What Happens When You Let Go

Adam L. Penenberg
Media, 5/2007

MINT-MAKER MENTOS WAS IN A RUT. A UNIT OF ITANLIAN confectioner Perfetti Van Melle, Mentos spent $20 million a year on marketing, most of it on its famously campy “freshmaker” TV commercials that had run for the past 15 years. Vice president of marketing Pete Healy believed Mentos needed to, as he put it, “reassess, redefine and reposition its brand.” This prompted him to sit down last year with other executives for a brainstorming session to personify what the product was all about. If Mentos were a car, they wondered, what kind would it be? A sporty convertible. If a recreational activity, rock climbing or beach volleyball. And what celebrity was most like Mentos? Adam Sandler, former Saturday Night Live cast member and star of such cinematic schtick as Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy. Then a Web video of two goofy guys creating a replica of the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas out of nothing more than Mentos and bottles of Diet Coke went viral last June, downloaded by millions, spawning thousands of imitators and attracting immense media coverage, and it hit Healy. “What could be a better fit than Adam Sandler and Mentos geysers?” he asked himself. “It reflected our personality.”

What followed was a marketing coup that has become a textbook example of how a company can harness the power of viral video, where the standard 30-second TV ad, which is waning in influence, is replaced by the Web concept of collective curation. That’s when the audience decides what’s good and what should be watched and the traditional gatekeepers — television networks, movie studios and the news media — are pushed to the sidelines.

This democratization of content is made possible by the advent of cheap video cameras, camcorders, even cell phones that capture user-generated infotainment, aided by powerful, affordable software like Final Cut Pro and iMovie to shape it, and then distributed via a massive digital infrastructure with ample bandwidth. The technological zeitgeist is equal parts human, however, as netizens blog about what interests them or disseminate links to everyone in their e-mail and IM address books. Meanwhile, user communities have sprouted up on people portals like MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and Digg. There, people share everything from blog posts to news articles, pictures, audio podcasts and videos in a quest for their own Wharholian 15 megabytes of fame.

“It’s all about the combination of next-generation content creation and distribution coupled to instant access to your social network community,” says Adam Lavelle, vice president of strategy for iCrossing, a digital marketing agency. “Because distribution is so huge and fluid and easy, your community connects to other communities, which fosters this distribution. If I know you, then I know everyone you know.”

In the end, the audience chooses which messages to spread, and companies have little choice but to let go of their brand. As Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley said in a speech at the Association of National Advertisers, “The more in control we are, the more out of touch we become. But the more willing we are to let go a little, the more we’re finding we get in touch with consumers.”

This, of course, frightens executives used to molding their brands to fit their own hackneyed scripts. If consumers start tarnishing their name, and that spreads, it could be disastrous. In the old days, if you had a problem with customer service, you wrote a nasty letter to a company’s complaint department — if you could find it. Nowadays, the Web enables the fluidity of information where consumers enjoy unprecedented power. In essence, commerce has become a conversation. Businesses either talk to us or face our wrath, which is amplified through the blogosphere and sites like Digg and Slashdot with their legions of snarky users, who tell others, and so on and so on, until millions are mocking a company.

This is something AOL learned the hard way last year when an irritated customer, trying to cancel his membership, recorded the phone call with customer service and posted it on the Web. It became, as The New York Times characterized it, “the online equivalent of a top-of-the-charts single.” General Motors launched a Web site that allowed visitors to post their own Chevy Tahoe ads, with predictable results. A number of them blasted the carmaker for manufacturing gas-guzzling SUVs that contribute to global warming. What’s the solution? Companies could start by being proactive and engaging their critics instead of trying to gloss over perceived problems – because viral criticism loves a vacuum.

On the upside, a company willing to let go of its brand can find its way to great, untapped riches — as Mentos found. The Bellagio Fountain video was downloaded 20 million times and more than 10,000 copycat mint-soda videos were posted online, which created a multiplier effect: Mentos tallied a staggering 215 million mentions of its product in TV, print or radio stories over the past nine months, and estimates the free publicity was worth $10 million to the company – half its annual marketing budget. More to the point, Mentos, well, made a mint: Sales climbed 20 percent during the first viral tsunami, and even after the commotion died down, they remained 15 percent higher than they had been.

Coca-Cola also reaped rewards. Before the video, Diet Coke’s sales had been flat, while the company as a whole was losing market share. But Michael Donnelly, the soft-drink maker’s interactive director, reports that after it went viral there was a “significant spike” in sales of two-liter bottles of Diet Coke — the ones used on camera. He wouldn’t give exact numbers but confirmed it was between 5 and 10 percent. A second video by the original instigators, employing 251 bottles of Diet Coke and 1,500 Mentos in a massive chain reaction, led to a 27 percent increase in traffic to Coke.com.

All of this was a million miles away from the minds of Fritz Grobe, a professional juggler, and Stephen Voltz, a trial lawyer, who were the ones responsible for all of this. In fall 2005, the two heard from a friend that if you drop Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, it would explode. Performers at heart — Grobe and Voltz were members of a Buckfield, Maine, regional theater company — the two went out to the backyard to try it. After the pyrotechnics, their first thought was, How far could they take it?

Naturally, they weren’t the first ones to do this. For decades, high school students had mixed vinegar and baking soda to make volcanoes erupt at science fairs, and science educators tossed Wint-O-Green Life Savers into diet soda to demonstrate chemical reactions. (Why diet soda? Cola’s brown color makes it easy to see, and diet cola’s lack of sugar makes it easier to clean up.) Since the early 1990s, Mentos had been aware of the geyser phenomenon, which would come and go in popularity. Then science educator Steve Spangler demonstrated the Mentos-Diet Coke effect on Denver, Colorado’s 9News, with anchor Kim Christiansen getting soaked in the process in September 2005. The video of this was posted online and became a minor hit.

As for Grobe and Voltz, they spent the morning playing around with the idea. After corralling as many bottles of Diet Coke and tubes of Mentos as they could, they constructed a 10-bottle fountain with the aid of some cement blocks and put on a show at the Oddfellows Theater for other members of their troupe. The response urged them to greater heights. They spent about five months experimenting — cutting slits in bottles, drilling holes, adding screens. After settling on the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas, the two drafted blueprints, carefully choreographing their effects to match those of their glitzy muse. On April 29, 2006, the two laid out 200 liters of Diet Coke in an intricate design and prepped more than 500 Mentos mints (Total cost: $300), then spent eight hours doing walk-throughs.

“It felt like blowing up a building,” Grobe says. “We had one chance. We had never done more than 20 bottles at a time before that.”

While a friend with a digital video camera recorded the action, the two, dressed in white lab coats, crossed their fingers and let it fly. Amazingly it all went off without a hitch. In fact, it went better than they had imagined because it was an unseasonably warm day, so the effects were even more spectacular, especially at the end when the grand crown shot out in different directions and spun. They got soaked, puddles of Diet Coke gathering in their goggles.

They entered a Web video contest sponsored by the E-Channel but didn’t win, so the first Saturday in June they posted it to their Web site, EepyBird.com. Voltz told one person about it: his brother. Within hours, thousands of visitors were viewing “Experiment #137.” By the end of the first day, they counted 14,000 downloads. Two days later, “The Late Show With Dave Letterman” called. Grobe told producers they had only done the fountain once and would need a chance to rehearse. Over the course of the next few weeks, Grobe and Voltz grew sufficiently confident they could perform the Mentos geyser live.

Meanwhile, the video had become a runaway hit. Over nine days, more than 2 million people logged on to their site. This had a downside, as enthusiastic viewers kept posting it on YouTube. But Grobe and Voltz had a deal with Revver.com, where they would split ad revenue. Voltz put his legal expertise to work and sent a flurry of letters to YouTube, which automatically stripped the Revver ad from the video, demanding that the site remove their copyrighted material. As soon as one video came down five would go up. Grobe and Voltz just couldn’t keep up. In the end, they earned about $35,000 in advertising revenue and estimate they could have made double that if YouTube and other video-sharing sites would have proactively blocked users from posting it.

Pete Healy of Mentos heard about the Mentos geyser phenomenon after his marketing director tuned in to National Public Radio, which ran a segment about it. Healy told a Wall Street Journal reporter that Mentos was “tickled” by the video. Although he didn’t tell the journalist this, he did wonder about liability. “You hope people have common sense and won’t allow their three-year-old to stand over a bottle of exploding soda,” he said. (No one to date has threatened either Mentos or Coca-Cola with lawsuits over this.)

Healy then called Grobe and asked if there was anything the company could do to help?

“Send Mentos,” Grobe replied.

Healy did more than that. Although he knew there would be risks to involving Mentos in this type of new-media campaign, in the end, Mentos was candy, not a cure for cancer. How much effort would people put in ridiculing it? “As long as we maintained a light touch and were authentic, we figured we would probably be okay,” Healy says. “We knew there were parodies of the old Mentos TV ads. It didn’t bother us; in fact it showed people were engaged with the personality of the brand.”

When Grobe and Voltz appeared on the Letterman show at the end of June, Healy dispatched the Mentos-mobile — a Pontiac Solstice convertible wrapped in Mentos graphics — which was parked outside the theater, while street marketers in Mentos T-shirts and toting 6-foot rolls of Mentos gave out candy to passersby. At the same time, the Coca-Cola Company, slower on the uptake, didn’t know what to think. A Coke spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal, “We would hope people want to drink [Diet Coke] more than try experiments with it.” She added that the “craziness with Mentos” didn’t “fit” Diet Coke’s “brand personality.”

Michael Donnelly, the company’s interactive director, admits Coke wasn’t prepared for this. But in July the soft-drink maker relaunched Coke.com with a new focus: consumer-generated media that celebrates creativity and self-expression. Within days of starting his job at Coke in August, Donnelly contacted “the eepy.com guys,” as he called them. This led to a pow-wow among Coke, Mentos, Grobe, Voltz and Google, which wanted in on the action.

The companies agreed to work together to support the performers in a second video, which Grobe and Voltz dubbed “The Domino Effect.” That, too, was a big success, attracting 5 million downloads on Google Video. At the end, there was an advertisement that linked to Coke.com or cocacola.com, announcing a con test. For three months, people could submit their own videos of ordinary objects doing extraordinary things, and Grobe and Voltz were the judges. “A great one involved balloons, Mentos, Diet Coke, and a series of chain reactions,” Grobe says. Coke supported the campaign by buying up hundreds of search keywords on Google, msn and Yahoo — anything relating to Coke, Mentos and explosions. Coke counted some 1.5 billion ad impressions from the campaign.

Because the odds of benefiting from a phenomenon like the Mentos and Diet Coke geysers is less than the chances of winning “American Idol,” some companies have been trying to game the system – with decidedly mixed results. Samsung released a series of videos on YouTube featuring a St. Bernard named Sam on a plane. The few who actually watched characterized them as “lame,” “a stinker,” and “zzzzzz.” One user summed up: “I would really like to know which agency and production company came up with this uninspired piece of crap.”

Dove has had hits and misses. It scored big with “Evolution,” a Web video that illustrates through makeup and software how an ordinary woman can be transformed into Mischa Barton hot. On YouTube alone, several parodies have been viewed for a combined total of 5 million times. (Personal favorite: “Slob Evolution,” in which a male model eats, drinks and smokes himself into someone who resembles Christopher Hitchens.) Dove also posted a flop when it tried to foist a promo for “Dove Cream Body Oil” on to the YouTube community. The video received more than 10,000 comments–almost universally negative.

FedEx, on the other hand, squelched any viral-marketing potential by threatening legal action against a loyal customer who had created furniture out of the air shipper’s boxes, then posted the pictures on his Web site. “The worst thing you can do is act like a grumpy old brand and send out cease-and-desist letters,” says Michael Maslansky, president of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research. “It makes you look bad.”

Adds Mentos’ Healy: “If I had been FedEx, I would have gone online and created a ‘Design Your Own Dining Set Out of FedEx Cartons’ contest.”

There have been some modest corporate-inspired Web video successes too. More than three million YouTube users have watched Tom Dickson, the earnest founder of Blendtec, a blender manufacturer, pulverize an iPod. He also stars in several other must-see “Will It Blend?” videos released on YouTube and Blendtec’s own Web site, where he destroys baseballs, rake handles, lightbulbs, magnets, marbles, half a rotisserie chicken, and a 12 oz. can of Coke. The month after the videos hit the Web, Blendtec sold four times as many blenders online as it had over the previous monthly record.

Mentos continues to sponsor Grobe and Voltz, helping them perform with the Blue Man Group Theater in Boston. The two say they are talking to TV networks about potential shows, and recently returned from Europe where they appeared on French TV. They also gave performances in the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey and Pittsburgh. “We are earning a decent living as performers and it all started with a simple Web video,” Grobe says.

Now Mentos has begun to partner with Steve Spangler, a highly caffeinated educator who has made a career teaching teachers how to teach science. A staple at conferences, Spangler, whose father was both a magician and scientist, speaks to roughly 150,000 teachers a year. And at each conference he can’t resist but demonstrate the power of Mentos and Diet Coke. At the end of this year, he is scheduled for “The Momentum Tour,” where he plans to visit dozens of schools where teachers are doing creative experiments with Mentos and Diet Coke. Mentos will send the car and supply the mints.

Spangler, who claims he has set off perhaps 5,000 Mentos-Coke geysers over the past seven years, has also begun selling toys based on this theme. The first to hit the market is the Steve Spangler Geyser Tube, which sells for $4.95 and says on the label “powered by Mentos.” He also expects to release the Great Geysers Kit for $19.95, which would contain a geyser tube, test tubes, chemicals like citric acid and baking soda, macaroni, string, a basic science kit, an instruction book explaining carbonation, and, of course, Mentos. Spangler has filed for patents and will get all the money, since Mentos agreed not to share in any of the revenue. In fact, Spangler is even paying for the Mentos.

What’s the secret of a campaign like this? “You have to have a light touch and be careful not to act like a guy in his mid-40s trying to be a hipster,” says the 54-year-old Healy. “It doesn’t smell right.”

Copyright 2007 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)

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