What virals can do to your brand

feature1_120The Conservative Party has become the latest organisation forced to denounce an online viral campaign put out in its name (MW last week). Controversial agency Asa Bailey has created a viral – voteforchange.com – hosted on a YouTube profile called SexyBritain. Asa Bailey, founder of the eponymous agency, alleges the viral has been commissioned by Tory backbenchers, while Conservative central office denies any involvement, although it does not deny rebel Tory MPs are behind the move.

Whether backbenchers commissioned the viral or not, the Conservatives are implicated and even the agency admits the images are shocking. “We agree that it’s wrong – it’s sickening,” says Bailey. “There are boundaries and we see ourselves as responsible creators of content. We test things before we put them out – you have to.”

However, online marketing consultant Tim Ireland says Bailey’s viral is “blundering into dangerous ground” and is doubtful about its legitimacy. “Bailey gives viral a bad name,” says Ireland. He doubts any MPs are behind the SexyBritain voteforchange push but says if they are “they’ve not thought about it”. Ireland adds: “It can be very difficult to tell whether a viral has been sanctioned by a brand or whether it was speculative and is leaked.”

Brands from all categories are rushing to launch viral campaigns, from KFC rolling out a branded game to Tango launching a spoof viral of the award-winning Sony “balls” campaign. Virals are often short films or games that aim to be spread around the Net, passed from person to person. But viral is perhaps the last of the digital frontiers to be crossed by brands as it is a platform that has courted controversy and the Conservatives are not the first organisation to seek to distance themselves from work put out in its name.

Infamous cases
Volkswagen is one of the most infamous cases. A viral for VW’s Polo model featured a suicide bomber detonating a device while driving the car but the vehicle remaining intact. VW and its agencies denied all knowledge of the film, which was made by Lee and Dan, a creative duo who said the ad was not made for general consumption.

More recently, two other car brands found themselves in a similar situation. Ford denied any connection with a viral featuring its Ka model in which a cat was beheaded, while Chrysler said a film for its Nitro vehicle in which a dog appears to be electrocuted was nothing to do with the company. Ireland calls this a “plausible denial” and says that viral is a “new frontier and there are a lot of cowboys out there”.

But Gyro International group head of digital Jon Pollard argues that whether these brands sanctioned the making of the virals or not, “they wouldn’t mind the association that much”. He says: “These types of videos are seen by more people than TV ads.” He adds, however, that if the SexyBritain viral is genuine, the people behind it have not understood how online users view them or how they react.

In a world where consumers are skipping TV ads, whether by just switching channels or skipping through the ads via personal video recorders, online advertising has become an essential element of the marketing mix. But it is not just about slapping ads online.

Pollard adds: “How people use the Net has evolved. People have moved on from just browsing and shopping – they now use the Web for networking and community and the new challenge is how to reach them.”

Brands certainly seem to be waking up to that fact. Last week, research released by agency Kontraband showed growth of up to 60% in viral output in the first seven months of 2007 compared to last year. It says more brands have been willing to employ the tactic this year and as a result production output has risen by an average of 40%. It adds that viral seeding campaigns have jumped 67% so far this year.

The agency predicts that the viral industry will be worth up to £30m by the end of the year. Commenting on the report, Austen Kay, managing director of Woot Media, says: “There is a growing realisation that great creative will disseminate very quickly through social networks when seeded on the right blend of entertainment sites, blogs and forums.”

GoViral chairman Jimmy Maymann agrees, but stresses that brands must be aware of the environment in which they are working. “Sharing has become a social phenomenon, but they’re not the answer to all your prayers,” he says. “The epicentre of effective user-driven marketing campaigns is ‘you’ [the user]‚ and the media landscape the advertiser faces is a ‘media youcracy’‚ with empowered users who can make or break any product or brand.”

Doctored images
Maymann cites Virgin being forced into an embarrassing U-turn last year after a viral ad campaign backfired spectacularly. The company asked b3ta.com users, an online community known for bad taste jokes, to create a new ad for the Virgin Money brand. Entries included doctored images of Sir Richard Branson in compromising situations.

“This was too much for the company,” he says. “Put simply, marketers give up control when they launch a viral so you might want to rate the material on an isolated set of selected sites or among users before you take it to the masses. We’ve launched hundreds of viral campaigns and every campaign is tested prior to launch to ensure effectiveness and to identify elements that need tuning to optimise it.”

BoreMe.com hosts viral campaigns and, like other sites such as chinwag.com, acts as a hub for viral. Founder Pete Brown says: “Most viral advertising does not work because agencies haven’t realised what the medium means and how online audiences get their messages. It’s more about generating a buzz online and getting online communities to talk about who is behind the clip.”

Viral advertising certainly gets people talking and gets brands on social networks, where so many of their consumers spend so much time, but it is clear that brands must be cautious. Pollard warns: “Those virals that generate the best buzz tend to be the most controversial. But there are inherent dangers – get it wrong and there will be a backlash.”

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