Mustache Marketing

How a Little Facial Hair Can Make a Big Difference

By Published on .

In summer 2006, several seemingly psychotic marketing executives were sitting in their offices consuming "Mad Men"-esque quantities of rail liquor, when a kernel of an idea came to mind: "Why not bring back the mustache?"

The labia sebucula (Latin for "lip sweater") had certainly fallen on hard times since the end of the Disco era and the 1981 retirement of Walter Cronkite. Cookie dusters were no longer the standard issue, worn in complementary fashion with a perm and turtleneck, as had been required of all American men and 22% of women during "America's decade" -- the 1970s.

Our remedy was to take a page from the third-party endorser model favored by the public relations industry and found the American Mustache Institute, an ersatz think tank and advocacy organization about facial hair constructed out of thin air with a carefully crafted staff and history dating back to 1965.

By the time the first online poll to name the greatest sports mustache of all time was complete, AMI would not only be the first listing in Google search for the word "mustache," but would also be widely considered the bravest organization in the history of mankind behind only the U.S. military and the post-Jim Henson Muppets. Or at least the most publicized.

There was a requisite degree of madness involved: ridiculous questions asked of B-list celebrities, silly videos, appearances on "Rachel Ray," ESPN, "Fashionably Late With Stacey London," "Colbert Report" and CBS News, as well as blog posts claiming the ills of society were cats, "Sex and the City" and guitarist Dave Navarro.

But there was a method behind the madness. Our goal: to restore America's once-rampant flavor-saving culture as a vehicle to raise funds for Challenger Baseball, a baseball league for children and adults with disabilities.

Keep in mind that AMI was born before Facebook was, well, Facebook. It was the dawn of a new culture of mass media consumption. Regardless of how smart advertising or PR executives told you they were, no one really knew what was happening or how to effectively leverage it.

And beyond a group of really good-looking people raising money for a tremendous cause, what AMI became was a test vehicle to understand and harness the power of social media -- a petri dish to comprehend how social media strategies were most effectively executed and integrated with other marketing activities.

What we discovered was twofold.

First, a vehicle such as the humor-based AMI could be extraordinarily valuable for companies. Do you think Bud Light, Dodge trucks or Axe Body Spray would want to be in front of a dedicated, member-based audience of men ages 18 to 40 via the AMI website's 75,000 unique monthly visitors, to be included in the dozens of blogs that write about AMI weekly or associated with AMI through the media that have covered it, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, London Daily Telegraph, BBC or USA Today?

Which, of course, is why Just For Men, Quicken Online, TurboTax and Budweiser have invested in partnerships with AMI.

Second, we also learned that social media strategy in and of itself generally cannot rest on its own laurels. It must be "triangulated" with the blogosphere and traditional media to be truly effective, as each medium drives traffic in a vicious cycle -- from the social to the blogs to the traditional and back to the social.

Looking back, we had no idea how successful AMI would become, raising thousands of dollars and awareness for a wonderful charity. We didn't realize at first that we were building a community of people who either love facial hair or appreciate the self-deprecating humor used at each turn.

We had a hunch that the media would capture the message of AMI -- such as our discovery that the Dead Sea Scrolls actually say that each time a mustache is shaved an angel in heaven dies and falls to earth. But the rise of social media amplified our message to levels we never imagined.

What we do know -- at least now -- is that the model and ever-evolving strategy used to bring back the mustache and raise money for a baseball league for people with disabilities has created a valuable blueprint that can connect brands and people in a manner that is real and measurable.

And, in this case, in a ridiculously funny manner.

Aaron Perlut is managing partner of St. Louis-based Elasticity and is widely credited with improving American good looks by 38% over a four-year period.
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