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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In 2006, Coca-Cola entered a creative renaissance with the launch of its "Coke Side of Life" campaign, returning the brand to its feel-good roots, but with a fresh, modern spin.
One of the effort's marquee spots was the whimsical "Happiness Factory" commercial. Created out of Wieden & Kennedy and directed by Psyop, it depicted the whimsical world of animated Coke "factory" workers inside a vending machine, dispensing the magic formula to customers who dropped a coin into its slot. While the spot was a standout example of big traditional production, this year Coke teamed with Atlanta-headquartered Definition 6 on an unconventional, real-world approach to extending the happiness mantra further -- and into another dispenser of surprises, "Happiness Machine," Ad Age's Small Agency Campaign of the Year.
Part of Coke's "Open Happiness" push launched in 2009, the campaign captured consumers' attention on site -- and online -- with a simple but remarkable real-world stunt. Armed with a budget of only $60,000, Definition 6 gutted a run-of-the mill dispenser on the campus of St. John's University in Queens, New York, and literally stuffed it with surprises. Co-eds who inserted a dollar into the slot scored not the expected 16-ounce bottle, but everything from 2-liter jugs to pizzas, flowers and 12-foot heroes.
Genuine glee was apparent in the students' reactions -- captured on video and then seeded for free on YouTube, Facebook and other sites. The film went on to generate 500,000 views the first week of its release and, to date, views have surpassed 2 million. The campaign was so popular the agency later re-created the film for broadcast and aired it during this year's season finale of "American Idol."
How they did it
The brief the agency received from Coke was to create something that had viral traction. However, "there are no guarantees regarding anything going viral," said Definition 6 Executive Creative Director John Harne. "Viral implies you are in a popularity contest; viewers must choose to see the video. This is unlike what most agencies create spots for. You cannot buy airtime based upon ratings . Instead, the best you can do is to seed the videos. We had a good strategy for that and were successful. And let's not forget luck. We informed the client there are no guarantees and we consider timing and luck part of our success."
But there are some points you can be mindful of. "You have got to be really original, entertain and be relevant to the audience you seek," said Mr. Harne. "The broader the audience, the tougher that is. Creating a viral video of a sick skateboard trick is far easier than creating something that has broader appeal."
Yet mass appeal "Happiness Machine" did have -- what's broader than something Coke deems worthy of a spot on "Idol"?
One of the things that makes the film so infectious is the authenticity of the participants' shrieks and giggles in the web film. That's hard to achieve when something is staged -- and, in this case, if the stunt itself carries on for more than a blink. (The shoot took place over two days.) "Inevitably, people got wise to the experiment," explained D6 creative director and director Paul Iannacchino. "Even so, there were always newcomers due to the heavy foot traffic, and we rarely repeated gags. So there was always something new and different to entice the crowd. Escalation was always a part of our plan on the ground and within the finished narrative."
This campaign, and other efforts that earn, not buy their way into consumers' radars, serve as a wake-up call for big marketers who continue to focus their media strategies and dollars on big budget traditional efforts. Also, like some of the other celebrated efforts of the year (Nike Chalkbot, Volkswagen Fun Theory), "Happiness Machine" brings the tangible, real-world experience back into an increasingly online world -- and earns that much more respect for it. "I don't think tomorrow's consumers will share a commercial, but give them an engaging piece of content (branded or not) that they identify with, that makes an emotional connection and resonates amongst the group you hope to reach, and the sky's the limit," said Mr. Harne.
Perhaps no bit of brand creativity captured the zeitgeist of a wicked 2009 better than Expense-a-Steak.
New York agency Walrus created the web and mobile app for client Fourth Wall Restaurants and its midtown eatery Maloney & Porcelli. The high-end restaurant is located in the heart of what is now essentially the financial district, serving the workforce of companies that became famous for all the wrong reasons in 2009 -- Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and their brethren.
With the economy in ruins, and Big Finance standing there holding a bag full of your bailout dollars, even those who could still afford lavish lunches were balking at the idea of submitting lavish receipts to accounts payable. Maloney & Porcelli, like many restaurants, was suffering.
Enter Walrus with an ingenious bit of brand utility. With the Expense-a-Steak expense-report generator, restaurant patrons could continue to gorge on pricey protein and pour brown liquor over themselves in an unapologetic orgy of consumption and then, when it came time to submit the evidence, they could hit Expense-a-Steak Headquarters, input the total damage, click "Expense It" and get a PDF full of convincing-looking fake receipts -- from more democratic sorts of institutions like the Office Supply Hut and The Panini Experience.
Walrus also reinterpreted the restaurant's takeout bags, so patrons could look as if they'd been to Sbarro, Olive Garden or Chipotle (the latter two didn't take kindly to the free exposure and issued ceases and desists).
"We did a ton of interviews ... and the one big 'a-ha' moment that came out of it came from a restaurant analyst who said, 'Right now, nobody has the guts to turn in an expense report with a receipt from Maloney & Porcelli on it,'" said Walrus Chief Creative Officer and founder Deacon Webster. "That quote became the catalyst for the brief."
The Fourth Wall team "laughed out loud immediately and knew our core clientele at Maloney & Porcelli would understand the tongue-in-cheek humor," said Fourth Wall Marketing Director Allison Good. "Expense-a-Steak was a great idea at the right moment."
To help seed the app, Walrus enlisted PR/communications shop KCSA. "We weren't looking at your usual foodie outlets like New York magazine or the dining section of the Times; we wanted financial pubs." They got them, and more; the site earned coverage in just about every financial, advertising, food and consumer facing outlet.
According to Walrus, the project earned nearly 39 million media impressions, and 150,000 sets of receipts were downloaded in the first two weeks of the PR-only campaign. Most important, M&P reservations were up 15% in the wake of its launch.
"The app was even featured in Roll Call, which only goes to people on Capitol Hill," said Mr. Webster. "This had us freaking out for a few days because we had around 50 hits on the site from the Department of Justice and the House of Representatives."
Right. The fraud part. Mr. Webster said, to his knowledge, no one has actually tried to submit an Expense-a-Steak receipt. "We had our lawyers look into it, and they basically came back with something along the lines of: 'From a practical perspective, no business would ever sue you for this because if they actually paid someone's bills based on these receipts, that would force them to acknowledge that they have the most negligent auditing procedure known to mankind.'"