6 Maxims of Creating Buzz

Maxim #1: Push The Taboo Button To Start Conversations
Even Procter & Gamble stumbled upon taboo many years ago with Mr. Whipple and his admonishment, “Don’t squeeze the charmin!” Whipple told America it wasn’t allowed in the store…we couldn’t squeeze the Charmin. And the Mr. Whipple campaign was the most successful campaign in the brand’s history. Time after time, a P&G ad agency would try to kill off Whipple and replace him with a new campaign—only to return to Whipple, because sales were higher with Whipple. Whipple succeeded because he tapped into our taboo. When we arrived at the supermarket aisle for bathroom tissue—what did we do? Squeeze the darn Charmin, of course! Why? Because we knew we weren’t supposed to do it—it was taboo.

Why did our urinal screens work for Half.com?

First, because it suggested a contextual message that was creative (Don’t piss away half your money…head to Half.com). But second, because it was bathroom humor.

Bathroom humor is taboo—and we talk about the taboo. If you’re ever at a dinner party with parents of babies or toddlers—give yourself thirty minutes before somebody starts talking about “doo-doo” and diapers. Of course you’re not supposed to talk about those things at a dinner party— they’re taboo. Or Viagra—can you imagine your parents or grandparents talking about bedroom performance except when alone in the bedroom?

Got a boring product like shampoo? Introduce taboo. Herbal Essences did. Each commercial pictures a woman in the shower, orgasming in sheer delight as she washes her hair with Herbal Essences shampoo.

Clairol turned a hum-drum “Herbal Essences Organic” into an industry star with their vibrant commercials playing on the close wording of organic and orgasmic. Every time you see their commercial, you see playful (but taboo) images of women enjoying their shampoo…as much as an orgasm.

Just think if GM’s Hummer could get Hugh Grant in one of their commercials (slyly reminding us how he was caught by the police for, er, getting a hummer from a lady of the evening). Talk about taboo! That would get the whole world talking!

Maxim #2: Push The Unusual Button To Start Conversations
David Letterman’s got the “unusual” buzz button nailed with his stupid human tricks and his Top Ten lists. For marketers, look as far as Pepsi’s decision to put a competing product, Coke, in the Pepsi Challenge commercials (revolutionary in its day, and still not much done). Unusual marketing makes its way into pop-culture and gives people currency.

In a very different kind of business, a man named Ian Klein five years ago decided to go into the online dating business. But when you’re competing against Match.com, things get pretty competitive. His sister was one of the 64 percent of overweight Americans, and also one of the eighty million single people in America. In time he made the connection, pushed an unusual button, and created a niche site called OverweightDate.com.

Among overweight singles, the whispers started. At Weight Watchers meetings, at bars, everywhere.

Best of all, the idea worked. People who had been shelling out $40 a month on Match.com and getting zero dates because of their weight were now getting dates left and right. These days when founder Ian Klein walks through the mall in the Boston area where the site is based, people stop him to ask about it. Put on a tee-shirt with the OverweightDate.com name, and he gets stopped even more.

Will he resort to having flyers slipped to people eating at In-N-Out Burger locations in California? You bet. They’re handed to everyone— overweight people, athletic people, skinny people. People laugh, they actually read the flyer, and most important of all—they talk. It becomes an unusual conversation piece.

With marketing held to word of mouth, flyers at In-N-Out Burgers, some keyword buys online, and a few tee-shirts, OverweightDate.com’s registered user count tallies in the millions. Push the unusual button.

Maxim #3: Push The Outrageous Button To Start Conversations
You can’t get more outrageous than asking a town to rename itself. Still, the town went for it.

But a word to the wise when you push this button. Outrageousness for the pure sake of outrageousness doesn’t resonate too well. If you try to get attention by shooting gerbils out of a cannon, that’s certainly outrageous. But if you push this button just for the sake of being outrageous, it will probably work—giving people something to talk about. But what’s the connection to your brand or product?

There needs to be some connection. In renaming our town, the “half” connection was obvious to everyone—and plenty of people found it outrageous. What you’ll find with gerbils being blown out of a cannon is that people might not remember your brand or make a connection to your brand…unless there is a connection.

Here’s the difference. A hypothetical situation: a porn star in the GM Hummer commercial. Outrageous? Yes. Any connection? NO. So—a bad decision.

Now let’s put Hugh Grant in a GM Hummer commercial. Outrageous? Yes (and taboo). Is there a connection, YES. A good decision? Debatable.

The point is: the outrageous button will always work. It just works ten times better if there’s a connection between your product and the outrageousness.

Maxim #4: Push The Hilarious Button To Start Conversations
The hilarious button works, but it may be one of the harder buttons to push—being truly funny is never easy. It can work to your advantage if done right, and to your disadvantage if you’re on the wrong end of it.

A client of ours, the foods and household products company Reckitt Benckiser (they sell nine million household and personal care products every day) came to us with one of its tougher challenges. The brand was French’s Potato Sticks, and it was a classic case of milking the profits with not much marketing spend. As a test, they asked what we could do. The budget wasn’t huge, and we weren’t sure if we would even accept the project, but off I went to the grocery store for three hours one night to make my decision.

The baseline situation was awful. French’s Potato Sticks used to be sold in a can but the company had recently started putting it in a stand-up pouch. It reduced the visibility of the product, but the cost savings of switching to a pouch were too attractive to pass up.

The positioning in the grocery aisle was awful. Right next to Pringles, but low down on the shelf. Hard to see, hard to find, more competitors from the Dorito family arriving. A recipe for disaster, but it was a small cash cow. I lurked in the aisle and asked every one who walked by if they knew about potato sticks (making clear I was a marketing and PR person, not a wacko). Nearly every person paused, squinted, and seemed to reach in the recess of their brain and said, “Yeah, I used to have them as a kid.” Bingo.

It wasn’t so bad after all. All it took was a prompt…a conversation…and people remembered.

The next day we called to take on the project. I didn’t know what we were going to do, but I knew if we could spark some word of mouth conversation, it would be easy to recall a brand people knew when they were kids. We later presented a two week, intensive campaign that focused on nostalgia and comedy.

We would literally bring Potato Sticks to life—with comedians. We recruited amateur comedians and gave them the exposure and the prayer (long shot) of getting on The Ellen Degeneres Show or The Tonight Show. Each day, we would have three comedians show up in Potato Stick costumes that looked like your eight-year-old made them.

Talk about rough around the edges, these were made from UHaul cardboard boxes and spray paint. When people saw these people in costumes, they couldn’t help but stop, approach, laugh, and ask, “What the heck…?”

Purposefully, we designed the costumes to look home-made versus corporate. The costume begged inquiry. They were our conversation openers. But once you start a conversation, you’ve got to continue it, make people laugh (in this case) and give them a ready-made story to take away with them and talk to other people about.

The comedians had no problem making people laugh—office workers, cabbies, teenagers, tourists, gays, straights, hot chicks, metrosexuals, old ladies, cops, and suits…they all stopped, listened, and laughed. Along with a product sample to eat, the punch line was, “Potato sticks…they’re back!”

Combined with two weeks of appearances all over Boston, and a Web site with riddles to guess the next Boston location, these comedians gave out twelve thousand packages of Potato Sticks.

Since this was a test, Reckitt Benckiser wanted to measure awareness results as well as sales. They spent $15,000 on the awareness study, and to be honest, we were nervous, even though we knew it would work. We were pushing the hilarious button, it was planned extremely carefully and deliberately, with locations chosen to cross-pollinate wide across all the Boston metro area.

Before our campaign, unaided awareness of French’s Potato Sticks tallied a mere 10 percent. With three comedians and twelve thousand packs of Potato Sticks—unaided awareness in the Boston Metro more than doubled from 10 percent to 21 percent.

If you know anything about awareness statistics, they are like glaciers. It takes mountains to move them. What we had done was to start conversations and make connections. We pushed the hilarious button to do it. Humor isn’t easy, but when it works, it works well. We weren’t just getting exposure and impressions. We made people laugh. They took pictures of our comedians, and our comedians took pictures of them. The entire purpose was not to sell, but to give. Give people something to laugh about…and a ready-made story to talk about.

Maxim #5: Push The Remarkable Button to Start Conversations
How do you make auto parts worth talking about, among people who ordinarily wouldn’t? When I ran marketing and advertising for Pep Boys, we looked at all the categories that moved the needle in our business and picked a few ‘leader’ categories to promote. One of these categories was brakes. Whether you’re a do-it-yourselfer or prefer to have a mechanic fix your brakes for you, you need reliable brakes. Everybody does.

So how do you create advertising about brakes that starts conversations and gets people remarking on brakes? First, we had a creative team at DDB that produced a great commercial. It opened up with two guys driving back from a weekend in the mountains clad in plaid shirts. They’re driving their Ford Explorer along a winding mountain road as country music plays on the radio. They pass a “moose crossing” sign…then another sign labeled “really big ones.” Looking at each other bemused, they continue driving. They pass another moose crossing sign labeled “no kidding.” They now look at each other confused, then immediately jam on the brakes—stopping just short of a huge moose, standing twelve inches in front of their vehicle. The moose calmly looks at the drivers…and begins to speak.

“Hey, d’you get them brakes at Pep Boys?” says the moose.

The camera cuts to the two guys—shocked by the talking moose. The driver responds in bewilderment, “Yeah…I did.”

The unscathed moose then responds, “I appreciate it,” followed by a closing promotion on brakes at an attractive price-point.

The commercial itself was very good, and bordered on the type of marketing that people would talk about. But we needed a boost. So to enhance the word of mouth and got people remarking on it, we created an in-store campaign with the moose. Tapes of the moose commercial were sent to all the stores, and the employees loved it.

We then had employees in every store wear a round button with a picture of the moose saying, “Ask me about Raybestos brakes.” And guess what? When a customer sees a moose button on your shirt with an “Ask me about” …they remark “What’s up with the moose?” It started conversations between customers and the sales associates.

It also started a conversation among our employees. They talked about the commercial, and they also talked about the new line of Raybestos brakes promoted on the button. So when customers asked about the brakes, employees knew the features and benefits and were prepared to make the sale.

Based on the expected trend of sales from the prior year, brakes showed a double-digit net increase. The commercial itself was very good. But what pushed it over the edge was the in-store campaign causing employees and customers to talk about this crazy moose. We created a campaign that would push people’s buttons and start conversations.

Maxim #6: Push The Secret Button To Start Conversations
How many times has someone said to you, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but…”

Secrets are currency. Revealing a secret is a definite conversation starter. People love to talk about secrets, and when they do, they become ‘in the know.’ They become part of an exclusive circle, and exclusivity is the cousin of secrecy.

Sometimes withholding can work better than flooding. Limit supply and everybody’s interested. Limit those in the know of a secret, those not ‘in the know’ want the currency of knowing—they want to be part of the exclusive circle. Withholding a secret can push people’s buzz buttons, and get people talking.

While not intentional, Google’s Gmail created secrecy and exclusivity in its Gmail account. At one point, people were paying $200 on eBay for an account (I admit I paid for one on eBay myself). But the crazy thing is…it’s a lousy email account (yes, it does have one gig of storage…perhaps enough for twenty years of one person’s e-mail archives). But you can get e-mail accounts anywhere.

Although it’s standard practice in the world of technology to create a very small list of beta test users, Gmail was kept a secret. It became exclusive to have an address like Joe@gmail.com. Limit supply, create exclusivity, know the secret, and more people want to know also. They get interested in what they can’t readily have, and people talk. Shhh…push the secret button.