Ad Age CMO Strategy Summit

Why Virgin Mobile Got into the Celebrity-Gossip Game

With a Fraction of Competitors' Budget, Challenger Brand Tried Something New

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Have you ever heard of Sparah?

Sparah is a celebrity couple -- Spencer Falls and Sarah Carroll -- manufactured by Virgin Mobile as part of what it calls "newsroom marketing."

The challenger brand has a marketing budget that 's a fraction of competitors such as Verizon and AT&T, and can't afford more than the occasional big TV ad. Ron Faris, head of brand marketing at Virgin Mobile, told attendees at Ad Age 's CMO Summit that the company needed to get creative to have a voice in a space that 's crowded with massive budgets.

The brand went through what Mr. Faris called a renaissance in the past couple years, transforming from a company that sold "ghetto phones to mediocre drug dealers" to offering unlimited data and text for $35 as well as smartphones (including the iPhone). And now it is opening its first standalone store in Chicago.

But as part of that renaissance, the company needed to build the brand. Hence, newsroom marketing was born. Essentially, it's an inexpensive effort to get a brand into headlines. But to do that , Mr. Faris said that Virgin Mobile needed to do something unexpected. "We had no money, so it had to be dramatic," he said.

Drawing on internal research that found that Virgin Mobile's target demographic --18-to-34-year-olds -- often search for celebrity gossip on their phones and rarely use up their voice minutes, Virgin created Sparah as a way to get into celebrity gossip magazines and websites.

Virgin Mobile hired a publicist for the couple, had paparazzi follow them around, and basically "hacked our way into pop culture," said Mr. Faris. They were also made the subject of an ad and web videos. Eventually, Sarah Carroll, who became known as the Virgin Mobile spokeswoman, was featured in "who wore it best" type features in celebrity magazines. Lindsay Lohan took an interest in Spencer Falls and was eventually photographed with him, with speculation swirling that he was her new boyfriend. "Everything changed when Lindsay Lohan was seen with Spencer," Mr. Faris said.

Sparah generated so much buzz that Mr. Faris said Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag -- the MTV reality-show couple now as Speidi -- lambasted Virgin Mobile for ripping off their likenesses, claiming that Speidi should be paid for Sparah.

So did all this celebrity-gossip buzz boost sales? "Nope," said Mr. Faris. But it sent awareness to record levels, he said, and better positioned the brand to bond with its target consumers.

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