Sunday, December 7, 2008

Show Me The Buzz

Buzz marketing is like a virus that changes to meet the challenge of a new environment. There are three distinct stages: inoculation, incubation, infection – the final stage enables the widespread usage of a product/service amongst the mainstream.

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Last week I brushed off the dust on an old speech, “Show Me The Buzz”, that I debuted back in 2006 at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show. Buzz marketing is a topic about which I am extremely passionate. Anytime I have an opportunity to present the speech, I get very excited, especially to a new crowd that affords me the prospects of expanding my business network. Last night the audience at Philadelphia’s Independence Visitors Center (
was composed of members of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of HSMAI (Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International).

When I address buzz marketing principles, I draw metaphor to a virus. True buzz is like a virus that changes to meet the challenge of a new environment. There are three distinct stages: inoculation, or the introduction of a product; incubation, or the use of the product by a few innovative trendsetters; and infection, or the widespread usage of the product amongst the mainstream. I then provide actual case studies to further drill down my point as it relates to viral marketing, the popular term that is often used in lieu of buzz marketing.

One of my personal favorite case studies is Jones Soda ( Vancouver native Peter Van Stolk, a former ski instructor, founded the innovative Seattle-based company originally in 1987. In recognition that Jones soda did not have the deep pockets or distribution network similar to the mega beverage companies, Stolk positioned his company as the anti-Coke alternative. He introduced non-traditional flavors (e.g., Blue Bubble Gum, FuFu Berry, Jelly Doughnut) and decided to utilize a viral marketing campaign to build a cult following. Inoculation began when Stolk’s team drove across the country in two RV’s distributing free sodas to teenagers in malls and schoolyards. They also placed signature coolers in surf shops, bike shops, and tattoo parlors, even bookstores that targeted the younger, non-traditional crowd who favored extreme lifestyles. This strategy added to the brand’s mystique. Incubation followed when the company via its website made an emotional connection with its consumers by soliciting photos for customized labeling on their bottles. Bam! Revenues reached $39 million by 2006 – the viral infection was in place. In 2007, Jones decided to introduce a line of canned soft drinks to Target and Wal-Mart, a move that placed them in direct competition with Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Sound good? Not really. All sorts of problems ensued – production, distribution and finance. The company did not have the infrastructure to compete with all the beverage brands stocked on the supermarket shelves in America. Stolk stepped down as CEO and was replaced by the former Coca-Cola CMO Stephen Jones who is still trying to stop the financial hemorrhaging of Stolk’s grandiose expansion plan.

I share this story, because it is a classic example of how a viral infection can backfire if a company does not take timeout to plan accordingly for rampant growth. I compliment Peter Van Stolk as a true innovator two-fold: A.) He benchmarked outside the beverage industry by looking at what worked in fashion, sports, music, etc. to take the beverage industry by storm; and B.) He listened to his customers, thus connected with his customers. What he failed to do was create the infrastructure needed to continue Jones Soda’s run as a leading alternative beverage company. In my next posting, I will address a process called Deconstruction, which is a potential solution for companies that find themselves in a similar position to Jones Soda.

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