Unless you grew up in the UK, a news story claiming that Denmark had banned a British product called Marmite from sale, because its fortification with vitamin B fell foul of Denmark’s regulations, will probably leave you cold. But for Unilever, the company that now owns the brand and markets the product, the story represents the kind of marketing that money can no longer buy. At least, not directly.
As it turned out, Denmark had not technically banned Marmite or any product like it. But that hardly matters. By the time the facts were set straight by the Danish embassy, the whole of the UK was talking about the brand and, by happy chance, everyone now knew that it was a source of vitamin B. For the uninitiated, Marmite is a dark brown savoury spread made from yeast extract, a brewery by-product. Dating from 1902, it has a very strong and distinctive flavour that tends to polarise opinion. If you grew up liking it, you’re probably still attached to it. If you grew up really not liking it, then you are probably appalled by it and unlikely to change your mind.
Unilever, since it acquired Marmite in 2000, has been highly adept at exploiting the extreme feelings towards its brand and has long run humorously self-mocking ad campaigns around the tagline “love it or hate it”. Today, the company goes as far as to run opposing brand websites and Facebook pages, one set dedicated to lovers of the product (650,000 fans), the other reserved strictly for its haters (180,000 detractors). There is passion in both camps. The result of this decade of studied foment, along with some clever merchandising, has been to elevate the status of the brand from quirky choice that isn’t for everyone to that of National Icon. There was jingoistic booing on the lovers’ Facebook page when the Denmark story broke. There was rejoicing on the haters’ page. Some of the comments there went far beyond criticism.
The more the “haters” hate, the more they reinforce the identity of the superfans, or the Marmarati, as they were dubbed by We Are Social, the agency that launched premium variant Marmite XO via social media last year. Marketing has entered a new universe. That old megaphone system – where capital bought us a mass media platform to interrupt a mass of people with a message about our product, repeatedly until masses of them bought it – that system is over. We know why; we all got the memo about the fragmentation of media channels, the rise of internet use, the disruption of business models and the need to find new channels. In this world, the concept of the mass market is as outdated as its media channels.
In 2010, Facebook finally overtook Google in the US as the most visited site on the internet. One of the reasons for the shift was that, increasingly, people were bypassing search as a way to get information and instead reaching out to their networks, their social groups, for answers that were more meaningful and relevant to them than the hierarchy of results proposed by Google. In a world of social media, what is of value is no longer what pops up first in search; we know that is the result of either paid sponsorship or canny search engine optimisation. What is valued is that which is most shared from peer to peer. One of the chief challenges of marketing on social media, therefore, is getting people to share messages about our brands. Why would they?
They will if the content is worth sharing. You cannot create artificial communities. Communities are organic and these “tribes” coalesce by themselves around a shared passion. As marketers, if we try to manufacture communities for products and services that have no tribe, we will have a long and difficult time ahead. The trick is to find the tribe and give it something worth sharing. Unilever understood about tribes a decade ago when it began marketing around Marmite’s power to divide. The result, today, is two tribes of passionate consumers fervently talking about Marmite online, sharing stories about Marmite and images of Marmite. Yes, even those who had no intention of buying the product were engaging with and building the brand, effectively spreading the word. The traditional media all joined in, with right-leaning and left-leaning news sources alike running stories about Denmark’s alleged ban on Marmite.
You literally cannot buy this kind of coverage. Well – a brand could pay an agency to mastermind such a campaign and seed the story, but after that, it runs itself. The first wave spreads the initial story. A second wave retracts it (score two for brand recognition). A third wave picks apart the phenomenon. Score three. That’s a lot of mentions, a lot of value and all of it done on behalf of your brand by people who freely opted into the process of sharing. There is nothing to suggest this particular story was a covert advertising campaign, but it does provide a very good future model.
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The key lesson here for brand owners is that, in a world where ideas that spread organically win the game, interruption marketing – the kind for which we used to pay out millions – doesn’t really work. Not the way it once did. People have too much choice and too little time; they will filter out, ignore or otherwise redact these intrusive messages from their lives. What work are messages spread by people who opt in, who care enough to share. The challenge is not creating a product that is the best, but creating a story, some content around your brand that is remarkable enough to be worth sharing. Get that right and advertising is now free.