Helen Edwards: Buy My Face's lesson in brand charm

Helen Edwards: on micro-media
Helen Edwards: on micro-media

The success of an idea whereby two students 'sell' their faces to companies demonstrates some important branding lessons.

Last week, the Ernst & Young logo was splashed proudly across the top half of a Sunday Times page - perfect media targeting.

It had paid for the privilege, but somewhat less than the normal half-page, colour rate of £34,000. In fact it had enjoyed a discount of about 99%, parting with only a few hundred pounds for the 2.5m-strong, upmarket readership.

The accountancy firm had achieved its coup, not by negotiating with Wapping, but by indulging in a little micro-media buying, paying to put its brand on a face (pictured, below right). Clever PR then led to the story being picked up by the national press.

Welcome to Buy My Face, created by Cambridge graduates Ed Moyes and Ross Harper to solve the problem of their combined £50k student debt.

For each of the 366 days of their 'entrepreneurial gap year', the peripatetic pair are letting a different brand paint its logo on their faces. So far, Pipers Crisps and Oxfam are among the brands that have put their money where the former students' mouths, cheeks and chins are.

Aside from the immediate reaction of 'I LOVE that', Buy My Face prompted three simple thoughts about branding today.

Textbook vernacular

The idea behind Buy My Face isn't especially creative or even totally original: sports fans have been painting faces for years and, no doubt, copycat commercial rivals will spring up soon.

What makes it work is the combination of the good looks of the guys and the charm surrounding everything about the offer.

The website is textbook 'Innocent' vernacular, often parodied, but hard to get right. Disarming candour is the key.

For example, to the FAQ 'Can we put anything on your face?', the pair's answer is, 'We're desperate. But not that desperate'.

Charm tends to be viewed as something you either have or don't. Moyes and Harper clearly do. By extension, though, the normally straight-laced Ernst & Young appears to have bought some.

Traditional media

Moyes and Harper claim to know their way around all things digital and it was part of their offer from the start. From £1 per face (the rate is much higher now) it was always envisaged that a brand might be lucky enough to hook a wider online audience.

As their own site acknowledges, though, social-media traffic only really took off once the story got into the mainstream press. The best digital strategies are still those that don't obsess about the online community but pack enough human interest to break through more broadly.

Fresh faces

Would you pay to have your brand painted on the sagging facial features of a middle-aged bloke? Probably not - but it works when the face is fresh. Ernst & Young, which now sponsors the Buy My Face site, gains much from its association with the youthful spirit of the founders - not just for its graduate recruitment target, but also for the client target, even though they will be in a very different age bracket.

Have the Cambridge duo hit on something bigger than a one-year wonder? The pair are coy about their plans. Whatever they decide, though, Moyes and Harper are clearly faces to watch.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand

30 SECONDS ON: MICRO MEDIA

Many brands would do well to hold back a little of their traditional adspend and invest it in some less predictable places ...

- Cancer Research UK put a twist on the ubiquitous memorial park bench, dedicating its own versions to survivors. Playing off the language traditionally engraved on benches, one reads: 'Susan James loved sitting here. And still does, thanks to research into cancer.'

- Pioneered by US-based producer EggFusion, 'eggvertising' creates another unexpected medium for brands to use. The firm's first client, CBS, promoted its various TV shows on 35m eggs, using lines such as 'Crack the case' for CSI and 'Find your chick' for How I Met Your Mother.

- To raise awareness for its Max Fresh Night toothpaste, Colgate designed the inside of takeaway pizza boxes to look like the inside of a mouth. The boxes featured the tagline 'Don't let your dinner breath become your morning breath'.

- Y+ Yoga Center distributed straws featuring a photo of a workout-attired woman to juice bars around Shanghai. When drinkers bend the straws, the woman appears to perform an impressively flexible back bend.

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