Don't even bother to count the ballots. In fact, no need for a formal election. The hands-down winner for Brand Marketer of the Year is the "Big Old Blizzard of 2001."
As an event, the Big Old Blizzard -- henceforward "BOB '01" -- rivaled the Super Bowl. Men, women and children flocked to stores to buy BOB '01 product tie-ins, such as batteries, pet food and toilet paper. As a celebrity endorser, BOB '01 attracted the kind of free media usually reserved for living, breathing, semi-sentient stars. Not since Gunilla Knudsen plugged Noxzema has white stuff grabbed so much attention.
A flop of a storm
And -- with the sort of panache that would put even a veteran press agent to shame (are you listening, Peggy Siegal?) -- not since the Beanie Babies has a marketer accomplished so much with hype alone.
Last Monday, educational institutions were locked across the New York area -- this despite less than 2 inches of snow on the ground. At LaGuardia and JFK airports, 80% of the flights were pre-emptively canceled, with nary a drift in sight. (The runways barely had a case of dandruff.) Trucks were ordered off I-95 in Connecticut. Federal Express stopped pickups by 4 p.m. Fortune 500 companies shut down at noon -- if they bothered to open at all. The Catholic Archdiocese -- you know, the people who ran the Crusades -- closed schools in Brooklyn.
Armchair pundits were quick to label BOB '01 a flop -- the midi skirt, New Coke, Alain Ducasse, Ishtar, John Connolly, Webvan, Real Simple and Josh Harris of storms. The second-guessers raced to offer explanations for the errant predictions: faulty computer modeling, competitive TV news departments, overzealous government prosecutors, etc.
Cleverly planned marketing
I think that does BOB '01 an injustice. Clearly, the marketing of this blizzard was cleverly planned and carefully executed. Let others tally the cost in goods unsold, services not rendered and productivity lost. My job is to determine how a winter storm managed to get such dazzling marketing support -- without a creative director, an advertising budget, a Web site or a PR agency. Here are four working hypeotheses:
The WWF has acquired the Weather Channel: When it comes to ballyhoo, no institution in America is better than the World Wrestling Federation. Under the leadership of owner Vince McMahon, the WWF has taken an occupation that hasn't particularly changed since my grandfather was watching it, populated it with characters not nearly as colorful as Andre the Giant and turned it into a genuine millennial phenomenon. But even Mr. McMahon gets pinned once in a while, as he was by the XFL, his stuttering joint venture with NBC. What better comeback than to abandon the Peacock Network and do a makeover of the nation's most sober cable channel? Xtreme Weather -- there's no better place to repurpose Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Karl Rove is now doing storm-based marketing: Viewed from the outside, it certainly looks as if the president of the United States just can't cut a break. His post-election honeymoon is smothered by Countergate. His post-inaugural honeymoon is overwhelmed by Pardongate. And no sooner does he take his $1.6 trillion tax cut show on the road than the media capital of the nation gets engulfed in, well, anything but "precip." Conventional wisdom has it that, when it comes to "W," weather is simply more interesting than, uh, you know, the other "W." In fact, it's probably all the work of the president's communications guru, brilliantly masterminding events to divert public attention from the administration's dismantling of the economy.
The Harvard Business School Press is in the market for weather books: Hey, they spent $250,000 for a an opus about IT, a.k.a. Project Ginger, without even knowing what the hell it was. Surely they'll cough up at least that much for a report on a blizzard that never materialized -- especially if someone did a snow job on them at the TED conference.
Al Roker, Mr. G., Sam Champion and Storm Field have joined the Voter News Service: It's the likeliest explanation of all. The TV networks have contracted out their weather forecasts to the same people who counted the vote in Florida.
Gotta run. I just rented the DVD of The Perfect Storm. I want to grab a cold one and watch it.
Copyright March 2001, Crain Communications Inc.