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The Virus of "Viral Marketing"
Jan 20, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

It's animated, like your typical Coke ad. It has the familiar jingle, like your typical Coke ad. But unlike your typical Coke ad, it resonates. But perhaps not with the meaning they intended...

The ad starts up above an obviously computer-generated city skyline. The "camera" flies down into a skyscraper under construction, through the steel I-Beams, and pauses on a construction worker, leaning back and enjoying a bottle of America's carmel champagne. Then we're down into the bottle itself, amongst the liquid and bubbles. Then into a bubble, down to the "genetic strands" of the product. It looks an awful lot like DNA; the rungs of the double helix ladder replaced with bottles of Coca Cola. With perfect timing, the voice-over says...

In every city,
In every bottle,
In every bubble,
Lies the formula for refreshment.

And you know what? They're right. Better than perhaps any firm in the history of capitalism, Coca Cola has succeeded in driving an essentially useless product into the very fabric of American culture. The "formula for refreshment" ad understates the obvious -- that the formula for Coke is now part of the genetic makeup of our country.

I took a trip to Portland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago, and had a chance to walk through the city's Museum of Advertising. If you live in Portland, or find yourself there, I would highly recommend a walk through this store-front paean to (mostly) exemplary print advertising. The Hathaway man with the "distinctive" eye patch was there. As was the first of the ads proclaiming Honda equals Simple. As was the original ad for the Macintosh, proclaiming it "The computer for the rest of us."

Of course, Coke was represented by a number of pieces, including the first print ad in which Coca Cola used the image of Santa Claus, in his red suit and white beard and jolly smile. The museum's label describing the ad informs the viewer that it was none other than Coca Cola that concocted our current version of Santa Claus. A marketing inspired makeover -- from nasty St. Nicholas to Jolly Old St. Nick, complete with elves.

Think about that for a minute...Coca Cola invented Santa Claus. Brilliant marketing, really. Something that even Nike, who has foregone everything but the swoosh in their corporate identity, could envy.

Nike and Coca-Cola are perfect practitioners of what Harvard Business School professor Jeff Rayport calls Viral Marketing, or V-Marketing. In the December / January issue of Fast Company, Rayport describes V-Marketing as "the newest approach to marketing in the post-mass-market economy."

On the surface, it's an interesting idea. Take the premises of biological or computer viruses, and apply them to marketing a product. Let's try it, shall we? In the introduction to his "Little Black Book of Viruses," computer virus researcher Mark Ludwig describes the two primary features of a virus: survival and reproduction.

On survival. "The simplest of living organisms draw raw materials from their surroundings and use energy from the sun to synthesize whatever chemicals they need to [survive]," writes Ludwig. Similarly, a well-crafted marketing "virus" survives on and draws its strength from its surroundings. For example, the Nike "Just Do It" slogan feeds on the "independent spirit" on which the country was founded. George Washington just did it, after all. Yet it's simple (and empty) enough to allow consumers to fill it with their own dreams of Chicago Bulls-dom.

On reproduction. "[The virus] must contain a search routine which locates new files that are worthwhile targets for infection. Secondly it must contain a copy routine to copy itself into the area which the search routine locates." Ludwig stresses that both routines must be as small as possible in order to do their jobs (reproduce) without being detected. The typical marketer usually gets this part wrong. Case in point: the Nissan campaign with the mysterious Asian man and the little dog is too transparent an attempt to insert a maxim ("Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride.") to succeed over the long haul.

Thanks to its Harvard lineage, and it's splashy debut in Fast Company, I'll bet that the Virus Marketing virus takes a healthy spin around business magazines, corporate conference rooms and b-school classrooms. And, of course, everyone will look to the 'net as the place to perform their "Viral Marketing" campaigns.

Alas, the only trend here is new terminology, and a new medium in which to apply it. V-Marketing has been around in one form or another for ages. Some social scientists call it memetics. But in most traditional marketing circles, it is simply called "word of mouth." What usually happens in a word-of-mouth campaign is that a savvy marketer combines a good product with well-crafted messages and images, and targets them at a well-defined audience. And then sits back and lets the real network -- the network of friends, relatives and neighbors -- do its thing. If it's a success, it's due to one part science, one part art, and one part plain old dumb luck.

Maybe Coca Cola hasn't "leveraged" its investment in Santa Claus as well as it should have -- after all, most people don't know that they invented him. But most people do know that Coke is it, that it's the real thing, that there's always Coca Cola. And because of that, they sell 45% of all the soft drinks in the world.

A healthy virus, indeed.



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