Two local companies jump on the Internet meme bandwagon. But what's the ROI on a funny video?
It’s an overcast afternoon on a busy run at Whistler Blackcomb. A skier in a green toque beams. “Nothing like a great day for a great ski,” he says to the camera as a snowboarder carves past, covering the man in snow. As the camera follows, the skier chronicles a typical day on the mountain: he brags about the number of days he’s skied, drools over another skier’s gear, comically struggles up stairs in ski boots and fails to land a number of tricks, all the while chattering with commentary characteristic of skiers everywhere.
The YouTube video ends with a slogan meant to explain the man’s antics: Shit Skiers Say. In the 30 days after it was uploaded, the video received over 1.1 million views, which makes the Whistler Blackcomb PR team think the promotional short was money well spent.
“Our measure of the ROI comes back to what was our goal in crafting this, which was to have a really high reach and to reach people we may not typically reach through our more traditional advertising or marketing spend,” Whistler Blackcomb public relations manager Tabetha Boot tells me when I question her about the decision to hop on the popular Shit Girls Say bandwagon. “When we hit one million views, that’s when we knew we had a winner.”
Shit Girls Say is a comedic short that mocks some of the stereotypical phrases that could leave the lips of women. The original YouTube video has exploded in popularity, with more than 15 million views. But Boot says Whistler Blackcomb decided to make its spin-off after watching Lululemon Athletica’s take. Titled Shit Yogis Say, that video (1.8 million views from late December 2011 to March 2012) is filled with West Coast hippie one-liners on chakras, coconut water and kombucha you might expect to overhear at a yoga studio.
Boot won’t say how much Whistler Blackcomb’s video cost, only that they dipped into their “play money” pot and hired a video production firm to assemble the humorous short. She’s not worried that the video might offend potential customers, saying that being playful and irreverent are two of the company’s key brand characteristics.
“It’s all about driving people back to the website, so once they’re in there, they can learn more about Whistler Blackcomb,” she says. “The great thing about posting on Facebook and YouTube is that it’s a dialogue and you get that direct customer feedback. People loved it.”
Lululemon, a company famous for abhorring traditional advertising channels, refused to be interviewed for this story, but the company line is that Shit Yogis Say was never a conscious marketing effort. The company sent a prepared statement saying the video was merely a creative way to share some of the elements of fun and irreverence (apparently core values) with its customers.
A review of Lululemon’s creation reveals the company logo appearing 18 times in 107 seconds. The video is also branded with the #shityogissay Twitter hashtag, which suggests that denying it has anything to do with advertising could provide material for another video: Shit Marketers Say.
“They can continue to say it, can’t they? I suspect you’re one of the few people asking the questions,” UBC marketing instructor Paul Cubbon says over the phone. “I understand where they’re coming from. They do very little paid advertising and I’m not surprised they’re experimenting in earned media.”
Cubbon has long been studying how branded ideas spread. He first saw the phenomenon in 1999, when the makers of the low-budget psychological horror movie The Blair Witch Project uploaded teaser clips to Internet forums in very successful attempts to earn the picture buzz. In 2000, Victoria’s Secret live-streamed the unveiling of its latest lingerie collection; the stunt proved so popular it crashed servers across North America. The following year, automaker BMW AG created short action films that helped turn around slumping car sales and made British actor Clive Owen a star in the U.S.
The word “meme” was coined in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who used it to denote “a unit of cultural transmission,” an idea on the move that can drive cultural evolution. Today it’s often used as a synonym for the Holy Grail of digital marketing: the viral video.
Cubbon says today’s glut of user-generated content has forced companies to make more noise to get noticed, and lost among the quest for the next meme are traditional metrics of marketing. “User-generated content is part of modern-day culture, entertainment and self-expression,” he says. “But YouTube has made it too easy for people to do viral, so often they lose discipline. What’s the call to action and where are the metrics?”
To that end, a new breed of marketing company is popping up, with practitioners positioning themselves as experts in measuring the effectiveness of social-video advertising. For now though, most marketers are still measuring what’s easy (counting the views), rather than what’s useful (how those views translate into sales).
Cubbon applauds attempts to use memes to spread brand awareness, but warns that playing the irreverence card comes with risks. “From a business point of view, just getting views and shares may not be a good thing.” The viewers may not be your target audience, he says, and what’s more, “it may not change their view of your brand, or worse it may undo their view of your brand. The potential risk there is you piss people off because they consider it to be offensive.”