Michael Ribero wants to turn the burgeoning branded-entertainment trend on its head. Instead of placing a product into a story, why not, he asks, place consumers into the storyline?
That's the concept the former marketing chief at Hilton Hotels and Sega is pitching as CEO of Reactrix, an out-of-home advertising concept that's attracted the attention of Microsoft, General Motors Corp. and McDonald's, along with director Tim Koogle, former president-CEO of Yahoo, and adviser Michael Powell, ex-Federal Communications Commission chief.
Entertainment is the thread that runs through the 25-year marketing career of Mr. Ribero, who describes Reactrix as a neat combination of advertising, entertainment and gaming. Here's how it works: A ceiling-mounted projector casts an image onto a floor, and when someone interacts with it-waves a hand across it or toes it with a foot-infrared technology detects the movement and the image "reacts." When a person's hand passes over an image of water, for example, it appears to create a ripple.
In an ad using Reactrix for Adidas, two people standing on opposite sides of a miniature virtual soccer field "tap" a soccer ball back and forth with their feet. In an Orville Redenbacher ad, popcorn kernels begin to pop as a person interacts with it.
The first time Mr. Ribero, 49, visited the Redwood City, Calif.-based company in fall of 2002, Reactrix was housed in a small office furnishings showroom in a strip mall, between an auto parts shop and a tile store. But despite the setting, "I was smitten," he said. "It was the answer to the challenge I had raised with my ad agencies going back to my days at P&G. "
`Essence of marketing'
Mr. Ribero spent his early years in marketing at Eastern Airlines and Procter & Gamble before rising to senior VP-marketing and strategic planning at Hilton Hotels. From there he headed to Sega, where as the marketing chief for the video-game maker, he declared to Ad Age "entertainment is really the essence of marketing."
Prior to joining Reactrix in 2003, Mr. Ribero headed Brierley & Partners, a customer loyalty firm, where he put his experience to work exploring the basis for brand loyalty. The key to a successful brand experience, he said, is the impression it leaves on a person-the "positive reverberations" a person relives every time he or she comes into contact with the brand.
"Purchasers of products are going to wind up with a label that's far more encompassing than consumer or audience," he said. "People who buy products are advocates, critics, creators."
Moving beyond the passive involvement of traditional branded entertainment and into a more experiential environment furthers the cause, he said, pointing to a consumer study that found those who interacted with the Orville Redenbacher Reactrix display took away the implicit belief that every kernel pops. "Virtual sampling," Mr. Ribero calls it.
"Mike has long been a believer in the theory of immersing the consumer to gain their trust and loyalty," said Rob Apatoff, a friend and business associate who is now CEO of Rand McNally. "He's got a lot of friends in the industry and when he gets excited about something they'll listen."
While Reactrix has been found at trade shows, in art galleries and sports arenas, Mr. Ribero's goal is to make it a national marketing tool, deploying it in malls, cinemas and "any environment where people don't rush in and necessarily rush out." He hopes to turn the company, which is privately held and mostly funded by venture capital companies including Mobius Venture Capital, Worldview Technology Partners and Thomas Weisel Venture Partners, cash-flow positive by the end of 2006. That goal could be hampered depending on how aggressively Reactrix deploys the systems nationally and internationally. Currently, the network is comprised of 105 theaters and malls and 100 Sam Goody retailers.
"It's like real estate, it's all about location, location, location," said Stephen Faso, director-new media at Interpublic's Outdoor Services unit. "We have this great technology, but where can we use it? Reactrix is moving very fast to expand its network."
Mr. Ribero is confident it can. "Three years from now I'd like to think Reactrix is part of everyday life," he said. "And not just in the U.S. but globally because it speaks in a universal language-body language."
Best business book you've read?
I read Sun Tzu's "Art of War" every year at Christmas. Everyone has different theories of how marketing should work but I take inspiration from the fundamental strategies laid out about warfare. It gives me renewal every year to going back to the fundamentals.
What other companies do you watch most intently?
Right now Apple is the undisputed champion when it comes to hitting that hip note, not only in its products and devices but how it relates those in a way that's completely authentic and relevant to pop culture. Nike's another brand that every time you think it's done, it comes back and surprises people.
You're a former video-game marketer. What's your favorite game?
"NFL Blitz" from Midway Games is NFL football the way everybody dreams of playing it-it's hyperbolized and as a player you're larger than life. I think we game because we can't do some of those things in real life.