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Big Watah: Case Study in Brand Management and Viral Marketing

by Virginia NusseyOctober 15, 2008

One of the latest memes to hit the search industry this month was Big Watah, a phenomenon birthed at the Search Marketing Expo - SMX East conference. It's the story of how one man's night of personal revelry ended up benefiting a worthwhile non-profit, and it is a story whose lessons can be learned by individual marketers and large corporations alike. The lessons come out of the brand management and viral marketing strategies that turned a potential reputation upset into an overwhelmingly positive charitable fundraiser. Watch and learn.

It all started on a Monday night, as one popular marketer met new friends — friends who apparently liked to show their affection with liquor. By the end of the night, he was calling out for water to quench his parched throat. Thus, Big Watah was born.

Being a group of Internet marketers, it was mere hours before the domain was snatched up and hash tags were created on Twitter, mystifying those not present. By Tuesday morning, conference attendees were hearing the whispers of the previous night's adventures circulate through the convention center.

It's a position that many brands that have been around long enough have faced themselves — a potentially embarrassing circumstance that could damage reputations if not responded to correctly. A company in such a situation has just a few options: cover it up, ignore it, or address it.

Luckily for our marketer, he and his friends were among the best reputation managers around. The first step in turning this situation into an opportunity for positive visibility was not to ignore the issue, but to face and deal with it.

So what did our marketer do next?

Why, he promoted it, of course! The Big Watah crew went to the convention's print and copy center, created 200 stickers with the domain name on it, and passed the stickers out to attendees walking through the expo hall. When people asked what Big Watah was, they were able to tell a story that appealed to people's fun-loving and carefree natures.

A company's situation may not be so easy to approach from a sympathetic angle, but it could be in there. When Odwalla faced a scandal over E. Coli tainted juice, the company explained that they had been trying to maintain the integrity of their tasty fruit flavors. Along with spinning the positive side if possible, a company must, at the very least, publically repent and address the underlying cause.

With time, consumer confidence in the company or individual will grow. However, one way to help speed up the process is by creating positive brand associations. There are many ways to do this, but the effort will have to be recognized by the public. Welcome to the stage, viral marketing.

Once the potentially negative press had been averted, our group of marketers took Big Watah to the next level — a viral campaign. At the SearchBash gathering the following night, every party-goer donned a Big Watah sticker. Those who walked into the club to see that everyone had a sticker wanted their own badge to sport as well. Our small group of marketers used their influence to make the Big Watah concept seem fun and fashionable.

Then our marketer offered to take pictures with people willing to donate a dollar to charity. By the end of the night, nearly $100 was raised for the Ronald McDonald House, in effect, tipping the scales of the reputation meter and securing the good name of the Big Watah brand.

In his article The Six Simple Principles of Viral Marketing, Ralph Wilson explains the elements of a viral marketing strategy:

  1. Give away products or services.
  2. Provide for effortless transfer to others.
  3. Scale easily from small to very large.
  4. Exploit common motivations and behaviors.
  5. Utilize existing communication networks.
  6. Take advantage of others' resources.

It's as if the Big Watah team was following Ralph's viral marketing playbook! Take a look.

First, they gave away stickers. It just goes to show that the gift doesn't have to be expensive to be desirable. From a low-budget video to a professionally-orchestrated campaign, there are no rules that decide what will gain virtual steam.

Whether it was a casual mention to a friend on the expo room floor or just a few taps on the keyboard of a laptop or phone, the story was easy to spread through the quick communication channels that are exponentially multiplied by the Internet. Stickers were also close by and readily available.

Likewise, the message began in the minds of a few insiders and was adopted by the wider audience of conference attendees. Starting with a group of four entertained friends, the message moved to hundreds of people within 24 hours. Big Watah scaled quickly in both the physical and online spaces.

Of course, the story attracted attention for a few reasons. It was humorous. It told of a situation most could relate to. And it appealed to the clique mentality that drives people to be part of a group. There's a lot we as individuals have in common with one another, and targeting those shared experiences is just good viral marketing strategy.

Our group of influencers then took advantage of their communication network and started a word-of-mouth wildfire throughout the conference. One attendee was overheard saying, "I spent thousands of dollars for booth space and these guys spend twenty bucks on stickers and get more buzz than we did!"

Once the message had spread, it was possible to leverage the momentum to their advantage — which in this case was raising money for charity and creating content for the new site. Needless to say, the jar and the site practically filled themselves. The concept can also be seen when companies invite people to participate in user-generated ad contests. Along with buzz, content and ideas are handed to them.

We often hear about reputation management and viral marketing separately, but in the real world, no tactic exists in a vacuum. The Big Watah story illustrates the way one group's strategy combined the two efforts to turn a possible gaffe into a positive outcome.

When responding to crises, companies should remember not to ignore the situation, but to admit it and address the underlying cause. Failing to defend oneself will only allow room for rumors to circulate and bad press to take over the story.

When it comes to viral marketing Jennifer Laycock explains that failure is likely but odds improve with every attempt. The story of Big Watah is an example of what happens when an idea takes off, and the results went beyond what anyone involved could have predicted.

Remember that unflattering reputation issues take time to heal and that it's uncommon to strike viral gold on the first swing. But you can't succeed if you never try, so don't be afraid to try and try again. The return will be worth it.


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