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The Problem with Viral Branding

Want to build a long-lasting brand? A viral strategy is too short-lived to get the job done, Douglas Holt argues in this excerpt from a new book, How Brands Become Icons.

Editor's Note: Some brands such as Apple Computer, Mountain Dew, and Snapple transcended the product itself to become social icons. Douglas B. Holt's new book, How Brands Become Icons, discusses the power of these cultural brands and how to create them. Holt, a former HBS faculty member, teaches marketing at Oxford University.

This excerpt deals with the controversial subject of viral marketing. Viral marketers attempt to use word-of-mouth, the Internet, and other below-the-radar methods to convince trendsetters to create a buzz about their products. Though a powerful tool, says Holt, a viral marketing program can quickly be eclipsed when the next hot topic comes along. Case study: Snapple.

From viral branding to cultural branding
Cultural branding also stands apart from another recent challenger to mind share, so-called viral branding (some authors and managers also call this approach grass roots and buzz).17 As the name suggests, viral branding focuses on the paths of public influence: how noncompany actors influence customers to value the brand. The viral approach is a compendium of ideas rooted in the classic ideas about public influence—diffusion of innovation, word of mouth, and public relations—that responded to two major shifts in the 1990s: the increased cynicism toward mass marketing and the emergence of the Internet.

Viral branding assumes that consumers, and not firms, have the most influence in the creation of brands. Cynical consumers will no longer heed the missives of mass marketers, so instead must "discover" brands on their own. The Internet provided a means to accelerate this discovery. As a result, what was once considered an important process that marketers might want to stimulate has now often become an end in itself.

In addition, many experts today recommend below-the-radar marketing, which seeds the brand among the most influential people. The basic idea is that if the firm can convince these people to make the brand their own, and configure the brand, like a virus, to make it easy to talk about, these influencers will rapidly spread their interest in the brand to others through their social networks, just as a virus spreads. At the beginning of the new-economy era, Douglas Rushkoff warned the world about what he termed media viruses. Brand managers quickly turned the tables and decided that going viral was the quickest and cheapest path to brand heaven. The more velocity through the system, the better the brand does.

A related idea is what New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell has called the coolhunt.18 In this view, brands are no longer led by corporate activities but rather given meaning and value on the streets by opinion-leading trendsetters who adopt the brands and give them cachet. Consumer goods companies send out cultural detectives onto the streets of cool territories, like the playgrounds in poor urban neighborhoods or underground clubs, to scout out new trends. The race is to grab the newest, coolest culture the fastest, before it becomes mass culture.

In viral branding, a covert public relations mode becomes the core of the branding effort. The ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) champions its ability to create "talk value" as its core competency, for instance. Many major ad agencies and consultancies have launched specialized groups, such as Young & Rubicam's Brand Buzz, to deliver viral branding plans to their clients. Streetwise research consultancies like Sputnik make a living hanging out with the right trendsetting fringes and filing reports with multinational companies.19

In viral branding, a covert public relations mode becomes the core of the branding effort.

In sum, the viral approach presumes that consumers—not marketers—create identity value. Consequently, identity branding has turned into the task of stealthily seeding brands with the right customers so that they will take up the brand and develop its value. The company takes a back seat to consumers in forging what the brand stands for.

As we will see with Snapple, while viral processes are (as always) important for the diffusion of branding efforts, viral branding itself is not a viable approach for building an iconic brand. The primary source of Snapple's identity value comes from the company's marketing activities, not from its consumers. And, like Corona and Coke, Snapple's efforts created a potent identity myth.

A short genealogy of Snapple
Snapple is often used as a poster child for viral branding.20 In the early 1990s Snapple developed tremendous buzz among cognoscenti in New York and beyond, eventually spreading across the United States. In fact, Snapple's climb to iconic stature was due to its owners' idiosyncratic cultural branding strategy. The brand's viral characteristics—its buzz, its underground coolness, and the ragtag community of fans that formed around Snapple—all are consequences of the resonance of the brand's myth, which became embodied in the large-mouthed bottles of juices and teas.

The Snapple line of teas and juices was founded by three Brooklyn entrepreneurs who, in the process of goofing around with their small company, eventually stumbled on the brand's myth. Through the company's new products, advertising, promotions, distribution, and even customer service, the founders authored a quixotic script about a radically different kind of company, one run by amateurs who shared their customers' cynicism toward how large companies were managed. Everything the company did was antithetic to marketing as practiced by The Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo, and other sophisticated marketing Goliaths. Instead of looking to grocery chains and fast-food franchises, Snapple distributed its products in restaurants, delis, street carts, and mom-and-pop groceries. For product, the founders continually rolled out odd and seemingly ill-conceived blends, a few of which became hits. They relied on their most zealous customers for product and packaging ideas, rushing oddball requests into production without so much as a focus group. For example, customer Ralph Orofino's affinity for melons inspired Ralph's Cantaloupe Cocktail, a drink that featured Ralph's face on the label. Customers loved to try these weird drinks, even the bad-tasting ones, which offered surprises compared with the least-common-denominator processes of corporate marketing.

For advertising, the company hired "celebrities" it liked and could afford. The ads were so poorly produced and odd that they became cult classics among the growing legion of New York Snapple groupies. For example, in one ad, less-than-charismatic tennis player Ivan Lendl, with his thick accent, mispronounced the brand's name "Schnahpple." Another spot featured Richie Sambora, the rock band Bon Jovi's only sort-of-famous guitarist, because one owner was a fan.

Especially critical to Snapple's rise was the hiring of "shock jock" talk radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern as spokespersons. Both men conveyed real affection for Snapple and gave the drink extemporaneous plugs on the air in addition to the paid-for sponsorships. It would be hard to pick two more different advocates: Limbaugh was the self-righteous voice of the reactionary right, leading a loyal following of angry white men who called themselves "dittoheads" to blast the liberal tendencies of Washington politicians (Hillary Clinton was a favorite target) and stem the tide of political correctness. Stern, on the other hand, was the comedic and paranoid voice of slutty anarchy. He thrived on a nihilist attitude that involved celebrating whatever polite society considered tasteless, and dissing whatever it considered important. Stern loved to call the bluff on America's puritanical tendencies by stuffing as much sexual innuendo into his program as possible. But, while diametrically at odds in terms of politics and tastes, the two radio jocks were united in that they were America's most provocative populist voices denouncing the priorities and tastes of American elites.

Snapple had ultimate credibility as an amateurish company because its three entrepreneurs knew nothing about professional marketing. Nor did they have any interest in learning. They ran the company according to what made sense and seemed like fun. Snapple's customers knew as much and loved them for it.

When private investors bought majority interest from the entrepreneurs in hopes of expanding the Snapple magic to Americans across the country, they faced a huge risk: How could they apply professional marketing to a brand that attracted legions of devoted followers for Snapple's amateurism? By hiring a young ad agency copywriter to run the marketing department, the new owners avoided brand management orthodoxy. The copywriter, in turn, hired an upstart New York ad agency, Kirshenbaum & Bond, to create a national branding platform for Snapple.

This unorthodox brand team did not attempt to reduce Snapple to a set of brand essence adjectives, seek out deep consumer truths, or plumb Snapple devotees' emotional connections to the brand. Rather, they searched for ways to further extend Snapple's odd, amateurish performances. At the time, Snapple's followers were so touched by the brand that they flooded Snapple's small office with fan mail. Over two thousand letters a week poured in, not to mention original videos, songs, artwork, and poetry, all odes to Snapple.

The team found a promising story in Wendy, a woman who did clerical work for Snapple. Wendy had taken it upon herself to respond to mail as best as she could. The brand team cast "Wendy, the Snapple Lady" as the letter reader in dozens of TV ads. The ads opened with Wendy seated behind the real-life Snapple receptionist's desk, throwing out an unselfconsciously friendly "Hi from Snapple!" Viewers could clearly see that the chatty and plump Wendy was the real thing, not a Hollywood actor. She would then read a letter from a customer with a fussy question about one of Snapple's products, a question that could only be of concern to a devotee. After Wendy answered the question, the ad would cut to a camera crew shooting documentary style in the customers' homes to capture their reactions. None of the spots were scripted, and various bloopers were often left unedited on the film. The tag line "100% Natural" captured the idea that Snapple was not only a natural product, but, even more important, a transparent company run by well-meaning amateurs. The company was run by eccentric people who shared their customers' enthusiasm for frivolous pleasures, not by M.B.A.'s and their spreadsheets and market research.

To complement the advertising, Snapple sponsored many events, but not the usual blockbuster sports, music, and celebrity spectacles of Coke and Pepsi. Instead, Snapple staged events that mocked big corporate promotions: Cherry spitting in Minnesota, yo-yo tossing in New York, and the Miss Crustacean contest in New Jersey were among the sanctioned contests.

The founders had stumbled on, and the brand team nimbly amplified, an identity myth that responded to a burgeoning contradiction in American society. To understand why Snapple connected so profoundly with a significant slice of the American public, we must place Snapple's amateurish brand performances in the context of social tensions that were becoming acute in the early 1990s. During the 1980s, most Americans, particularly men, had signed on to Ronald Reagan's call to arms to get tough again, like the pioneers of the West, to revive the country's economic and political stature. With gung-ho entrepreneurs, tougher business practices, and painful but necessary reorganizations, Reagan promised that the United States would lead the world again. By the late 1980s, the U.S. economy had been largely reinvented as a much more dynamic and much more cutthroat economy, with the constant threat of downsizing and reengineering disrupting labor markets. Profits began to surge, and the country found a new set of heroes in its swashbuckling entrepreneurs (e.g., Ted Turner, Bill Gates) and athletes (e.g., Michael Jordan), who exhibited the "Just do it" spirit. But, while companies and corporate elites profited handsomely, the constant restructuring pushed many other American workers into service-economy McJobs.

As it became clear that trickle-down economics wasn't trickling down, this dissonance bubbled to the surface in both popular culture and politics. The populist backlash of the early 1990s gained political expression in the massive defection of Republicans and Democrats to the populist candidacies of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Jessie Jackson, and Jerry Brown. Americans suddenly had a tremendous appetite for highly cynical and nihilist counterpoints to Reagan's spin on American ideals. Television programs like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead became hits. Wayne's World, Nirvana, and the cartoon strip Dilbert painted culture-leading myths that responded to these tensions.

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Snapple (along with Mountain Dew...) jumped into this swift current of discontent and devised a blissful rebuttal. Through its marketing activities, the company authored a myth that suggested that big corporations and the overpaid elites who ran them only gummed up the works. In the utopia Snapple acted out, companies were run by amateurs who cared more about having fun with their customers than in generating profits to stockholders. The amateurs inspired their customers to dream the craziest drink-inspired dreams, and they played around with products and promotions, however crazy. This myth of a world turned upside down—in which amateurs win over the bureaucratic elite—was plunked into bottles of sugary tea. Gulping down a bottle allowed customers to experience this fantasy as a salve for the identity anxieties they faced.21

Snapple relied on their most zealous customers for product and packaging ideas.

As Snapple's myth engaged these emerging veins of social discontent, sales rose rapidly from less than $50 million in 1987 to over $200 million in 1992. A legion of hard-core devotees were inspired by Snapple's voice in the wilderness. Then, as mass culture responded to raise the populist revolt to a fever pitch in 1992-1994, with everyone from Wayne and Garth to Kurt Cobain joining the chorus, Snapple sales soared skyward, approaching $700 million in 1994.

The Quaker Oats Company purchased Snapple at this juncture, believing that Quaker's professional marketing operations could further leverage the brand. The company implemented a new strategy based on conventional mind share and emotional branding ideas. Quaker managers completely misunderstood what had generated Snapple's awesome identity value—its myth of anticorporate amateurism. They fired Limbaugh and Stern, scrapped Wendy and the "100% Natural" campaign for a more professional and conventional treatment, and instituted a rationalized new product development process. The company thought that it could optimize Snapple's value by applying its expertise in mind-share branding. Instead, Quaker killed Snapple's myth, and soon enough, Snapple lost its iconic stature. Because Quaker marketers failed to grasp the principles of cultural branding, the company lost some $1.4 billion when it had to sell off the Snapple brand in a fire sale as sales came crashing down.23

Why can't viral branding build iconic brands?
By 1994, Snapple had generated plenty of buzz, was considered by many to be a cool trendsetting brand, and had even attracted a hardy band of followers who formed an occasional Snapple community. But these viral effects were artifacts of the brand's success, not causes. Snapple earned these desirable qualities because the brand pushed a compelling new identity myth. Snapple's company of amateurs championed a fantastic populist alternative to the growing disgust with the new-economy labor market and the elites in government and business who were installing it. Consumers loved Snapple for acting this way, talked about the brand, considered it ahead of its time compared with conventional soft drinks, and even enjoyed gathering sporadically with people who felt the same.

The buzz that Snapple generated was the consequence of the power of its myth. Simply getting people to talk about something—say, repeat a catch phrase from an ad—is not a particularly noteworthy event. Most such talk quickly fades from memory and, regardless, becomes detached from the meaning of the story. What sticks are stories that affect how people think about themselves in the world. The problem with the viral model is that it assumes that any communication is good as long as it's retold. Much more important, however, is what people remember and use symbolically in their everyday lives. Snapple didn't just get people talking. Instead, the brand served as a role model, a rather absurd one, which provided a silly but meaningful critique of corporate life in the early 1990s.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding by Douglas B. Holt. Copyright 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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Douglas B. Holt is the L'Oreal Chair of Marketing at the Said Business School of Oxford University in England.

Iconic Brands Versus Fads and Fashions

by Douglas B. Holt

The viral model is essentially a fashion branding model.22 The model relies on taste leaders who set trends and create the brand's must-have desirability when they use it and talk about it. Viral efforts thus seek to influence tastemakers. While numerous fads and fashions have been established through viral processes, iconic brands operate above this cycle. In fact, getting caught up in a fad cycle can destroy an iconic brand. The once-iconic retailer Gap hooked into a fashion cycle when its innovative ads for its classic chino pants placed the brand at the epicenter of the swing music craze of 1997-1998. After enjoying its two years of fame and sky-high stock prices, the brand collapsed when it failed to package another hit. Meanwhile, the new young customers who hopped on the brand to be part of Gap's cool factor combined with Gap's newfound interest in delivering fashion hits scared away the brand's much more durable iconic consumers.

Identity brands that are developed through viral approaches have a fatal flaw—they are authorless. The firm relinquishes control of the brand to consumers and cultural tastemakers. The problem is that these authors thrive on influencing the next big thing. As soon as they make a brand famous, they move on. Fad brands are dumped by fashion-forward tastemakers as soon as their cachet has been depleted, as Corona's first flash-in-the-pan success attests.

When properly managed, iconic brands are much more durable than fads and fashions. Rather than ride boom-and-bust cycles of fashionability, icons address acute social tensions that usually last for many years.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding by Douglas B. Holt. Copyright 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing. All Rights Reserved.


22. Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), traces the breakdown of the classical top-down fashion model and the rise of a more heterogeneous, fragmented, and democratic fashion system.


17. I differentiate here between viral branding—viral activities meant to increase the value of the brand—and the larger category of viral marketing. Viral marketing is simply the latest variant of what used to be referred to as word of mouth and the diffusion of innovation. Viral techniques are widely applicable in the diffusion process. They help get the word out on a new product, and socialize new consumption patterns, especially in the technology sectors. Here, however, I'm concerned with how viruses act as vehicles to create fashionability: the idea that the product's user creates its au courant desirability. The most influential book has been Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2000). See also Emmanuel Rosen, The Anatomy of Buzz (New York: Doubleday, 2000); and Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum, Under the Radar: Talking to Today's Cynical Consumer (New York: Wiley, 1998).

18. Malcolm Gladwell broke the term in his article "The Coolhunt," New Yorker, 17 May 1997. Trend-spotting consultancies have popped up all over, including Sputnik, whose principals wrote a book: Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca, Street Trends (New York: Harper Business, 1996).

19. I discuss the historical development of branding based on the idea of consumer sovereignty in Douglas B. Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble?" Journal of Consumer Research, June 2002, vol. 29, 70-90.

20. An earlier version of the Snapple genealogy was published by Douglas B. Holt, "How to Build an Iconic Brand" Market Leader, June 2003.

21. John Deighton, "How Snapple Got Its Juice Back," Harvard Business Review, January 2002, 47-52, makes an organizational culture argument for Snapple's early success and partial recovery, maintaining that Snapple could succeed only when the company (the founders, and then again with Triarc) had a playful entrepreneurial culture. But this argument fails to account for Triarc's inability to reignite Snapple's identity value and why the new owner of Snapple, Cadbury-Schweppes, clearly a large bureaucratic company, has done just as well with Snapple as did Triarc. More generally, Deighton assumes that there is a tight coupling between corporate culture and branding. While this close relationship sometimes holds true (e.g., Harley and ESPN in my analyses) and has become a popular argument today (e.g., in Jesper Kunde, Corporate Religion (New York: FT Prentice Hall, 2000)), the empirical evidence suggests that such tight linkages are hardly necessary. Three of the five companies described in this book—PepsiCo (with Mountain Dew), Anheuser-Busch (with Budweiser), and Volkswagen—have built extraordinarily powerful brands worth many billions of dollars with management teams that have little affinity for the myth that the brand projects. As it turns out, the ad agency, rather than the client, usually serves as the primary cultural conduit. In my model, I argue that what is at stake is how brands forge authentic relationships to the populist worlds from which they draw. I distinguish between organizational populism (Harley, ESPN, Patagonia) and staged populism (Mountain Dew, Bud, Volkswagen).

23. Snapple's newest brand owners, first Triarc and now Cadbury-Schweppes, have done their best to recapture the magic of Snapple's halcyon days by echoing its original communications. Snapple's myth of the company of amateurs, which took aim at the particular populist sentiments that erupted in the United States in the early 1990s, has now been distilled to a transcendental brand identity in the mind-share mode: Snapple is "quirky and alternative." American culture and society have moved on, but Snapple performs a watered-down version of a story whose resonance peaked more than a decade ago. As a result, Snapple has become a conventional lifestyle brand. A strategy that has yanked Snapple out of history continues to dilute Snapple's stature as an icon.