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Fake TabCo Borrowed Lessons From “The Wire” To Mask A “Battered” Brand

How do you run a successful marketing campaign for a new product from a company whose first and only product so far spectacularly bombed, to the derision of the tech world? Like this:

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A number in the “very high six figures.” That’s how much it cost TabCo to run its recent eye-grabbing campaign, pitched to reveal a revolutionary innovation in the tablet PC market, according to Jonathan Bloom CEO of McGrath Power, the firm that ran it. That amount is a measure of the bet the tablet is placing on its new product, and also a guide to the complexity of the entire process–but that’s just the start of it.

Who is TabCo?

All that money, and all that effort was for one reason: TabCo is a piece of PR fakery, and it’s really the front for Fusion Garage, a name that should ring a bell. It’s the maker of the JooJoo tablet, a flopped tablet device that was originally spawned as part of a failed partnership with TechCrunch. Orginally it predated the iPad, and was conceptually very arresting, as it was planned to be a revolutionary web-browsing-only device with an ultra-low price. All of that failed as the device sold few units, Fusion Garage entered a protracted legal battle with Michael Arrington, and the iPad arrived to sweep away any chance of the device’s success.

So when it came to marketing the new Grid product, something radical was needed.

A Tarnished, Battered Brand

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According to Bloom, Chandra Rathakrishnan–founder of FG–is “the classic marketeer…. He’s a very big risk taker, and generally very well-read risk-taker,” a trait consistent with someone who launches yet another tablet, and the eccentric campaign that McGrath Power dreamed up for him. After JooJoo’s discontinuation, Bloom says, “Effectively the brand was dead.” Sales were ceased not because of poor sales (à la HP, Bloom noted) but because of “fundamental problems” and it never matched the vision as originally planned for, and was both “rushed to market” and unfinished. Fusion Garage had taken a big risk with the original device–being based in Singapore with just 14 employees, trying to carve a whole new consumer product category with their own OS–and they were prepared to take another one with the new Grid tablet.

The challenge McGrath Power faced was to somehow promote this risky innovation from a “tarnished, battered” brand, as it stood at the end of 2010. During the wind-up press junket at the end of the JooJoo, when Bloom suggested to the media that more tech would be coming from Fusion Garage in the future, the reaction was “generally indifference or a sort of dismissive pat on the head.” Most people thought FG was all done, and Bloom doubted anybody would give future tech a good “crack at the market” before dismissing it, because of its FG associations.

The New Product

When the new FG Grid devices were ready to go in mid-2011, Bloom intially thought they needed “actions to earn back the market’s trust” as well as mere communication, and first planned a campaign that showed “the anatomy of a transformation” for FG, putting “on display the steps the company was going to take to bring a new product to market, to overcome the challenges, and do it in a transparent way.” Chandra was “intrigued” but didn’t feel it would work, and the stain left behind by JooJoo (thanks to the “power of social media and the cult of personality that can be created on the Internet”) would damage Grid’s chances. Bloom describes it was “the classic red wine on the white carpet: You might be able to get some of it up, but there’s always going to be something visible to show you the mistake you made.”

Thinking Differently

“Something had to be done differently,” then, and Chandra was responsible–according to Bloom, he “forced the issue” and “fought” for an alternative approach (with amicable, but heated arguments with McGrath Power). The idea was to bring the product into the limelight without revealing the brand, inspired by a viral video campaign by Ecko several years ago that showed a variety of graffitists supposedly tagging Air Force One–so successfully carried out that the media was fooled, and the government refused to comment given the secrecy of Air Force One operations.

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Bloom knew things had changed since the Ecco campaign, because social media has since exploded, and “there’s no such thing as producing a viral video” because you can’t expect it all to work. A single video was too risky, so during internal planning meetings alternatives were thrashed out. New inspiration was sought in Domino’s Pizza re-branding campaign where the company, with an old public image of being “cardboard” and generally low quality, ran a PR event that involved a focus group blind taste-testing the pizza–and discovering it was Domino’s. Bloom attempted to run FG’s new Grid OS on an iPad–co-opting the Apple halo effect in a similar focus group campaign, but it wasn’t technically possible. A focus group-themed video was eventually released, but Bloom also proposed further efforts–and thus a fake company front for FG was created, complete with a fake CEO, all hinting at the innovations of the new FG OS.

Video Monkeying And Putting On A Mask

Cue the production of a suite of videos, all pointing at the new FG Grid OS but via the faux TabCo branding, and “drawing, comparing and contrasting to some major events in the industry and what we believe is going to be the benefit of the new Grid OS.” The hope being that the campaign would borrow from the good PR of the developing tablet PC industry, and that one or more of the videos would go viral and thus throw a spotlight onto whatever it was that the mystery product was. Hence the choice of subjects in the videos: Seminal events in the mobile computing industry, like “The stolen iPhone, the Lemmings video” and an Ecco-inspired false “lighting-up of the Empire State building.” 

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Launching the campaign under an assumed name was never going to be easy, particularly in the tech sector where journalists and interested parties are, by definition, tech savvy: “We knew that was going to be a problem,” Bloom says, “because when you put up a website for a parody company and the first thing you’re going to get is people trying to find out who’s behind it.” So the agency pulled on its expertise with PR campaigns for Net security companies, called in advice from white-hat hackers, and “hired a security consultant to basically cloak the entire campaign.” This was essential because if people found out who TabCo was in the middle of the campaign, it would be game-over for the whole affair possibly damaging the launch of the new product beyond repair. 

McGrath Power used a variety of cloaking techniques–including using the Tor browser for conducting their online interactions with the media (a secure system that anonymizes the user), creating false names and related email addresses for the PR staff associated with the project for whenever they were acting on behalf of FG, and using “drug dealer phones” with disposable SIM cards and numbers, inspired actually by watching The Wire.

Successful Gamble

So successful was the video campaign, with a peak during the pixel-print skywriting advert viral video, that Twitter discussions about the video were “off the chart.” Intrigue was stirred up to the point that there were “three major attacks on the TabCo website of very sophisticated undertaking,” in an attempt to discover the secret, and traffic flow reached something approaching “hundreds of thousands of hits per second” and crashed the server.

But to push the TabCo image further, FG and McGrath tried something even riskier: They bought promoted trends on Twitter, for “six figures” more than once. Bloom had misgivings because it wasn’t organic traffic, but FG’s CEO was insistant. It paid off too, resulting in three simultaneous TabCo-related trends on Twitter, born via user discussions, a situation that the PR firm’s Twitter contact noted was “the first time we’ve seen two organic trends stem concurrently from a promoted trend.”

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Physical marketing products went into the mix too, hinting at the wheel-shaped UI that’s at the core of Grid–borrowing from an earlier campaign, McGrath sent out pizzas to the media (wheel-shaped of course) with the “launch date spelled out in pepperoni slices” and with media materials in the box that hinted at the wheel UI motif, and also sent out Rubik’s cubes to hint at the Grid’s look and feel of a square-matrix rearrangeable pattern.

All this PR innovation, resulting in a tight and self-consistent campaign that worked to stir up media and public interest, and a stealth mask that wasn’t broken (barring accurate speculations at the very last moment) until the actual launch event, worked. Fusion Garage’s Rathakrishnan stepped on stage and revealed the new product. Bloom personally thinks if they hadn’t followed this method, stirring up interest and masking the firm’s identity, “it wouldn’t have had any impact at all, it would’ve been one more video on YouTube” and FG would have had an even harder time selling their equipment.

The devices, a tablet running its innovative UI and a similar smartphone–both pitched at the iPad and iPhone market–will stand and sell, or fail, on their own merits. But it’s hard to deny that the launch campaign, up to the moment Rathakrishnan took the stage, gave them a better start-off than would’ve been possible if it had come with the baggage of the failed JooJoo.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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