extra supervisors to report to: an entire audience of online viewers.

From 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, Mentos and Trevor fans can sign into the intern's schedule at, assigning him jobs such as calling them in sick to work or making a "Happy Birthday" video for their friends. As fans watch Trevor perform his quirky tasks, they can also interact with each other on the site's live chat board.

Mentos shot to viral fame last summer when a video produced by entertainment site demonstrated what happens when you drop a couple of Mentos into a few Diet Coke bottles. The Mentos-Diet Coke "geyser" video quickly began generating thousands of views per hour, and within three months its view count passed the 5 million mark.

How to Measure Viral Success

While Coca-Cola (KO) initially shied away from the nontraditional brand placement, Mentos capitalized on it, shipping Eepybird thousands of Mentos packs for their experiments and sponsoring "Make Your Own Mentos Geyser" competitions. The results paid off: Mentos sales were up nearly 20% last year, the highest such increase in the company's history.

This summer, it seems, Mentos is riding the wave of its success. Within the first week of its "Intern" site, the company had to increase the size of its server and bandwidth in order to accommodate the growing number of site viewers and the length of their stays. According to Cakke, a blog that tracks domain sales and statistics, is the fastest-growing domain, having generated 30,000 Google (GOOG) hits in its first three weeks.

These figures, however, are hardly how Mentos is choosing to measure its viral success. "Success for this was not going to be hits on a Web site," says Paul Bichler, creative director at Mentos' agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH). "Success for this is how well we can integrate the idea of Mentos into pop culture."

Getting More Creative

With little to no concrete research available on viral marketing, choosing a relatively broad goal such as pop culture awareness seems to be on the safe side. While dozens of corporate viral videos have rounded up millions of video views apiece, there is still no indication that a viral video's popularity will translate into financial success for a company.

Mentos' latest viral foray indicates there may exist one way to ensure tangible viral success: increased consumer participation. By integrating features of social networking into its campaign the candy company is genuinely putting in the effort to build a brand-consumer relationship online and, long term, that may just mean a brand-consumer relationship in the grocery store.

Mentos is hardly the first company to integrate Web 2.0 into a large-scale corporate viral campaign. Over the past year, brands ranging from Brawny paper towels and napkins to Cisco Systems (CSCO) to Bayer's (BAY) painkiller Aleve have devised multifaceted viral campaigns to integrate Web users further into a dialogue with their brands.

Domesticity Boot Camp

Says Todd Riddle, creative director at Fallon Minneapolis, the agency responsible for Brawny's viral campaign: "People understand and are expecting that they can interact with media," forcing ad agencies to "create content that consumers want to engage with."

Brawny did just that, creating a 24-week-long, online reality TV series Brawny Academy, along with a Brawny Academy microsite serving as an online forum for fans. Looking past the types of "marginal improvements" typically marketed by Brawny and its competitors in the past, the brand decided to stop thinking like a paper towel company—and start thinking like a brand, which would send its female customers' boyfriends and spouses to a two-week-long domesticity boot camp.

In spite of such thinly veiled brand placement, the nine Brawny Academy episodes collectively garnered a modest half-million start-to-finish film views in their 24-week run last year. But Brawny claimed that dollar volume increased by 9%, over the previous, unsupported, 24-week period, and the company also saw increased relevance for its brand image: 66% of consumers exposed to the cross-media Brawny Academy campaign said Brawny was a brand they related to, as opposed to 44% of a nonexposed control group.

Targeting a Younger Demographic

With its highly branded, cross-media campaign, Brawny managed to generate at least some success in the online medium, specifically within its main consumer demographic: women between the ages of 35 and 50. For other companies such as Aleve and Folgers however, viral marketing means the opportunity to target different audiences entirely, particularly the younger demographics that have historically eluded them. Abandoning their respective marketing audiences of arthritis sufferers and people who actually enjoy getting up in the morning, the two brands went out on a viral limb: Aleve with its alternate reality game, and Procter & Gamble's (PG) Folgers with its "Tolerate Mornings" campaign, which included a "Happy Morning" viral video.

Generating a love-it or hate-it response, "Happy Morning," according to Marnie Kain Carcossa, executive vice-president and global equity director at the campaign's agency Saatchi & Saatchi NY, simply "recognized what 'morning' is for this younger generation: the absolute extreme of a torture test."

A torture test that looks more like an LSD-induced hallucination in the video, according to viewer comments on YouTube. Richard Laermer, author of Punk Marketing, names Procter & Gamble as an example of a company that should steer clear of viral videos because they're not part of the brand's image. However "Happy Morning" seems to have had little to no negative influence on the brand. The video received over 500,000 views on YouTube and its corporate sponsor comfortably remains the No. 1 coffee seller in the U.S.

Taking Risks is a Necessity

According to Kain, the borderline-subversive "Happy Morning" was a necessary risk for Folgers. "Brands that haven't targeted this type of consumer in the past need to be brave," she says. Kevin Dougan, a director of marketing communications in Cincinnati and creator of the blog Strategic Public Relations, agrees: "If you're in an experimental stage, you've got to be ready for experimental risks."

According to David Vinjamuri, president of Third Way Inc. Brand Trainers and an adjunct professor of marketing at New York University, most viral campaigns—within reason—cannot do much damage to a major company's brand image. "With these kinds of online properties, you can do things for [just] sections of your audience," says Vinjamuri. "You can make [virals] more narrowly appealing, and that's O.K."

Creating a video that appeals solely to a Generation Y audience can actually end up paying off, judging by Mentos' thus-far success and the relative success for small business Connected Ventures, owner of sites such as and

What Do Video Views Really Measure?

The 55-person company decided to film a lip-dub video of Harvey Danger's song Flagpole Sitta, and posted it on the company-owned video-sharing site Vimeo in April. Since then the video has generated a million online views, and has also helped boost the company's competitiveness as an employer. A link underneath the video directs viewers to the careers section on the company's site, and the connection has paid off. While the company formerly received 20-50 applications for a posted job opening, it has received 400-500 prospective résumés within the past three months alone.

While small businesses such as Connected Ventures and Blendtec (a small Utah blender company responsible for the "Will It Blend?" viral hit) have actually seen tangible results with job applicants and sales, respectively, it is significantly more difficult for a major brand to measure a viral campaign's success.

As Henry Cowling of viral marketing company the Viral Factory points out, one thing that viral doesn't have, and television does, is 30 years of market research. Furthermore, even the number of video views cannot necessarily determine whether a viral was popular and profitable—or simply well marketed and well funded.

A Double-Edged Sword

In viral marketing, there also exists the chance that a brand's million dollar video will be watched by virtually no one—a problem that doesn't occur in traditional media, says Jeff Benjamin, creative director at agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. "At the end of the day, you can always guarantee the success of a TV spot or a print ad," he says, for even if a commercial doesn't knock a consumer's socks off, the consumer has to watch it all the same. Online, on the other hand, brands have to creatively grab the viewers' attention, unable to pay a network to simply do it for them.

Viral marketers are banking on solid content and the foundation of a brand-consumer dialogue to defeat such obstacles and make the viral medium successful in the long run. Consumers, the pioneers of the viral medium, are actually brands' biggest competition, says Benjamin, due to what Jonathan Sackett of marketing agency Arnold Worldwide calls the "illusion of control." "This whole idea of mass-marketing died with consumer control," says Laermer. "Bashing people over the head: big mistake." But through viral marketing, brands can still capitalize on consumers' interest in watching good entertainment.

As demonstrated by this year's Chevy Tahoe sport-utility vehicle video contest, however, consumer control certainly carries a higher degree of risk than old-fashioned advertising. The contest, designed to produce an ad for the new model, provoked videos that voiced concerns ranging from environmentalism to the car's poor quality. It's a reminder that consumer-friendly marketing efforts can always backfire. "Viral advertising," says Benjamin, "is a double-edged sword."

Click here to decide whether some of today's most popular viral videos are helping their brands—or hurting them.

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