OfficeMax Holiday Web Campaign a Breakout Viral Hit

Latest Content-as-Advertising Effort Banks $2.5 Million in Media Exposure

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The deal: OfficeMax, an aggressive new player in branded entertainment, launched 20 websites in December aimed at cubicle jockeys and holiday junkies with time on their hands. Users could play games such as reindeer arm wrestling, virtual ice sculpting and "Don't Shoot Your Eye Out" or roast a turkey in real time.

The result: One site,, where people pasted their mug shots on a singing and dancing pixie, became a breakout hit, with 11 million elves created and e-mailed around the world. The site was splashed across "Good Morning America," CNN, ESPN and national print pubs, and more than 100 user-generated videos were posted on YouTube. Elf Yourself generated 79,000 MySpace hits and 2 million Google queries, all in about five weeks. Consumers spent 300 million minutes on all 20 sites, which pulled in $2.5 million in media exposure.

One of the 11 people per second who 'elfed' themselves during OfficeMax's holiday web campaign.

Santa was good to OfficeMax.

The marketer invested barely six figures, about what it would cost to create three 30-second TV spots, in 20 holiday-themed microsites, hoping to catch a viral wave that could build its brand and tout its stores as gift-giving destinations.

Dreams of Subservient Chicken

With dreams of Subservient Chicken in his head, Mark Andeer, OfficeMax's VP-brand strategy, 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. That's also more traffic than CareerBuilder's successful Monk-e-mail gimmick 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 by 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.

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 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."

Buzz-worthy entertainment as ad message

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.

Many entertainment bits that become internet hits have been edgy and subversive. Ms. Bologna said it was important for Toy to come up with creative ideas for populist content that fits a mainstream brand.

"The ideas, at their core, were really simple," Ms. Bologna said. "They were pure fun."

Online traffic up 20%, but did sales rise?

It's tough to say if the web effort was responsible for a sales bump at the chain, which saw a 20% increase in online traffic during the holidays, but it generated 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. Mr. Andeer thinks it will begin to shape public perception of the chain going forward, and there are plans to repeat it in some form late this year.

Marketers tend to experiment with branded entertainment, latching onto existing TV, films, video games or music videos rather than creating their own from scratch. OfficeMax has been a rare head-first participant in the space and plans to continue.

"People want entertainment, and they're actively looking for it," Mr. Andeer said. "The trick is to tie it to your brand in a way that builds traffic and sales."
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