Put the Bunny Back in the Box

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Because I’m shallow, when I search for a metaphor to wrap around whatever marketing concept we’re discussing in COLLOQUY, I nearly always default to a movie or music reference. In a very real sense, I’m a frustrated Entertainment Weekly editor stuck in a loyalty marketer’s body.

So it naturally befalls to me to equate COLLOQUY’s position on viral marketing with the appropriate pop culture reference. What comes to mind is the 1997 Nicholas Cage action extravaganza Con Air. The best line in Con Air happens somewhere near the climax, when Cage’s Cameron Poe character—rockin’ the best mullet since the glory days of Billy Ray Cyrus—confronts a villain who has taken hostage the little pink stuffed bunny rabbit that Poe is determined to bring home to his daughter.

“One move and the bunny gets it,” the villain says, pointing a gun at the bunny’s fuzzy pink head.

“Put…the bunny…back… in…the box,” Cage commands.

Could there be a more apt metaphor for what needs to happen to counterbalance the current craze over viral marketing? Marketers everywhere are convinced that they’re only a successful viral campaign away from fortune and glory. A coherent database marketing strategy is no longer a prerequisite to success—all you need to build sustainable customer relationships is to upload a suitably wry, mildly subversive video onto YouTube and you’ll build loyalty that lasts a lifetime.

To this, I can only scratch my head. Hell, if it’s really that easy, what do you need a marketing department for? Just hire a couple of precocious undergrads to pump out clever videos, build FaceBook pages and create a retail presence for you in Second Life—given the continued decline of the U.S. dollar, Linden dollars will soon be worth more anyway. Buy the kids a couple of PowerMacs and arm them with T-Mobile wi-fi accounts, and you’re in business. If they work at Starbucks, then there’s no overhead.

The current viral marketing craze is driven largely by fear. That this is true of most marketing trends, I grant you. But the fear in this case is especially pronounced because it’s based on perceived loss of control.

We fear losing control of our brands as buzz spreads through the inter-tubes whether we do anything about it or not. Agencies fear losing Old Media business to less lucrative web channels. Everyone understands that the consumer is now in charge, and everyone understands that this is last thing anyone wants.

There’s even a series on AMC called Mad Men based entirely on agency nostalgia for the 1960s, when white men on Madison Avenue were the gatekeepers of all brand conversations. As Tony Soprano said, “Remember-when is the lowest form of conversation.”

Thus marketers and agencies alike fall over themselves to buy and sell viral marketing and Net Promoter as the best method to regain control of the brand message. We can manipulate consumers by empowering them to email our commercials to each other. We can convince the Chatty Patties among them to become brand evangelists and sell our products for us. But does any of it really build profitable, sustainable changes in customer behavior? Does it lead to permanent increase in market share? Who knows?

If you take nothing else from this, take this message: Viral marketing is mass marketing for the digital age. It is nothing more than that. Viral messages can do a wonderful job building interest—but acquisition requires identification, and relationships require customer data. If your customer strategy begins and ends with viral messaging, then you’re only building momentary interest in your latest promotion. Viral marketing belongs in a box, and that box is labeled Awareness and Trial.

So when your agency throws up the white boards to convince you that their idea for a viral video in which a guy in a bear suit wanders around Grand Central Terminal asking strangers for a ten-dollar bill for two fives, remember Cameron Poe. Tell the creatives to put the bunny back in the box.

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