Sunday, August 15, 2010
Undercover Marketing: The Changing Trend
Ekta, Swati Gupta | NMIMS UNIVERSITY, Mumbai
Ever wondered why you need a popcorn bucket and cold drink to enjoy a movie be it theatre or your home entertainment system. Make no mistake to believe that it’s a new trendy culture followed by us. This behavior was instilled in our sub-conscious in 1950s by Coca-cola, Morton Salt and various individual popcorn companies’ campaign in the USA movie theatres. A single frame saying “Eat Popcorn” was inserted / spliced into film reels and, you guessed it, popcorn sales went shooting up without anyone having any conscious-level sense of where the urge to eat popcorn came from. This marketing incognito is popularly known as Stealth Marketing or Undercover Marketing in which an audience is not aware that they are being marketed to.
What is it? Undercover marketing is a form of marketing where a consumer is unaware that he is been introduced to or marketed a product. An actor or a socially adept person is hired by a marketing agency to highlight the positive features of a product. He usually goes to a public place like a bar or a shopping mall or even a social networking site to carry out his undercover mission. People have no inclination of his intention. It could be a person at Twitter talking about the latest gadget he received. Or it could be an innocent looking outsider in a famous tourist spot asking you to take a photo from his latest camera.
A consumer has no inkling of his intention to market the product and is impressed by the new latest technology gadget he chances upon. He uses the product and moves on however the positive image of the brand still remains in his mind. It might induce him to buy the product himself or talk to ten more people about it like in case of the electronic gadget.
It’s differently productive: This form of marketing is believed to be more effective .Customers trust it more as they mostly have an one to one interaction and touch-feel the product they are raving about. Also they take it as a moral duty to spread good word about the product they were introduced to. It has better recall value too. It’s a far cry from the conventional media where the clutter of so many products makes you a prey to very short term retention.
The beginning: Stealth marketing began in media by cigarette companies in USA where its undercover agents became the high profile actors and celebrities like James Dean, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe. They were shown puffing on a cigarette as if it were the classy, chic thing to do thereby attacking the subconscious consumer behavior of the movie fans. However the campaign later had to be curbed by the government for environment and health reasons.
• Apple has redefined modern undercover marketing with its ubiquitous product placement strategy. Which movie or TV show do you see today that does not use an Apple product be it a Mac Book Pro on the desk or an IPhone. Practically every person in a movie or television show is using an MP3 player or an Ipod. Apple products owe their popularity largely to their efficient implementation of stealth marketing through major media outlets in collaboration with effective branding of their products while attaching aspects of popular modern cultural trend to them.
• The glaring signs of undercover marketing can be seen in the lyrics and music videos of the rap music which are responsible for the promotion of variety of brands of drinks like Courvoisier, Hennessey, Crystal and many more. The alcohol is now identified with partying and good time and of course rap music.
• Undercover marketing has very low financial risk requiring lesser investment and better payoff. This form of marketing is especially useful in tobacco and alcohol industry where customers do not prefer above the line media advertising anymore. Freedom Tobacco went undercover when it wanted to market Legal, their new brand of cigarettes and did not have a big budget. The actors hired were made to sit at bars with a package of cigarettes on the table. The packets were kept open; they looked full, and attracted attention from the bystanders who would want to borrow a cigarette from the actor.
• A similar thing happened with Soulkool operatives when they went undercover on the Internet, to promote the movie “Cowboy Bebop,” an animated feature. Soulkool employees, all of them barely in their 20s, boost the promotion by flooding Internet chat rooms and message boards with rave reviews for the movie. The actors got small rewards in the form of t-shirts and posters.
• Online implementation of undercover marketing is also possible wherein a central site of the product will be created with a number of network sites all hinting towards the better features of the product of the main site. Somewhere along the lines of what Scion had done as its undercover marketing strategy. One model used to be available outside the famous events and people were allowed to test drive with no suggestion to buy the product, only its features were projected. The quality of product and word-of-mouth sells the product.
Backlash: As we have seen above, undercover marketing leads to other form of promotion like buzz marketing, viral marketing and word-of-mouth promotions which leads to a larger reach of the promotional strategy with use of very limited resources. However this form of marketing carries the high risk of backlash too. If customers find out that they have been cheated or marketed a product without their consent it often becomes an ego issue. This happened with Sony Zipatone. Zipatone engaged in a stealth marketing campaign, but it was quickly detected by the internet community. Sony immediately experienced backlash from video game enthusiasts. Their advertising campaign was perceived by the community to be shallow enough that it insulted Sony’s target audience by implying that they were shallow enough to fall for it.
Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote about such things in his book, “The Tipping Point,” thinks undercover marketing is a bit of a con game: “Well, there’s an element, obviously, of deception involved that I don’t think is the case in conventional advertising. Conventional advertising is about trying to charm us or trying to persuade us. But it’s not usually about trying to trick us. And it’s the trickery part, I think, that makes this different”