Eat That, Subservient Chicken: OfficeMax ElfYourself Site Draws 36 Million

Retailer's Plan to Eschew TV Advertising Pays Off With Breakout Online Hit

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Santa was good to OfficeMax.

The company -- which is eschewing TV advertising entirely -- took what it would have spent to make three 30-second spots and created 20 holiday-themed microsites aimed at catching a viral wave and touting its stores as gift-giving destinations.
At its peak, ElfYourself, which launched entirely with grass-roots and viral marketing, had 11 people per second 'elfing' themselves.
At its peak, ElfYourself, which launched entirely with grass-roots and viral marketing, had 11 people per second 'elfing' themselves.

Lots of web traffic
It ended up with a 20% bump in online traffic during the holidays, though it's tough to say if the web effort was responsible for a sales rise at OfficeMax. What's indisputable, however, is that the effort attracted significant press attention and online chatter: It was named on Entertainment Weekly's "Must List" and popped up on scores of blogs, USA Today, MSNBC, VH1 and others. And Mark Andeer, OfficeMax VP-brand strategy, is convinced enough that the push will begin to shape public perception of the chain that he plans to repeat it in some form late this year.

With dreams of Subservient Chicken in his head, Mr. Andeer hoped that just one of the wacky sites would become a breakout hit. ElfYourself quickly emerged as the present under the tree, with 36 million visits in about five weeks, ahead of the 14 million visitors Burger King's site drew in a year -- and more traffic than CareerBuilder's successful Monk-e-mail drew in its first eight months (9.1 million visitors).

At its peak, ElfYourself, which launched entirely with grass-roots and viral marketing, had 11 people per second "elfing" themselves. Consumers could go a step further with customization, calling a toll-free number and recording a message that would provide dialogue for the dancing pixie in striped tights. The voice, of course, was "elfed" to sound like one of Santa's own.

Cornerstone of its marketing
OfficeMax has made branded entertainment a cornerstone of its marketing, creating a one-hour reality special called "Schooled" that aired on ABC Family last fall and is shifting its ad money entirely out of traditional TV buys. Even though the marketer is keen to take risks, it was a little scary to throw 20 websites into play at the key holiday sales time.

"It's a new tactic for us, and it's so unproven, but proof and innovation don't always go together," Mr. Andeer said. "There was a little bit of trepidation."

The marketer hired boutique ad agency Toy, New York, to help develop and launch the project, which carried the banner "Spread the cheer. OfficeMax." The goal was to create some buzz-worthy entertainment with pass-along value that also carried the message that OfficeMax has holiday gifts.

"The client wanted to create content that just happened to be advertising," said Anne Bologna, partner and president at Toy. "It was like jumping off a cliff, but if your palms aren't sweaty, then it's probably not that good of an idea."

Previous campaigns, from before the current marketing team arrived at the retailer, didn't quite get the point across about OfficeMax as a place to buy presents. The executives in place now came from the ad-agency world, with Bob Thacker, former president-CEO of BBDO, Minneapolis, at the helm. Mr. Andeer also came from BBDO.
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