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How These 10 Marketing Campaigns Became Viral Hits

Any company can create word-of-mouth ad -- all it takes is a clever idea and skillful execution.
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Getting your brand noticed via social media grows more difficult with each passing day. Users upload 100 hours of video to YouTube every 60 seconds and share more than 4.75 billion pieces of content on Facebook every 24 hours. Add to that 500 million new tweets per day, and the chances of breaking through to a wider audience can seem virtually nonexistent.

But smart, savvy companies of all sizes are still exploding into the mainstream consciousness by creating campaigns that compel consumers to share content with their social graphs. Some campaigns are hilarious; others are heartbreaking. But all contain triggers that get people talking, says Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

"Emotion is one factor that drives sharing. We see lots of funny stuff go viral on YouTube, but we also see angry political rants get shared," Berger says. "Any emotion that fires us up--humor, awe and excitement, but also anger and anxiety--drives us to share."

Social media is also the great equalizer: Any company can cut through the clutter, regardless of brand awareness or marketing budget. All it takes is a clever idea and skillful execution. These 10 campaigns are proof.

Chipotle Awareness as entertainment

Fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill added some spice to its long-running "Food With Integrity" sustainable farming campaign by teaming with Academy Award-winning design firm Moonbot Studios for The Scarecrow, an animated short film and accompanying mobile game created to increase consumer awareness of animal confinement, synthetic growth hormones, toxic pesticides and other fixtures of industrial food production.

The Scarecrow unfolds in a dystopian world in which fictional goliath Crow Foods Incorporated dominates food production, staffing its factory with scarecrows displaced from their jobs on nearby farms. But when one demoralized scarecrow returns home after a brutal workday and picks a bright red pepper (an homage to the Chipotle logo), everything changes: Colors turn brighter, the music ramps up, and the scarecrow regains his zest for life. He harvests more fresh vegetables, travels to the city and opens a burrito stand. The iOS game enables users to wage their own battle against Crow Foods by transporting animals from confinement to open pastures and replanting the fallow fields of Scarecrow Farms.

The short film reached 6.5 million YouTube views less than two weeks after its September 2013 premiere, while the free game reportedly topped 500,000 downloads within about six weeks of landing in Apple's App Store. At press time, YouTube views had passed 12 million. The game remains installed on untold numbers of iOS devices--and each time consumers open the app, Chipotle tugs at their heartstrings and appeals to their stomachs.

Dove Real women, real rewards

Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches" campaign is the new face of viral marketing success. The uplifting promotional video generated record-breaking online interest, yielding more than 114 million views the first month. This was thanks in part to the Unilever brand's efforts to spread its message worldwide: Dove uploaded the video in 25 languages to 33 of its official YouTube channels, reaching consumers in more than 110 countries.

"Real Beauty Sketches" aims to underline the stark contrast between how women view themselves and what others see. According to data cited by Dove, 54 percent of women worldwide confess to being their own worst critic of how they look. The video features Gil Zamora, an FBI-trained forensic artist who draws a series of women from out of sight behind a curtain, completing the sketches based on each woman's verbal description of her appearance. Zamora also created drawings based on strangers' accounts of the same women. In most cases, the sketches based on the strangers' perspectives corresponded to more accurate and flattering depictions than those based on the women's own self-effacing descriptions.

"Real Beauty Sketches" struck a chord with consumers, generating close to 3.8 million shares in its first month online and adding 15,000 new subscribers to Dove's YouTube channel over the following two months. Its impact spread across traditional media as well, resulting in an onslaught of print features, broadcast news segments and online discussions, not to mention more than a dozen parody videos. In June 2013 Dove and agency partner Ogilvy & Mather Brasil took home the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity's highest honor, the Titanium Grand Prix, solidifying "Real Beauty Sketches" as the viral campaign against which others are judged.

Evian The inner child that keeps on giving

Evian's babies are giants across the digital-marketing landscape. Danone's luxury water brand earned its first taste of viral immortality with 2009's "Roller Babies," which featured CGI infants tackling extreme roller-skating stunts. One of the first YouTube-exclusive campaigns by a major brand, the clip earned a spot in the Guinness World Records as the most viewed online ad ever, with more than 25 million views in less than two months.

Evian has continued to nurture the concept of CGI-aided babies performing outlandish stunts: "Baby Inside" followed in 2011, and in April 2013 the company went back to the well for "Baby & Me," which features adult actors who bear an uncanny resemblance to the tiny stars. "Baby & Me" notched 50 million YouTube views and 100 million total views within a matter of weeks, bolstered by a dedicated Facebook page, a sweepstakes to promote the ad and other promotional tools.

Evian didn't stop there. In May the company introduced a Baby & Me mobile app that enables iOS and Android users to "baby-fy" their photos, revealing their inner child, and share the results across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using the global hashtag #evianbabyandme. Most viral campaigns are one-and-done sensations, but Evian's babies never seem to grow old.

Lay's Crowdsourced crunch

Lay's created a feeding frenzy across the social media landscape with "Do Us a Flavor," challenging consumers to create new Lay's potato-chip flavors for the chance to win $1 million or 1 percent of the winning chip flavor's net sales.

Rolled out to U.S. junk-food junkies in mid-2012, the campaign generated close to 4 million flavor ideas through a Facebook app and SMS. A panel of chefs, celebrity foodies and flavor experts selected three finalists: Cheesy Garlic Bread, Chicken & Waffles and Sriracha. Parent company Frito-Lay developed and released all three and named Cheesy Garlic Bread the winner in May 2013, after more than 1 million consumers voted via Facebook, Twitter or text. (The grand prize went to Karen Weber-Mendham, a children's librarian from Land O' Lakes, Wis.)

"Do Us a Flavor" had a twofold benefit for consumers: It let them know that their opinions matter and gave them a voice in product development. The campaign tripled Frito-Lay's U.S. Facebook fan base and boosted sales by 12 percent nationwide. So it's no surprise that Lay's is double-dipping: The contest relaunched in January, allowing would-be tastemakers to choose from four flavor finalists that will be brought to store shelves, each in one of three chip styles: Lay's Original, Kettle Cooked or Wavy.

GoldieBlox Fighting for their rights

GoldieBlox may not have won its fight for the right to parody, but the toy startup scored an unprecedented victory in February, becoming the first small business to air a commercial during the Super Bowl network telecast.

GoldieBlox --which creates storybooks and toys designed to promote science and engineering to young girls--first proved its social media mettle in fall 2012, scoring close to $300,000 via Kickstarter to cover the costs of manufacturing its first wave of products. Late last year GoldieBlox again earned notice across the social sphere, this time with a video featuring three girls playing with its toys while singing alternative lyrics to the Beastie Boys song "Girls." The clip earned more than 8 million views in one week and Twitter endorsements from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and former Arizona politician Gabrielle Giffords. But the Beastie Boys--who've never licensed their music for use in advertising--took exception to the campaign. GoldieBlox sued the Beasties, claiming the video is a parody and covered under fair-use rules; the musicians responded with a countersuit alleging that GoldieBlox infringed their copyright and trademark. (The two sides settled in March, with GoldieBlox agreeing to issue a public apology and make a charitable donation based on a percentage of its revenue to a cause handpicked by the Beasties.)

GoldieBlox is moving on. The company trumped more than 15,000 rival small businesses to win the fan vote in Intuit's "Small Business Big Game" contest; the accounting-software maker picked up the estimated $4 million cost of a 30-second TV ad that ran during Fox's Super Bowl XLVIII broadcast. This time GoldieBlox satirized another perennial hit, Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize," with one major difference: The song was fully licensed.

GoPro Hero in action

GoPro's high-definition personal cameras are synonymous with videos highlighting skateboarding, surfing and other extreme sports, but the company's "Fireman Saves Kitten" clip set social media ablaze by documenting an altogether different act of daring.

The raw footage originated with Fresno, Calif., firefighter Cory Kalanick, who in mid-2013 rescued an unconscious cat while wearing GoPro's HD Hero3 camera attached to his helmet, then uploaded the video to YouTube, where it attracted 1.5 million views in the weeks to follow (although the kitten perished from smoke inhalation). That fall, GoPro recut the footage, added its logo and rereleased it on its own YouTube channel; this time, the emotionally charged clip reached a far wider audience, racking up 5 million views in a week.

"Fireman Saves Kitten" succeeds on multiple levels. The clip is both heartbreaking and life-affirming, demonstrating the GoPro camera in action and underlining how effectively the product captures memorable moments. And it's not only daredevils and cat lovers taking notice: Chinese electronics giant Foxconn acquired an 8.88 percent stake in GoPro in late 2012 for $200 million, and the firm filed for an IPO this February.

HelloFlo An honest plug

Madison Avenue has always struggled to market feminine-hygiene products, favoring euphemisms like "protection" and "freshness" alongside images of women frolicking on beaches in white pants. Monthly tampon-subscription service HelloFlo rewrote the rules with "The Camp Gyno," which tackles the subject with honesty, humor and heart.

The video features a preteen girl who gets her first "red badge of courage" while attending summer camp and becomes the camp's de facto gynecologist, distributing tampons to her bunkmates. The power trip goes to her head--"This is your life now," she sneers to another girl suffering from cramps--but the reign of terror ends with the arrival of HelloFlo "care packages" containing tampons, pantyliners and even candy.

HelloFlo launched in March 2013 and attracted scant attention until "The Camp Gyno" hit YouTube last summer. Within 24 hours of going online, the video was named "Ad of the Day" by Adweek; other media outlets celebrated the clip's no-nonsense approach as well. In all, "The Camp Gyno" attracted close to 6 million views in its first month online--not too shabby for a video reportedly produced on a budget of just $6,000.

Kmart The puerile principle

With revenue continuing its long, steady decline, Kmart teamed with ad agency FCB to reenergize its much-maligned brand, promoting its product-delivery program by appealing to the giggly 12-year-old in all of us.

The "Ship My Pants" online video embraces sophomoric wordplay to inform customers that items that are out of stock in Kmart stores may now be shipped directly to their homes for free. "I just shipped my pants, and it's very convenient!" enthuses one elderly shopper; another proclaims, "I just shipped my bed!" While some viewers called it "gross" and "vulgar," the spot racked up some 20 million YouTube views by the end of last year, at one point yielding one share for every nine views--proof positive that schoolyard humor never goes out of style.

FCB followed "Ship My Pants" with the equally punny "Big Gas Savings" spot, as well as commercials that revived "Yo Mama" jokes and featured a branded Kmart rap. The tongue-in-cheek approach convinced Kmart to retain FCB as its agency of record but wasn't enough to boost the retail chain's flagging fortunes: Despite the widely viewed campaigns, revenue sagged 3.7 percent in 2013.

Playworld Systems Context through a contest

Playground and fitness equipment manufacturer Playworld Systems jumped into the social media sandbox with " Write to Play," giving away two commercial playgrounds through its Facebook page. The contest required entrants to complete an online form with a brief essay explaining why they hoped to "bring play" to their communities and a photo depicting where they thought the playground should be installed.

After Playworld selected six finalists, consumers who "liked" the company's Facebook page were able to vote for the community or school they considered most deserving; Parker's Woods park in Mason City, Iowa, and St. Norbert School in Northbrook, Ill., were the winners.

"Write to Play" heralded Playworld's first-ever social media giveaway, and the results are impressive: Not only did its Facebook fan base increase from 600 to more than 9,000 during the two months the contest ran, but as finalists rallied to gain community support for their campaigns, many local news outlets reported on their efforts, earning Playworld significant free publicity in the process.

Poo-Pourri Toilet humor

Bathroom spray deodorizer Poo-Pourri redefined the sweet smell of success with its hit viral video "Girls Don't Poop," which vaulted the product from kitschy novelty to mainstream sensation.

"Girls Don't Poop" elevates toilet humor to new levels: The YouTube clip depicts an otherwise elegant young lady discussing her lavatory behaviors in intimately hilarious and oddly poetic detail, asking, "How can you make the world believe your poop doesn't stink? Or, in fact, that you never poop at all?" The solution: Poo-Pourri, whose proprietary formula creates a protective barrier across the surface of the toilet-bowl water, halting foul odors from coming into contact with the air.

Soon after its September 2013 online debut, the clip was spotlighted on sites like The Huffington Post and Jezebel; from there it attracted the attention of national radio personalities Ryan Seacrest and Howard Stern. In just a week the video fueled 6 million views and more than 278,000 shares, meaning that about one in every 22 viewers passed the clip along to their social media followers. "Girls Don't Poop" ultimately increased Poo-Pourri's Facebook fan base by 354 percent.

The Mechanics of Sharing Unlocking the process and power of word-of-mouth

Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis may never learn what the fox says, but its video posing that musical question solved a far greater mystery: the secret behind viral media success.

"The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)," released in September 2013, received some 40 million online views in its first two weeks and scored an astounding 276 million by December, becoming YouTube's top trending video of the year.

Silly, bizarre and undeniably catchy, "The Fox" went viral simply by provoking a powerful reaction across a range of demographics. And that visceral response is what separates viral breakouts from busts, according to Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

"There is a science behind why people share. It's not chance, and it's not random," Berger says. "If you understand the underlying science of human behavior, you can predict what people are going to pass on, and you can craft your own contagious content--whether it's messages, products or ideas--that people are more likely to spread."

Berger has spent years investigating the mechanics behind virality, identifying six key drivers under the acronym STEPPS. They are Social Currency (e.g., sharing things that make people look good), Triggers (acknowledging that we talk about things that are top-of-mind), Emotion, Public (imitating what we see others do), Practical Value (news people can use) and Stories (information passed along under the guise of idle chitchat).

"Each [driver] is a research-tested principle that increases the likelihood that people will talk about and share things, that brands get word-of-mouth, that services get shared and that videos get passed along the internet," Berger explains. "We can reliably say that including certain characteristics and messages will increase the number of people who share [content] and the likelihood it will be shared."

Understanding and leveraging these drivers does not guarantee a successful campaign, however. "Part of the problem with chasing this idea of 'viral' is that people build content that doesn't have anything to do with the brand," Berger contends. "You can make a really funny video, and people will laugh, but if it doesn't have anything to do with the service you're offering or the product you're selling, it's not going to impact sales. Too many companies and organizations are chasing good content without understanding how to make it help the brand."

In fact, he argues that small businesses should worry less about going viral on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter and more about generating buzz in the real world. "Sometimes [companies] focus too much on the technology and not enough on the psychology," he points out. "Only a little bit of word-of-mouth is online. Technologies will come and go, so rather than getting fixated on a particular technology, you need to understand why people share, regardless of the technology they're using. Every person who buys from you, every service that works with you, every person who goes to your website--how can you make them more likely to talk about you, share you and bring in new business? You want to turn your customer base into a marketing department. That's what word-of-mouth does."