Category Archives: word of mouth

Bad word of mouth: Why smoking Santas are remembered

Santa remains a powerful tale because your grandma told your mom and she told you. And if you think back, the story freaked you out as a kid.

We thought of this over lunch reading how an artist named Haddon Sundblom created the iconic image of a rotund man in a red suit in the 1930s for Coca-Cola, riffing on earlier cartoons by Thomas Nast. Soon Santa was everywhere in marketing. Camel ads touted a good smoke. Necco candy wafers showed Santa’s head popping out of a box. Painter Sundblom even put an unclothed woman in a Santa robe on the cover of Playboy magazine in 1972.

Beneath it all was word of mouth. Santa became folklore because he was the exact opposite of the robber barons and business fat cats who were blamed for the Great Depression — a powerful leader who gave riches away instead of keeping it. In the economic recovery after World War II, U.S. consumers were ready to shop. A rich dude handing out stuff? Sign us up and we’ll tell the kids!

Santa is a good story because he has a dark side, too.

Negative tones make messages more credible. Chung-Ang University in South Korea ran a study asking 143 participants to shop online for digital cameras and movies. Sure, those who read 100% positive reviews thought more highly of the product. But the study revealed that participants exposed to 20% negative reviews and 80% positive had the highest shift in opinion toward the source — the dose of ire made the story irresistible.

The point for marketers is that advertising fails if the message is purely controlled and purely positive. Consumers are suspicious; they’ve heard it all before; and if you don’t allow any negativity to touch your product, you may not be remembered.

Santa remains successful because he has a bit of darkness in his story; he creeps into homes at night, he might punish you if you’ve been bad, he could use bariatric surgery, and come on, the man nibbles on cookies without cleaning up the mess. The original 1880s cartoons by Thomas Nast showed St. Nick holding a pipe, not a Coke. So how can we forget? Like a secondhand whiff of cigarette at a hip party, a little naughtiness makes the message feel more right.

The word of mouth for Stephen King


As the battery drains from a loaned laptop in our northern Maine vacation, we realize we must bid the web and this blog farewell … until next Monday, July 14. We leave you with the image of Stephen King’s front gate, and the tale of his second “brand.”

You know Mr. King as the prolific writer of horror books. But talk to people within 20 miles of Bangor, Maine, and you get a different story — about a guy and his wife who started out small, always remembered their home, and gave back in the form of charity and building baseball fields and cracking jokes at local bookstores or movie theaters. Seems Stephen King has built a word-of-mouth brand around goodwill.

We drove by the water park he built for the community, which doesn’t have his name on it. We drove by King’s house, saw a relatively modest home for a guy who makes millions. The gate was open, we were tempted to drive in, knock and say hello. The wrought iron gates were a little goth, but didn’t fool us. We hear he’s just a nice guy.

Funny thing, word of mouth. Changes your entire perspective of the official brand.

Photo: Silver Starre

Marketing lag, or why it’s now safe to buy a Ford


Buddy of ours is shopping for a pickup. First words out of our mouth were: Buy a Toyota. Cause we all know American cars are crap. Like those Ford Explorers that tend to roll over and almost killed two friends of ours in a snow storm or those 7.5 million GM A-Cars that had gas tanks placed dangerously between the rear axle and back bumper perhaps to save costs, ready to rupture if the bumper got tapped …

But wait. We’re wrong! Consumer Reports has just announced Ford SUVs are climbing up the charts in quality, and now greatly outpace those fancy European models. All that bad press Ford and other U.S. automakers got years ago is still stuck in our minds … but CR has recommended not one but six Ford models (Edge, Expedition, Explorer, Explorer Sport Trac, F-150, and Taurus X). Egad!

This is the problem with marketing. CMOs and marketing managers tend to change companies every two years, and when they come in fresh, they immediately launch NEW! IMPROVED! marketing messages trying to establish a name for themselves. But consumers remember. Ford, for one, faces an uphill battle in convincing anyone it can match Toyota in quality — yet Consumer Reports notes that several Ford models are now better than the giant Toyota Tundra 4WD V8.

You can’t change history, but if you work in marketing or advertising, you have to recognize it. While operations works on tomorrow’s quality control, here are a few things to address in your messaging to consumers today:

– What marcom went out in the past 10 years?
– What PR — good or horrible — did your company create in the same period?
– How will prospective customers remember those marketing messages and PR debacles?
– Is your current brand message building upon that history realistically?
– Are you gradually migrating your customer base to a new awareness?
– Or, are you making promises that are wildly out of sync with where you’ve been?

Just a thought. P.S. Be sure to buckle up.

(Note to lawyers: See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, the debate that Ford may have inflated tire pressures unsafely low to mask high center of gravity here, and the infamous 1973 Edward Ivey “value analysis” memo for GM here.)

Britney Spears and the viral saving of America


Way back in Econ 101 we learned that every dollar spent generates hundreds of dollars in downstream value in the economy. It’s pretty simple. If you pay $10,000 for a new deck, your builder probably spends $9,900 of what you pay him on supplies, food, clothing, a new drill, his home mortgage, and puts a little in the bank. And all the other people who get the builder’s $9,900 spend $9,800 or so on their stuff, and eventually $10,000 + $9,900 + $9,800 … add up to a really big number.

The entire economy is built like word-of-mouth marketing — you “speak money” to two friends, and they keep passing the word along.

So we have some good news. Portfolio magazine has calculated that Britney Spears contributes $120 million to the U.S. economy only in the first round of the paparazzi, record suits, and hairstylists employed by her. Geez, if she even appears on a tabloid cover, copy sales jump 33%. Now carry forward the multiplier effect, and every Britney hiccup may push the U.S. forward by 1 or 2 billion in value.

There’s a lot of worry in the States today about the economy. Solution is simple. Go buy a tabloid with Britney Spears on the cover, and next week your boss will give you a raise.

The children on the bus go round and round


Sometimes in the buzz of our world a little black hole opens up to create a communications vacuum. This entails a noteworthy cause that almost everyone would say is important, if you asked them, but one that almost no one does anything about.

Like school bus seat belts.

Each year in the U.S., 440,000 public school buses travel more than 4 billion miles to daily move 25 million children. Ah, children. U.S. parents do anything to keep them safe. We outlaw lead paint, get mad at China for shoddy toys, and when transporting our own tots, strap them into mandatory child seats and drive off in modern cars equipped with air-bags, side air-bag curtains, crumple zones, headrests, daytime running lights, and anti-lock brakes.

But send a child to school, and they don’t use seat belts. Today’s kids enter a bus with technology that hasn’t changed much since Dr. Frank Cyr and his friends at Columbia University decided to paint buses yellow in 1939. The last serious innovation in school bus technology came in 1977, when the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards created construction standards to make sure school bus roofs do not collapse when they roll over. No one talked much about the little heads rolling around inside, or whether seat belts would keep those heads in place.

This void in communications is intriguing, since demand for child safety seems to be high and bus accidents happen all the time. Google “school bus accident” and the screen fills with news reports. This past summer, a school bus fell off a collapsing bridge in Minneapolis. Counselor Jeremy Hernandez was called a hero for helping kids get off the bus, but he told CNN that as the bus fell surrounded by tons of crashing concrete, he and others flew over the seats. Just yesterday, on Nov. 10, another school bus in Hanover Township, Pa., crashed over an embankment after two wheels fell off. A few — just five — states have done something about this, with lap belts now used in NY, NJ, California and Florida, and Alabama Governor Bob Riley announcing on Nov. 6 that his state will “test” seat belt usage on, ahem, 12 buses across the entire state.

We don’t know why the case of missing school bus seat belts, like some others, fails to cascade communications. Perhaps there are only two things that drive human awareness: Private profit or public advocacy. If profit can be made, marketers build advertising plans to get the word out. If advocates are impassioned, Al Gore gives Apple Keynote presentations until we all believe in global warming. But for pedestrian, boring, complicated causes, such as investing in little black belts for little laps, the message just falls into a vacuum.

Sort of like a yellow school bus sliding toward the Mississippi River.

Want your viral marketing to succeed? Try prayer.


Seth Godin has said that the difference between word of mouth and viral marketing is that words passed from friend to friend diminish, while viral communications go exponential. This is why if you tell two friends about a great restaurant, they may only tell one friend, and the message ends up dying … but if you bought your kid a Razor Scooter in 2000, soon everyone in the world had one.

Of course, marketers all want to become the next big viral thing so they can generate demand without spending big on advertising. Which poses the question … is there a happy medium? Can we create messages that become self-sustaining, that don’t die out, but continue to slowly grow? Is it possible to achieve marketing perpetual motion?

The answer may lie in religion. Of all the messages from human communication, spirituality is the most sustaining. Put aside your personal beliefs (or disbeliefs) for a second and consider the facts. Of the 6.75 billion people in the world, 87.3% of them consider themselves religious. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are the three largest, encompassing just over 4 billion people. These messages have been around for centuries, without a lot of marketing, and get passed along primarily by word of mouth. Why? Because the content of the message is very powerful (if you believe, it could save your life), and so this strong idea overcomes the innate friction in word of mouth dynamics.

The religions with the heaviest marketing or public relations tend to grow fastest. Islam membership is increasing in the world today, perhaps due to the PR focus brought to it in the Middle East by the controversial Western presence there. In the U.S., the fastest growing religion is Mormonism, which does heavy marketing including a “sales force” of young missionaries knocking door to door.


What makes religion so growable? Break down its components and you see:

– a clear value proposition (we’ll save you)
– a community of membership (join others)
– some exclusivity (you’re a member but others are not)
– frequent touch points to reinforce the message (church every week)
– reinforcement of the message (small pieces of a broader message are given a bit at a time)
– connection to the consumer’s own life (for example, in Christianity, the Sundays often go through an annual calendar cycle tied closely to the seasons, with Christmas, Easter, etc.)
– co-opting of the local culture (Christianity did this with many holidays, including the December date of Christmas, vs. the consensus of many scholars that Christ would have been born in the spring while the “shepherds were out tending their flocks”)
– switching costs (if you leave, the community will disapprove of you)
– some skin in the game (you often have to give up something, such as tithing or time, to participate)
– a migration of the message from an initial early-adopter radicalism to a more mainstream conservatism (for evidence of a religion’s transition, just look at the altar in front of your church, and ask yourself — what kind of sacrifice was that flat platform originally for?)
– and, perhaps most important, a focus on the consumer’s lifecycle (by engaging them early in their lives and moving them up into loyalty status, through a series of escalating responsibilities).

If you boil it all down, religion offers a powerful message, a powerful benefit, a close-knit club, switching costs, and ties to your broader lifestyle. It has one basic objective: To create a community of loyalists, who work to attract other loyalists. The closest analogy we see in marketing today are the new social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Windows Live Spaces, Flickr and Orkut, where small close-knit communities mirror the consumer’s own personal world.

We’re not saying any religion is right or wrong. We just suggest that, as a communications vehicle, religion is the most brilliant case study for marketers trying to make their message stick. It has to be, because evolutionarily only the strongest messages can survive for centuries in a world of consumer choice.

Ghosts, or the trouble with word-of-mouth marketing


Tonight, on a pitch-charcoal-black October evening with no moon in the sky and a tremor in our heart, we heard two sharp raps on our front door. We opened it — and found no one there. Instead, a little brown bag filled with candy was on our doorstep, with a poem saying “you have been ghosted.” It’s a cute tradition in the U.S. suburbs. A week or so before Halloween, kids run around “ghosting” homes, leaving a bag of candy with a message that the homeowner has to do the same for two other houses.

Trouble is, this ghosting thing never seems to take off. You’ve heard of trick-or-treating, but you’ve probably never heard of “ghosting.” We’re all busy. We forget to buy candy weeks before Halloween. Tomorrow is Monday, the kids will be doing homework, we’ll be doing dishes, and soon, no one else will get the viral prank.

This points out a difference between word-of-mouth failure and viral ideas that spread like wildfire. Word of mouth, alas, often has too much friction to make it big. You may tell 2 friends about your shampoo, and so on, and so on, but how many friends really pass it along? “Hey, I have this friend, who has a friend, and she says some shampoo is terrific!” By the first or second degree of separation, people lose interest. Word of mouth only works about one or two degrees along your social network.

Viral ideas, by comparison, spread wildly because of something else. There’s a lot of talk about what makes some ideas viral, and how you can control this dynamic. We’ll explore this more in our next few posts.

PS, the photo above has little to do with this post. But certain sources say this is a real photo of “the brown lady,” a ghostly apparition captured on film in 1936. I’m pretty sure this is what left the candy on the doorstep.

Put yourself in a higher bracket


OK, next big meeting, after work, in the restaurant with the important client/boss/vendor you’re trying to impress, casually let one of these receipts fall on the table. It’s fake, and it will show that you are loaded to the gills.

Call it word of mouth marketing.

We’d show you the web site that prints these, but hey … is this legal?