Guerrilla 'Success' for Cap'n Crunch Does Social-Media Proponents No Favors

Resistant Marketers Still Focused on Numbers, not Relationships -- and These Numbers Are Small

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield

With Frienders like this, who needs enemies?

Michael Gutweiler and Cory Smale, two Chicago 20-somethings trying to get attention for their new social-media boutique, hit on a clever idea. They found a large, iconic brand that inexplicably had no presence on social media and decided, with no permission much less a contract from the marketer, to establish that presence themselves.

Thus, two months back, the "Where's the Cap'n?" campaign was born.

Yes, the two pirates stealthily boarded Quaker Oats' ship and shanghaied Cap'n Crunch, the seafaring breakfast-candy trademark. Then they created a Facebook page for him, and a Twitter feed, and an online petition -- all to pressure Quaker into bringing the skipper from the seven seas to the digital space.

Pretty good idea, no? Cap'N Crunch! It's like kidnapping Frank Sinatra Jr. (which, in 1963, somebody did, gaining $240,000 in ransom, tons of attention and only four-and-a-half years in prison). Sure enough, here's a two-man company, the Giant Steps, featured in Advertising Age, which is a lot more than most startups ever accomplish. They've done so thanks to an email declaring success: "... our campaign and the voice of our movement has been heard -- the Cap'n is now coming to Twitter."

Quaker has informed them of its plans to formalize the Twitter presence some time in 2011.

"It's a win for us," Gutweiler told me. "We're the new players in the league. We have strong beliefs and we're gonna live by them. ... We were able to create the most-visited, the most-mentioned cereal page on Twitter within the past two months -- and they're not an official account."

So, once again, excellent little guerrilla-marketing gimmick for Gutweiler and (no relation to P&G's John) Smale. The problem is, should this exercise land them in any corporate conference rooms to pitch, the brand-evangelism message they're conveying is not the one that will be heard. What skeptical marketers will home in on is the metric the ill-named Giant Steps uses to document its success.

"Within the first week," says Gutweiler in recounting the triumph, "we had more than 420-430 [Twitter] followers." Then, when the pace began to slow, they announced they would give away a Flip camera for every 1,000 followers they accumulated, and 72 hours later they were at 1,100.

Woo-hoo.

See, the thing is, if you expect to be taken seriously by people who buy audiences by the 10s and 100s of millions, it is best not to pound your chest over 1,100 people, two-thirds of whom have been bribed. In boxing, this is what is called "leading with your chin." At this very moment, men and women with large budgets and insufficient devotion to social media are congratulating themselves for not being suckered into distracting, inefficient, unscalable and, above all, uncontrollable expeditions into the final frontier.

Mention that to Gutweiler, and the poor young fellow starts to sputter: "You see, it's not just about the numbers; it's about the engagement."

And about that he is exactly correct. Social media are everybody's destiny, but not because you can swoop in and buy followers like so many Gross Ratings Points. This is relationship building, by its nature a painstaking, piecemeal process. As it happens, the GRP world is disappearing and the social graph beckoning. The bad news is that scale is elusive. But bear in mind that the "efficiency" of mass media is itself dubious; the costs are rising, most spending is wasted on non-prospects and most prospects aren't seeing your ads. Even in starkly un-giant numbers, social relationships offer a measure of trust and sustainability that mass media could never, ever forge. Gutweiler and Smale had actual, ongoing exchanges with the Crunch-o-sphere.

"We didn't push a product," he says. "We talked about the weather."

OK, well done. That is indeed how people relate to one another, and eventually those relationships inform all sorts of choices, including what kind of crap to eat in the morning. Can we agree, though, that at this stage of social-media evangelism, bragging about such infinitesimal reach is a little on the counter-productive side? Can we agree that what we need demonstrations of relationship building that rely on other metrics -- brand loyalty, let's say -- that get to the heart of why the collapse of traditional marketing will yield more good news than bad?

I asked Michael Gutweiler if he had impressed Quaker enough to win a piece of Cap'n Crunch business. Here's what he said: "To be honest with you, that's not what this was about. This was to show that all brands need to be on the digital space. That we are in 2011 and there are hundreds if not thousands of brands not on the digital space kind of baffles our minds."

Or, to frame the answer in a slightly different way: "No."

Maybe a name change would do the trick. The Giant Steps is false advertising. Sure, a giant leap is in progress, but with apologies to Neil Armstrong, it's all happening One Small Step at a time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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