Buzz Without Bucks

Smart companies are discovering that you don't need big budgets to deliver a big message. By cleverly cultivating buzz, small businesses with tiny budgets can level the playing field with established giants. Their motto: When it comes to building a brand, word of mouth is priceless.

Shelby Coffey, a shy, blond 10-year-old in suburban Atlanta, loves BellyWashers. Really. There are 45 of the cartoon-character juice bottles in a place of honor on a shelf above her desk. There's a scarce Sylvester, a rare Blossom, and the much sought-after green Power Ranger.

But Shelby is more than just a collector. With 15 young friends, she has organized a BellyWashers club to do community-service projects. They visit children's hospitals to pass out BellyWashers at Christmas, clean city parks under a BellyWashers banner, and donate proceeds of their yard sales to disadvantaged children. Over the past year, Shelby has amassed a five-inch-thick binder of pictures and newspaper clippings documenting her work on behalf of the brand. Local TV stations have filmed her good deeds. The kicker: She does it all for free. "It's been lots of fun," says the fifth grader.

Shelby is a buzz machine, the sort of hyperdevoted customer that marketers dreams of. As traditional media channels fragment and consumers zap commercials quicker than you can say TiVo, more companies are looking to harness the power of buzz. "Word of mouth has superseded any form of paid advertising, in terms of influence," says Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide and author of Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand (John Wiley, 2003). Personal recommendations, she says, have become far more reliable and authentic than conventional hype.

Agencies such as Salzman's once looked out for trendsetters, the folks thought to be key influencers in others' purchasing decisions. But Salzman, who has spent decades on the cool-hunting beat, now says that that's a mistake. Those people, whom she calls "alphas," may be the first to start trends, but they're not especially good at sharing information. "They're often introspective and socially alienated," she says.

More important are people whom Salzman calls "bees." These folks aren't satisfied just knowing the next cool thing. They live to spread the news -- and others listen to them. "Bees are the critical link between the genesis of a trend and its ultimate incarnation in the world of the mainstream consumer," Salzman explains. Harness their power, she says, and watch the news spread, from cell phone to email to Weblog to cash register.

It's a subtle and imperfect art, dictated by changing tastes and the vagaries of human networks. If done right, though, marketing by buzz doesn't just work well, it works well for less money. Compared with most traditional marketing channels, spreading the word by word of mouth can bring enormous exposure for just a modest investment. In this game, the company with the best buzz -- not the biggest bucks -- wins.

In Zone Brands Inc., the Atlanta-based company behind BellyWashers, is a classic example. It has nurtured buzz and buzz meisters from the beginning, mostly because it's had to. A startup taking on giants in a fiercely competitive trade, it has never had the budget to sustain traditional mass marketing.

BellyWashers were born on a whim. Jim Scott and Richard Williams, fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia, launched In Zone in 1997 to manufacture plastic housewares such as water bottles, sippy cups, and "Bubba Kegs," a favorite with college kids. One day, in an idle moment, Scott, a gregarious guy with a subtle Southern drawl, cut the head off a doll and stuck it atop a sports-drink bottle. He instantly resolved to go into the beverage business -- and he soon struck a deal to put Scooby-Doo on bottle tops and peddle the drinks off a cart at nearby Six Flags for $4 a pop.

Today, Scott leans back in his cheerfully taste-free office -- red-and-lime concrete walls and a giant cardboard cutout of Scooby-Doo skulking behind the computer. "We had figured out what children want from the drinking experience, and it was very simple: fun." His business model: Lock up the rights to sell popular cartoon characters on beverage bottles. Make them cool enough and change them often enough so that kids will be motivated to collect them. Decorate the product with games and trivia. Launch a Web site where they can swap information and sign up for email blasts about new products. Goose the drink with vitamins to keep parents happy. How could it fail?

For one thing, it could run out of cash. "Every week or two, Richard would come by my office and say, 'Jim, I need $20,000 more by the end of the day so that we can keep going,' " Scott recalls. With little to spend on marketing, In Zone at first relied on the power of licensing and packaging to create brand awareness. "In Zone had no experience in the beverage category, but they studied the candy, juice, and toy industries and stole ideas everywhere, then pulled it all together," says Ken Bernhardt, professor of marketing at Georgia State University.

In Zone buttressed its distribution with buzz. It knew that for kids, there is no advertising more effective than the peer influence of another kid. So, a year ago, the company launched its Kids Board, a national panel that acts as a mini - business unit within the company. Every year, In Zone selects some 15 kids to the board and sponsors their community-service projects, such as Shelby's excursions to children's hospitals. The kids help In Zone come up with new product ideas and, more important, build grassroots fervor.

In Zone marketing vice president Kathy VerEecke estimates that the Kids Board costs about $60,000 a year to manage. The exact impact is hard to calculate, but VerEecke says that in the past year, board members have organized 40 community-service projects involving 60,000 kids. She estimates that the program has generated 4 million media impressions. Not least, the buzz has fed a vibrant aftermarket: EBay recently listed 32 BellyWashers for sale; in May, a first-edition Powerpuff Girl bottle went for $35.

Meanwhile, BellyWashers have rocketed off of the shelves at Kroger, Target, Toys "R" Us, and Wal-Mart. The company has logged 100% annual compounded growth over the past three years, and it expects sales to top $75 million in 2003. At the end of 2002, A.C. Nielsen had clocked BellyWashers as the 37th most popular fruit-drink brand out of the 700 that it tracks -- and that survey did not include convenience stores, BellyWashers' strongest channel.

VerEecke is planning an alumni group for former members of the BellyWashers Kids Board. Shelby's mom, Amber Coffey, hopes to keep the Atlanta club going, even if none of Shelby's friends manage to make the cut for the national board. "It's been a great experience for all of them," she says. "That's why we're going to keep them together next year and hopefully add to the number of kids in the club." Spoken just like a queen bee.

Heartland sizzle, one sip at a time

If capturing the attention of kids is difficult, cultivating buzz on a tiny budget in the high-end vodka market can be downright dispiriting. Over the past four years, 100 new brands have entered the $9.3 billion vodka business. One of those brands, Shakers, is brought to us by Infinite Spirits Inc. -- the same guys who built Pete's Wicked Ale into the nation's second-largest craft brewer.

Infinite Spirits' strategy? Craft a product that combines the two most important traits in a vodka: smoothness and taste. Position it as the first American ultrapremium vodka to be made from wheat, the grain historically used for the finest spirits. And then use their base in the heartland -- where the spirit is actually distilled -- as a low-cost launching pad for a nationwide rollout.

Without much money to make an impact, Shakers needed a compelling story to differentiate it from the ranks of foreign competitors. The brand's pedigree would be part of its mythology. So in its first small, "low six figure" national advertising campaign, Infinite Spirits took a bold risk. In stark contrast to the swank images used by most vodka producers, Shakers' campaign centers around a decidedly glamour-free pitchman: an elderly farmer, in bib overalls and a straw hat, standing amid amber waves of grain. It doesn't exactly scream, Are you hot?

But the startling image is catching the attention of its intended audience: the distributors, retailers, and restaurateurs who are the gatekeepers for a vodka's acceptance. "I saw the ad with the farmer and thought, There's a great little story," says Raphael Oliver, general manager of Boston's upscale Top of the Hub restaurant. "My staff liked that it's American. With the war and the focus on liberty, justice, and freedom, that's a big plus."

David Glasser, the Manhattan-based president of Infinite Spirits, is wary of pushing the patriotism button too hard -- but he welcomes good word of mouth. Mostly, getting attention for the brand is painstakingly slow work. "It's one drink at a time, one tasting, one convert," says Glasser. His goal is to get buy-in from what he calls "trusted sources at risk": the bartenders, waitstaff, and liquor-store owners whose own reputations are on the line when they recommend a brand to customers. "We're hoping to get a kind of viral thing happening," he says.

Smart move, agrees Salzman. It's all about influencing the influencers. "Finding the superconnectors is the key to a targeted, successful buzz strategy. Go to the trend spreaders and plant yourself intelligently on their radar." According to a May 2001 McKinsey & Co. study, 67% of U.S. consumer sales are influenced by word of mouth.

Ultimately, Glasser hopes that the buzz will plant Shakers in hip Manhattan bars. But for now, he's rolling out the brand far from anyplace where you'd be most likely to see Candace Bushnell perched on a bar stool. It's starting in such hot spots as the towns of Benson, Mankato, and Winnebago, in Minnesota. The idea? To concentrate initial efforts in markets where Shakers can make a big impact with less money, then use early profits to fund growth in more-traditional venues like Boston, New York, and San Francisco.

"We're forced to compete selectively," says CEO Mark Bozzini, "so we'll be less conventional than our competition." The Shakers team rigorously vets distributors to find those with a reputation for delivering strong customer service. "We talk to bartenders and retailers and ask, 'Who brings you new products? Who's engaged?' " says Tim Clarke, cofounder and vice president of marketing.

The early evidence is promising. "In my 20 years in the industry, I've never seen anything like it," says Michael Johnson of Johnson Brothers distributors in St. Paul, Minnesota. While Shakers is still only in limited national distribution, Infinite Spirits is projecting first-year sales of $7 million to $10 million on 50,000 cases -- two years ahead of plan, says CFO Steve Cook.

And the buzz, always unpredictable, may be moving eastward faster than expected. Glasser tells of going into a New York restaurant and asking the bartenders to recommend a new vodka. "Two of them practically jumped out from behind the bar, urging us to try Shakers," he says. When they discovered who Glasser was, they said, "You've got to get a table at Jeff's station. He loves Shakers so much he won't let anybody order anything else."

Making a fashion statement

No one plays buzz hardball with quite the same fervor as the denizens of the fashion trade. Need exposure? Try persuading Cameron Diaz to wear your mules while strolling down Melrose Avenue. You can't just write a check. In fashion, buzz is all about product placement, about getting a celebrity to boost your wares free of obvious commercial taint.

"People are becoming far less susceptible to the power of celebrities who are seen as shills for a brand," Salzman says. Instead, buzz depends on the assiduous wooing of editors, producers, and star wranglers whose decisions can make or break a product. Entire companies are devoted to such negotiations.

So it's all the more remarkable that designer Tia Wou managed to build her company, Tote Le Monde, into a thriving business. Wou has just two assets: a small but energetic staff and an unwavering belief in her signature product, a chic but practical striped carryall made from an environmentally friendly recyclable plastic called Wootex.

In 1994, when few designers were interested in handbags, when even Kate Spade was in its infancy, Wou went in search of a market bag like the ones that she had seen in her travels. When she couldn't find what she wanted, she whipped out her sewing machine and stitched up the bag of her dreams. Her friends each wanted one. So Wou turned to a longtime friend living in Bolivia to create a prototype. A Bolivian craftsman made a piece so fine that L.A.'s trendy shop Fred Segal immediately signed on.

A veteran of the fashion industry, Wou was savvy enough to target a few key retailers known for trendsetting merchandise. With samples in hand, she made the rounds of New York's top buyers, and before long, she landed orders from Barneys, Henri Bendel, and Saks. Initially, a publicity firm helped Wou get her totes featured in the celebrity bible In Style, the debut issue of O, the Oprah Magazine, and HBO's Sex and the City. By 2002, sales had grown to $1.8 million a year.

But once Monica Lewinsky got into the handbag business, Wou knew that it was time to move on. By mid-2002, she says, "the handbag market got completely flooded from all directions." Wou had intuitively grasped one of Salzman's key caveats: Buzz has a definite life span, and it can be over in a flash. "Knowing how, when, and where your brand might come down is every bit as important as knowing how to build it up," Salzman says.

In late 2002, Wou decided to focus Tote Le Monde on lifestyle products -- tabletop items, storage containers, bath products, and luggage -- and to phase out the fashion merchandise. Once again, she turned to a fashion-industry publicity firm for help, this time to reposition the business. The publicity firm, Tracy Paul & Co., placed Tote Le Monde's passport wallet in a Today show segment and its dog carrier in Hamptons Cottages & Gardens.

"When I made the decision to go with a PR firm, I knew there would be extra costs -- a monthly fee for them, as well as extra expenses for products for special events," Wou says. A small firm like Wou's typically pays $5,000 to $10,000 annually for publicity and perhaps another $10,000 for samples that go into gift bags at charity events or to celebrities and their stylists.

In the fashion trade, a PR investment can pay off quickly. Wou says that she can see immediate results when a magazine featuring her product hits the stands. "The Oprah hit in 2000 gave us a lot of awareness, but unfortunately, I wasn't ready to catch the sales," she says. "But when Real Simple came out in April, within 24 hours we had sales that were amazing."

Which is, of course, what good buzz is all about. "Generating buzz for the sake of buzz is only halfway right," Salzman says. "Recognition without sales isn't a result."

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) generates plenty of buzz as a Fast Company senior writer.

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