This article by me originally appeared in American Demographics magazine in 2004.
A face nonchalantly wallpapers urban landscapes in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London and Tokyo and most other metropolitan areas. Evident or not to passers-by, the black-and-white visage glued to stop signs, light poles, scaffolding, brick walls and fences around the world is the face of Andre the Giant. The Andre the Giant who fought Hulk Hogan in wrestling bouts, who was ever so briefly WWF champion and who appeared in Rob Reiner’s 1987 film, The Princess Bride.
How did this phenomenon come to be everywhere? Why has the 7’4″ wrestling figure gained such posthumous fame Andre died in 1993 that people literally risk arrest to post his image? As a student at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Shepard Fairey thought it would be fun to print up a bunch of stickers with Andre’s face, and, in the late 1980s, he started pasting them up in the streets and alleys of Providence, Boston and eventually New York. The stickers read, 7’4, 520 lbs. Andre the Giant has a Posse. At first, it was just a few friends that signed on as accomplices in the miniature billboard campaign. Today, untold hosts of acolytes spread the odd Obey gospel to the ends of the earth.
Some 15 years later, Fairey sticks to his plan, and he’s steered a virally crafted wellspring of global goodwill, brand recognition and buzz into a portfolio of businesses in apparel, skateboards and media astride inner-city hip-hop culture and that of kindred suburban skater youth society tastemaker nirvana for marketers. Fairey’s inadvertent talent at generating buzz among tough-to-reach young consumers has also landed him consulting assignments from the likes of Coca-Cola, Nike and the Gravity Games. Today, Fairey’s original intent, to remind people to think about their surroundings and question what they see, offers a textbook case in building brand identity based on creating a rapport with people that’s not all about selling stuff, but can be all about having people buy stuff as they enthusiastically coalesce and evangelize via a global underground word-of-mouth network.
As if traditional media business models aren’t challenged enough these days, stories like Fairey’s which turn brand marketing inside out further call into question the roughly $128.4 billion TNS Media Intelligence/CMR estimates was spent on advertising in 2003.
These questions intensify as Yankelovich research released at the American Association of Advertising Agencies annual conference in April says 65 percent of people feel they are bombarded with too much marketing and advertising, and 54 percent of those surveyed avoid buying products that they feel are over-marketed.
Companies such as Nike and Quicksilver have taken their share of bruises as a result of such over-marketing in the world of skateboarding where the name Obey Giant carries clout among 15- to 25-year-olds who buy tons of branded clothing and skateboard items. In 2003, the skateboard accessories market had $5.7 billion in total volume of retail sales, according to Board-Trac, an Orange County, Calif.-based market research company. Sponsoring pro riders, creating entertainment products such as video documentaries and advertising in smaller magazines are among the nontraditional marketing channels players in this arena use to maintain credibility, according to Marie Case, managing director at Board-Trac. Not mega-bucks ad campaigns.
For an age group that spends $100 billion annually on discretionary purchases, 15- to 25-year-olds make it pretty rough on media channels trying to reach them. People ages 13 to 24 spend more time online weekly (16.7 hours) than they watch TV (13.6 hours) or talk on the phone (7.7 hours), according to a 2003 study by Harris Interactive and Teenage Research Unlimited. The reason for this, they cite, is ability to control content and overall experience.
Still, Fairey and art director John LaCroix are going to see if they can strike more lightning in a bottle with a new magazine concept, a hardcover quarterly called Swindle, whose first issue is due this summer. Swindle‘s media kit says this of its target reader, This is a generation who grew up with pop culture and media as their wet nurse, and it takes a certain skill set to reach them with success. Ecko, Paul Frank and 55dsl, part of the clothing company Diesel, are among advertisers in the premiere issue. Most magazines cost around $5, and they’re read once or twice and then tossed. Priced at $12, Swindle will attempt to cross over the line from ephemeral magazine to more permanent keeper status with its readers.
What can mainstream consumer goods and services organizations and other companies large and small learn from what Fairey has accomplished? Clearly there’s a dramatic change in the marketplace in how you place a brand in a consumer’s mind, notes Alan Siegel, chairman of the strategic branding firm, Siegel & Gale. The days of buying national television ads are totally disintegrating, because the media have diversified so much. Fairey and Obey Giant provide a lesson in brand building in an increasingly media-neutral world, where young people are Instant Messaging, talking on the phone and watching television all at the same time.
Drew Neisser, president and CEO of New York-based Renegade Marketing, anticipates that a far more active and aggressive effort will be necessary to engage consumers. Younger audiences are the group who has figured out how to block every ad there is, Neisser says. They’ve put up every barrier possible and said when I’m ready, you can talk to me.
Fairey was able to connect to this new generation, whose views of the world have been shaped by the saturation of advertising in their lives as well as by the Internet. He found them willing and eager to think about and identify with a brand that symbolized a protest against the corporatized world. What evolved was a lesson in building brand awareness through a wholly redefined word of mouth. People were talking about it, newspapers were writing about it and the face of Andre the Giant peered out among more and more streets.
As a possible preview of how the Fairey modus operandi will work in the real world of big brands, his Studio Number One has done design assignments for Red Bull and was recently hired by Coca-Cola to create all the street marketing materials for the new Sprite campaign.
In a world in which 10 companies spent over $1 billion on U.S. advertising alone in 2003, marketers are constantly rethinking strategies to better connect with consumers. When creating a brand strategy you have to be aware how people are thinking and behaving and what’s going on in the culture, says brand identity guru Siegel. You don’t work in the abstract; you work in the current environment. Staying current and cool sometimes turns disastrous for marketers. In 2002, New York City was bedecked in butterflies, courtesy of Microsoft, as part of a $300 million campaign handled by McCann-Erickson to promote the software giant’s MSN 8 Internet service. A storm of community controversy forced Microsoft to issue apologies and pay for the cleanup. Consumers don’t appreciate seeing corporations promote with stickers and posters, because they can promote through another media and they are just trying to do what’s hot right now, explains Fairey.
Fairey is not the only street artist who sees the marketing world as a canvas for irony. Brian Donnelly, aka Kaws, is a graffiti artist known for defacing advertising posters with his own stylized skull and crossbones logo in a way that makes it look like part of the ad. Kaws gained notoriety after moving to New York where he had unlimited access to the ads on bus shelters and phone booths to showcase his skills. Although he never creates ads for marketers because he is dedicated to maintaining complete creative control, his work will appear in the next few weeks on a billboard in Los Angeles sponsored by Nike. When asked to comment on Obey Giant as a branding strategy he said, It’s successful because it’s something that just happened, because if a company tried to model themselves after him [Fairey] they would fail. People who buy his stuff have seen the growth and are educated.
Authenticity and transparency seem to be necessary for success on the streets. Consumers value word of mouth twice as much as they value advertising, according to Roper Reports. Media savvy manifests itself in a growing consumer demand for more honest connections with the brands they buy and the companies that produce them. If an advertiser wants to break through the barriers that young people create, an honest representation is a barrier to entry.
Without trust, we’d all buy generic products all the time, says Neisser. Break the trust and the brand dies. For younger people, trust is about discovery. When young consumers can explore and discover a brand without feeling that a company is trying to put something over on them, then real relationships can be forged.
Nontraditional advertising is a way of allowing people to discover things on their own, instead of people being induced, explains Doug Buemi, vice chairman of the public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe. Consumers today don’t want to be cataloged, he adds. Rather they want to be able to say, I’ve had some independence in what I wear, the clubs I go to, the technology I use.
For Buemi, as well as Fairey, it’s all about getting to the tastemakers those in the generation or group others look to and trust, sometimes solely for their sense of style. Fairey notes: The tastemakers are the fastest to smell the rat and say, This is lame, adding, my main problem with corporate marketing, forever, is that it’s always two years behind the curve. They always insult the people they try to reach. In other words, companies need to stop trying to do something because it’s cool and try to understand why it’s cool.
For Neisser’s Renegade Marketing, this means looking for truths not trends. Trends come and go, he says, truths survive. Trends can provide color. Truths, substance. Part of Obey Giant’s true story is that Fairey was an angst-ridden college student when he created it. He was, and continues to be, able to connect with his target demographic because he was part of it, and is still tapped directly into it.
The goal of understanding a phenomenon like Obey Giant is not to learn the best ways to sticker and poster a city, but rather, to find the best ways to connect with consumers on that authentic level. In the future, that may prove to be the only level at which consumers will accept advertising. However, Fairey connected with consumers on this level, and Obey Giant has been as successful as it is, because after that initial connection with the consumer, the relationship continued. This is a traditional, and according to consensus, pivotal approach to branding. The ultimate goal [of a brand] is to drive users to use the products and services and to build an ongoing relationship, says Siegel.
Neisser offered an important qualification, however, noting that traditional approaches to advertising are simply not as successful as they once were for evolving a brand image [although] advertising in mass media will continue to have a role in delivering a sense of urgency. He elaborated, The consumer is now completely in charge of what they buy, where they buy it and how much they pay for it. The marketer can only hope to get on the short list by distinguishing itself through marketing and product development.
Nike, long at the forefront of event-, street- and experience-based marketing, underwrites hip artists and sponsors their work on billboards, getting positive rub-off value from these associates. Upon hearing the news about Nike’s sponsorship of a Kaws’ billboard on the West Coast, an NYU student said, it’s hard to hate Nike when they’re doing cool stuff like that.
There is a viral component to a campaign like that, as there is to the Obey Giant campaign. In a world in which there are so many kinds of media, insinuating one’s brand name into people’s everyday lives via word of mouth has become an increasingly powerful force. In a world in which technology has become such an invasive presence and anonymity is so easy, word of mouth and real interaction are welcome changes. As Fairey put it, The best campaigns are ones where people see it and they ask people about it. And it starts a chain reaction.
For Fairey, it’s about connecting with all these people. That’s why he says the ultimate goal of a brand is to be the equivalent of the Beatles. You’ve got the dumbest guy and the smartest guy in the room singing your song. Fairey continued, I want something that resonates and affects people on different levels, but connects with everyone. For this reason, most of the products that he designs for his Obey clothing line blur and break traditional cultural rules. I intentionally make hybrid products, he explained. We’re always trying to flip stuff up. Fairey then revealed his truth: If Public Enemy can sample Slayer, I can do that [make hybrid products]. (For those not on top of late ’80s music, Public Enemy is the archetype for political hip-hop. On their 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, they sampled the heavy metal band Slayer, fusing two very different styles of music.) For Fairey, the crossing of those two genres symbolized the dissolution of boundaries, not just in music, but in all culture.)
Fairey grew up in a generation that has consistently rejected traditional limits. Turntables were no longer just tools to play music on, they became instruments with which to make music. Songs of the past became a giant database of samples and inspiration for reconfigured mixes. The Internet, phones and cable were not just means of talking or watching television, but parts of a complex network connecting telescoping groups of individuals, and cultures throughout the world. On top of it all, as Neisser notes, The fact that kids watch TV, talk on the phone and IM all at the same time is a behavioral change that no marketer can afford to ignore. With access to such a plethora of information, he says, The mass market is crumbling before our eyes. As a result, you are talking about 280 million individuals.
To say that times have changed hardly does this transformation justice. Imagine: no future generations will have ever lived in a non-digital world. Marketing to current and future generations will require a continuous reevaluation of strategies to connect with consumers who think and consume media in a completely different way than their parents did.
OVER THE YEARS, VIRAL MARKETING CAMPAIGNS HAVE WORKED WELL FOR SOME ADVERTISERS.
This commercial was created for the European Honda Accord and features a Rube Goldberg-like machine using parts from the Accord. It attempts to convey the perfection of the Accord and ends with the line, Isn’t it nice when things just work?
(Burger King – www.subservientchicken.com)
Burger King’s new viral campaign features a man in a chicken suit who will do whatever you tell him to do. It promotes the fast-food company’s new Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich and new salads as well as its slogan, Have it your way. Burger King claims the site has had over 46 million hits.
(Reebok – http://terrytate.reebok.com)
Reebok unleashed this campaign with a 30 second advertisement in 2003 during Super Bowl XXXVII. It continued the campaign, which features a former football player as an office linebacker, with longer clips online.
These online short films are directed by such Hollywood heavyweights as Guy Ritchie, John Frankenheimer and Ang Lee. All the spots star BMW cars in extreme situations.
Although not viral in its original concept, the Wassup campaign spread like wildfire. People quickly began to create their own spoofs and post them online. Budweiser fueled the fire by creating spoofs of the original campaign with terms like wasabi.
Known as the evil twin to Ford’s European compact Ka, commercials circulated featuring the Sportka murdering a pigeon and a cat. Ford claimed the campaign was not approved, however, it garnered much attention.
Man on the Moon (http://andylives.org)
Shepard Fairey worked on this campaign which featured bright-colored highly stylized posters of Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton that pointed to the Web site. The site featured fan-generated content and helped fuel a buzz about the film.
Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project was a very small-budget movie. To get attention, the creators spread rumors that the film was actually real footage and created a Web site which provided more information about the real Blair Witch. A small investment provided huge returns when the rumors spread and people rushed to theaters to learn the truth for themselves.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The movie is about a medical procedure which allows you to erase people or events from your memory. To help promote the film a Web site for the company responsible for the procedure, Lacuna Inc., was created.