Brand Strategy: Not Just For Marketers

John Palumbo's BigHeads Delivers Ideas From Panels of Outsiders to Likes of P&G

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What can a reality-TV producer, dancers from the Crazy Horse Strip Club in Las Vegas, a classic-car restorer and the real-life date doctor behind the movie "Hitch" contribute to the marketing strategies behind toilet paper, razors, hotels and internet phone service?
In BigHeads, John Palumbo has assembled a stable of marketing outsiders to consult on professional campaigns.
In BigHeads, John Palumbo has assembled a stable of marketing outsiders to consult on professional campaigns. Credit: Andrew Walker

Apparently, quite a lot. At least these marketing novices, all accomplished in their fields, have plenty of ideas about marketing. And that's the idea behind BigHeads Network, a year-old virtual agency/consulting firm launched by promotion-marketing veteran John Palumbo that already has done work for such brands as Procter & Gamble Co.'s Charmin, Braun and Gillette; Wyndam Hotels' Ramada; Sony Electronics; and Vonage voice-over-internet phone service.

No pole dancers have yet changed the course of marketing for Charmin (or, for that matter, even worked on the Procter & Gamble Co. brands). But in a world where marketers and agencies have been tinkering with new takes on the agency model, BigHeads is offering a twist on work marketers traditionally do themselves.

The marketplace of marketers
"Great ideas can come from anywhere, not just marketers," said Mr. Palumbo, a veteran of such promotion-marketing shops as DVC Worldwide and Fusion 5, who launched BigHeads last year. "We want to find these people who truly have a right to a point of view. ... Since most brands already have the smartest marketers thinking about their brands, why not aggregate a group of the smartest non-marketers to do that?"

A gregarious guy, Mr. Palumbo knows a lot of interesting people. He's two or three degrees of separation from a lot more. He used those contacts to form a network of about 200 people from all manner of businesses.

When a project comes in, he e-mails five to seven questions related to it to about 100 of them, and generally gets back 25 to 50 responses. He and a handful of other BigHeads staffers and consultants sort through them to develop "playbooks" of about 400 pages with insights they find meaningful.

So far, clients seem happy. "Too often, we fall into the large-agency ways of thinking with traditional, measurable media campaigns and 'me too' promotions," wrote Phil Drapeau, brand manager at Braun North America, in a letter to the firm last August, before he moved on to the Gillette business. "I found the ideas generated by BigHeads to be energizing."

Big ideas
Ramada Worldwide used insights gleaned from BigHeads, along with others mined from syndicated survey research, to develop its new positioning: "Ramada Worldwide offers meaningful relaxation to harried travelers around the world," said Daniel Del Olmo, VP-international marketing and strategy.

"We were tapping into people who were unique, had a different point of view, and all were travelers as well," Mr. Del Olmo said. "Some stayed at Ramadas. Some didn't."

Their input also helped influence the "You Do Your Thing. Leave the Rest to Us" ad campaign from WPP Group's G2 that broke earlier this month, he said.

Mr. Del Olmo also struck up a dialogue with one of the BigHeads, Douglas Ross of Evolution USA, executive producer of Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Orange County," which might lead to a brand integration.

In a slightly different approach -- tentatively dubbed BrandTube -- Mr. Palumbo is mining consumer-generated videos for insights. Charmin has already commissioned a BigHeads project.

Wipe that smirk off your face
Think toilet paper is such a low-involvement category that pickings are slim? Not so. YouTube alone has more than 2,000 videos on the subject. One shows a contraption developed by Berkeley students that folds and dispenses toilet paper. It has 1.7 million views.

"If a million people are watching an invention, you've got to be looking at it" Mr. Palumbo said. "And if toilet paper is inspiring people to invent things, we need to look at that."

A Charmin spokeswoman termed the process "another way we stay in touch with our consumers."

"You might learn about how they talk about a brand, the vernacular they use that maybe you should use when you put together taglines," Mr. Palumbo said.
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