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Viral Marketing Gets Contagious

The idea of creating a buzz by word-of-mouth instead of blatant branding is not revolutionary, but it is new turf for some in the active arena.

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NEW YORK — Accustomed to barraging customers with ads and commercials, a few athletic labels are toning down the feverish pitch to try their hand at viral marketing.

This story first appeared in the May 8, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The concept of creating a buzz by word-of-mouth instead of blatant branding is not revolutionary, but it is new territory for some. Last month, Reebok announced its plans to roll out Rbk by Diane Von Furstenberg, a collection the designer developed for tennis star Venus Williams, without any Madison Avenue fanfare. Aside from creating a special label, the company has no plans to plug the new collection in a typical multimillion dollar campaign this summer.

Nike has descended on Manhattan’s NoLIta neighborhood by taking a 2,000-square-foot space at 255 Elizabeth Street to showcase a company-backed art project. Aside from staging an opening-night party there for the artists and designers who participated, the sneaker giant has kept the show closed. That’s a pretty pricy bash considering monthly rents are said to run around $75 per square foot.

“It’s not really open to the public,” a Nike spokeswoman said. “We’re still working on the program in terms of what and how we can connect with the community and beyond. It’s not a store. It’s intended to be a creation to connect with the local community.”

For the debut exhibition, 14 designers and artists were commissioned to turn a box of Nike footwear and apparel scraps into whatever they fancied. Project Alabama turned its package into a midriff top and miniskirt with the Nike logo intact, but others were more inventive. Industrial designer Yves Béhar, who heads up Fuse Project in San Francisco, shoved the material through a wood chipper and then turned it into a modern art creation.

Participants were given a stipend to create their own customized Nike sneakers.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Street has been a venue for viral marketing. In 1999, Levi’s set up an art show called “Exposure” across the street from where Nike is now located. Ron Pompeii, creative director of Pompeii A.D., the New York agency that developed the Levi’s project, is not impressed with Nike’s latest venture, especially since its branding is obvious.

“This is more about Nike than it is about the neighborhood,” Pompeii said. “They’re trying too hard to be cool in a neighborhood that is already cool. This looks like a totally foreign thing. It’s flat with graphics and mannequins, which department stores might have if they were trying to be hip.

“They’ve missed the point altogether. What Nike’s talking about is form, not substance. This emerging culture is about substance. If a brand supports the values of a generation, the brand will allow it to speak for itself and not be hung up about whether it says, ‘Nike, Nike, Nike.’”

Reebok, on the other hand, is not overly concerned about splashing its name on the Rbk by Diane Von Furstenberg collection, which bows at retail in late July.

Jan Sharkansky, vice president and general manager of women’s for Reebok, said, “We want this to be coded and contagious. You have to be in-the-know to know. It’s viral.”

Reebok also used viral marketing at last month’s Boston Marathon by giving temporary tattoos with “The Pain Train is Coming” to spectators along the 26.2-mile course. That resulted in a flurry of national publicity.

MINI_motion, a new apparel and accessories collection geared for fans of the MINI, BMW’s matchbox-size cars, also tested out some viral marketing. During press previews in March at Plug, a New York-based public relations company, BMW’s minicars stopped their share of passersby just by parking a MINI outside the office. Most pedestrians didn’t make the connection that the design on the vehicle’s roof matched MINI_motion’s marketing graphics. The objective was to get people talking about MINI.

“It was unbelievable, so many people stopped to check it out,” a MINI spokeswoman said. “We want organic growth and this to remain a unique thing.”

Béhar, who designed MINI_motion, said he has worked on other successful viral pitches, such as Spacescent and Perfume09. Instead of advertising the new fragrances, the companies relied on him to create unusual bottles, which in turn attracted media coverage.

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