It’s often said that an unsolicited word-of-mouth endorsement is
the best form of publicity a brand can have. But just how unsolicited is
unsolicited? Marketers in the UK, especially those targeting youth
prospects, are starting to wake up to the idea that you can get people
to say the right sort of things about a brand if you pay them enough
money to do so.
The idea of paying for word-of-mouth PR started in Japan, where a number
of agencies have been established which recruit teenagers to tell their
friends about the latest gizmo or to queue round the block to create the
impression of demand for a new product.
This teenage PR army was put to good use on the Japanese launch of
Tamagotchi, the ’virtual pet’ developed by toy company, Bandai. The
ripples generated by their efforts are still spreading around the world
as more kids - of all ages - succumb to the hype and join the growing
ranks of what might be called the ’tamagotched’.
Over here, the closest we’ve come to anything similar to the Japanese
Tamagotchi campaign was the attempt by ad agency FCA earlier this year
to engage London cabbies to plug the benefits of Siemens’ mobile
The idea was dreamt up by Impact chairman Chris Parry and joint creative
directors Ian Harding and Shaun McIlrath in a taxi cab on the way back
from Heathrow Airport, as they listened to a typically verbose cab
driver extolling the virtues of a restaurant he’d visited the previous
The three realised what a powerful publicity tool they could have at
their disposal and filed the idea away for future reference. When they
were asked by Siemens to work on the launch of a range of mobile phones
toward the end of last year, they felt its time had come.
’We came up with a positioning of ’Better talknology from
Germany’,’explains Ian Harding. ’This was trying to get across the idea
that, although Siemens is a technically superior company, technology for
technology’s sake is worthless unless you get a human benefit out of it.
The benefit was clearly talking and when we looked at ways of extending
the campaign, it was obvious that there’s no better talker than a London
Unfortunately, FCA’s plans were scuppered by the refusal of the cabbies’
licensing association, the Public Carriage Office, to allow the cab
drivers to act as agents. But Harding believes that in much of the
publicity that surrounded the story, the agency’s motives were
’The initial idea,’ says Harding, ’was that the driver would be given a
phone so he could offer his passenger a free call and explain that he’d
been given the phone to demonstrate some of the benefits.
’It becomes so false if he’s talking about last night’s football match
and then starts talking about mobile phones. That would be quite
The whole point was that he would be offering a service.’
FCA’s plans may not have come off as planned, but in today’s global
village, trends don’t take long to spread and it can only be a matter of
time before Japanese Tamagotchi-style activities spread to the UK. But
how credible is this marketing tool?
Heart of the matter
PR guru Quentin Bell says: ’The problem is that if you pay people to
recommend a brand, they’re not doing it from the heart and I think the
public see through that; they’re not stupid. If you look at the whole
philosophy of PR, it’s always been about third-party endorsement.
Advertising says: ’I’m great’, PR says: ’I hear you’re great’, so in
that respect, word-of-mouth has been around for decades. I think this
sort of thing is counter-productive.
You can use it to create a buzz but it will take much longer, and there
has to be some genuine interest in the first place if it’s going to take
There are more subtle ways to stimulate word-of-mouth endorsements than
by directly paying for them. When Sony launched the Walkman in 1979,
several units were ’written off’, given to film stars and fashion models
so the product became first a talking point and then a fashion item.
This was the first time Sony had used the tactic and it’s one which it
is repeating with the relaunch of MiniDisc, its recordable disc format
which it sees as the natural replacement for the analogue audio
MiniDisc recorders have been ’placed’ with well-known DJs such as Mark
Goodier and Mixmaster Morris in an attempt to spread the word.
Sony PR manager Simon Goodman has no doubts about the power of what can
be called visual-word-of-mouth, when a brand is seen to be keeping the
’The most powerful way of telling someone that something is a good
product is if someone who is credible tells you that it is,’ says
Goodman. ’We have a powerful brand, but we’re not arrogant enough to
assume that people are just waiting to see what we do. That’s not how
fashions start, it’s waiting to see who the movers and shakers are and
what they’re up to.’
With recent research commissioned by the company showing that 90.3% of
Sony customers will recommend the brand to a friend, it’s little wonder
that Goodman sets such store by personal recommendation.
What Sony did with the Walkman and is doing with MiniDisc is the
embodiment of a philosophy espoused by Simon Aboud, managing director of
Magic Hat, a subsidiary of McCann-Erickson which specialises in youth
Aboud believes that in the youth market, word-of-mouth recommendation in
itself is not sufficient. What’s important is what he terms
Aboud coined the phrase three years ago as a result of his
investigations into the youth market and it was adopted by the satellite
music channel, MTV, for its Youth Marketing Conferences, the most recent
of which was held in May 1996.
’Word-of-mouth is exceptionally relevant in youth markets, but it’s
vital that the endorsement comes from someone who is credible,’ says
His theme is echoed by Julia Lloyd-Jones, research manager at Verve, a
division of Research Business, specialising in the youth market.
’If a parent or neighbour endorses something, it’s not particularly
credible,’ says Lloyd-Jones, ’but if it’s a pop idol, a sportsman,
someone you respect and you aspire to be like, it has a lot of
In with the right crowd
’It doesn’t always have to be verbal word-of-mouth. You also see it in
things like product placement, or a brand sponsoring a party with all
the ’right’ people there. People are very cynical about advertising now,
with advertisers gratuitously grafting the latest trend on to their
campaigns because they think that kids are into that particular thing.
Kids want to feel they’re getting deep, authentic product truths.’
For his part, Aboud sees it as vital for marketers to, ’feed the top of
the tree’ to create a buzz about a brand, by getting the right sort of
people to talk about it and create the right vision of the brand.
’How many people bought the Portishead album, Dummy, without hearing a
note of it?’ he asks. ’I would think it was quite a high proportion of
all the people who bought it, and that was all down to the way the buzz
He also points to the way in which youth brands selectively restrict
distribution to create an aura of scarcity about a product. The
word-of-mouth hype created by the difficulty in picking up the product
only serves to make consumers look harder for it.
But while Aboud believes the footwear manufacturers such as Adidas, Nike
and Reebok, have mastered the word-of-mouth game, he feels that many
other companies still have a lot to learn. ’In many cases it’s the
retailers who are really switched on to all this. A lot of marketing
people don’t understand the potency of word-of-mouth. A lot of it
happens without them even being aware of it.’
Mobile phone maker Ericsson is using a subtle word-of-mouth ’Whisper’
campaign as part of the launch of its GF 768 handset.
In the belief that young people are becoming more cynical toward
traditional advertising techniques, the company is holding
invitation-only underground parties in central London. By conducting a
’Whisper’ invitation campaign it aims to build up the mystique
surrounding the events.
Ericsson says it is still evaluating the ’Whisper’ campaign, but already
feels confident enough to say it will continue to form a part of the
company’s marketing mix.
Although this campaign is consumer-focused, Ericsson believes a similar
campaign could be targeted at business customers.
’The power of word-of-mouth PR can never be underestimated,’ says a
spokeswoman for Ericsson. ’There’s no stronger recommendation than a
IN THE SEGA CLUB
Computer games company Sega supplements its above-the-line marketing
activities with a variety of sponsorship and product placement
Sega Saturn games consoles are installed in nightclubs up and down the
country for ravers to enjoy as they take a break from the dance floor.
Sega also sponsors the Phoenix music festival at Stratford-upon-Avon and
this summer sponsored an Inline Skating Festival which toured the UK for
ten weeks, as well as the 1997 Windsurfing World Cup, held in Brighton
It is also sponsoring a seven-month snowboarding, music and games
festival which starts in Moscow on October 4 and will call at several
Sega UK marketing director Jo Bladen says: ’These activities allow
people to try new Sega games before they hit the streets. They give us a
great opportunity to influence the influencers, and spread the message
from the people who play on Sega consoles. They are an ideal way to
stimulate word-of-mouth PR.’