Cracking Viral Code: Look at Your Ads. Now Look at Old Spice

String of Hits From P&G Grooming Biz Seem to Point to Formula -- Engaging, Surprising Media That Appeals to Both Genders

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Viral video long has seemed a crap shoot, or more like a lottery considering the potential of the payout vs. relatively small cost and even smaller odds of success. But the recent string of viral hits from one unit of one marketer -- Procter & Gamble Co.'s men's grooming business -- seems to point to a formula, and one that can be repeated.

Mustafa spots have become a mainstay on Visible Measures and Ad Age's weekly viral video chart.
Mustafa spots have become a mainstay on Visible Measures and Ad Age's weekly viral video chart.
Up to now, viral video has defied predictability, other than the likelihood that marketer videos will be widely ignored. YouTube users upload 24 hours worth of video every minute, so sheer numbers are the ideal antibody against any video going viral. Even brands that have had big hits, like Evian with its "Roller Babies" last year or Dove with "Evolution" in 2006 have yet to repeat their mega-successes, which just adds to the medium's reputation for fluke one-offs.

Some marketers who believed viral success could be planned fast discovered it couldn't. At an Advertising Research Foundation cross-media measurement conference in Chicago in May, Tom Palmer, exec VP of the central region for Ipsos OTX, recounted the story of a brand whose media plan fell short of target largely because it counted on an audience for viral videos that didn't materialize.

Yet the recent viral-video successes of a marketer legendary for finding and relentlessly institutionalizing winning formulas suggests one does exist and that it's been discovered. P&G's Old Spice and Isaiah Mustafa videos have been this year's viral phenomenon. But beyond that, Old Spice has had Mustafa-free videos hit the top 10 in Visible Measures and Ad Age's weekly viral-video chart.

Old Spice's next-door sibling in the Boston-based P&G men's business, Gillette, also has been regularly sending videos up the viral charts in recent months. The subjects range from Roger Federer's William Tell tennis-ball shtick to the pre-shave rituals of ESPN's Kenny Mayne and a double-entendre fest supporting the endangered idea that men should shave regularly at all.

In all, P&G has had a total of 82 entries on the Visible Measures chart so far in 2010, by far the leading company. Of those, 62 "brand weeks" were for Old Spice, 20 for Gillette.

The videos have used varied concepts, tapping different actors for a variety of products and they've come from at least four agencies or production houses. But that they all come from one business unit creates the distinct smell of formula, maybe a little like the bracing manly scent that once wafted from 30-second spots with strong copy-test scores distributed via a media plan heavily laden with gross rating points.

If such a formula exists, P&G isn't 'fessing up. A spokesman for the men's grooming unit declined to comment.

Matthew Wohl, a recent refugee from the P&G men's care viral-video hit machine, who left his post as general manager-men's shaving at P&G earlier this month to become chief marketing officer at Welch's, doesn't believe such a formula exists either -- or at least he's not letting on.

"I wouldn't say we cracked the code, because that code keeps changing," Mr. Wohl said. "It moves so fast. I think what is important is that you stay on top of it, stay involved, stay engaged, listen to what's going on, listen to the [consumer] dialogue and react and adapt."

But there are some other elements among P&G viral successes -- men's care, shaving and double entendres among them. And some of those themes have been shared with such past viral hits as "Clean Your Balls" from Unilever's Axe, last year's cheeky plays on hedge trimming by Energizer's Wilkinson Sword from Europe, the 2006 "Shave Everywhere" campaign from Philips Norelco Bodygroom and the "Shave Anywhere" ads last year from Gillette.

Matt Cutler, CMO of Visible Measures, which has advised P&G on upping its viral numbers, said success isn't just about men, or shaving, or personal care. After all, some of the bigger successes of the viral-video era also have included Evian's "Roller Babies," Blend-Tec's pureeing unlikely objects in blenders, and Dove "Evolution."

Creative that's engaging, surprising and "doesn't answer all the questions, so it leaves room for discussion" a la the Gillette-Federer William Tell with a tennis-ball ad, is a prerequisite, he said. But so is paid media, as a general rule.

Yes, a good way to win with "earned" media is by promoting it with paid media. Fewer than 20% of videos that crack the top-10 chart begin as TV ads, a la the original Old Spice/Mustafa ad, by Mr. Cutler's estimate. But "very close to 100% [of videos that make the top-10 chart] have some promotion," he said. "There are very sophisticated campaigns that promote availability of these videos."

Often that includes PR, touts on blogs or seeding through a marketer's existing email database, Facebook or Twitter following. But more conventional paid media to promote videos is what's really injecting a degree of predictability into the seemingly unpredictability of viral success, he said.

Visible Measures does pre-launch analyses of likely viewership with or without promotion and at various levels of media spending. As a general rule, more spending increases "earned" viewership.

Though P&G men's products have dominated the list of late, success isn't really about any particular demographic, Mr. Cutler said. Indeed, one reason Old Spice and Gillette have succeeded is that many of their videos appealed to men and women alike.

"The whole male personal-care category has been very aggressive in earned media," Mr. Cutler said, though that's come alongside a substantial uptick in paid media. In "share of choice" analyses Visible Measures does looking at what brand's content consumers choose to watch, Unilever's Axe dominated a year ago. Then Gillette moved up with its series of videos on shaving body hair. Then Old Spice moved in with the Mustafa videos.

In the end, roughly doubling the potential audience, not surprisingly, makes a big difference. "The Axe stuff tends to be pretty male-oriented," Mr. Cutler said. "The Old Spice campaign is very much designed to appeal to men and women."

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