In its third "reach" event, SF/BIG put the past behind it and peered into the future of interactive marketing. Held on Thursday night at San Francisco's historic Ferry Building, the event featured eight up-and-coming companies whose applications and services have the potential to transform the industry.
"Our December event was about what was," said SF/BIG president John Durham. "Tonight is about what's coming up."
Moderated by Mark Kvamme of Sequoia Capital and sponsored by Fathom Online, the evening was framed as a competition for the title of most promising new technology. The contestants were chosen by CBS MarketWatch EVP Scot McLernon and a panel of fellow SF/BIG members as local leaders in interactive tools. All have established themselves beyond the "two guys in a garage" start-up stage, McLernon pointed out, but are still small enough to have years of growth ahead of them.
The contenders each had three minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation introducing themselves and touting their product's promise. BlackFoot, Inc. led off with a pitch for its multichannel campaign analysis and systems integration services. The firm's integrated technology suite allows advertisers or agencies to concentrate all their data, from log files to search results, in an easy-to-search custom database. They can then track how an individual customer found their website, what the customer purchased there, and any follow-up phone calls the customer made, all in a single report.
Next came ezboard, the leader in easy-to-use web hosted discussion boards -- or rather, "multiperson blogs," as the company now calls them to leverage blog fever. Ezboard already boasts category-leading ad performance and profitability because it gives advertisers exactly what they want most: clearly defined audiences who return to their favorite message board month after month.
Third up was Feedster, a search engine for RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. Feedster indexes 5 million RSS feeds, allowing marketers to find out in a flash what people are saying about a company or product, then subscribe to an ongoing search or an individual feed to keep tabs on the buzz over time. For publishers, it's an easy source of traffic and content; for advertisers, it's highly targeted and 100 percent opt-in -- a winning combination.
Ingenio followed with PayPerCall™, a bid-per-placement search strategy for the small business person who doesn't understand clicks and conversions. Search results generate not an URL, but a toll-free number that redirects to the local business. The billing event is the call. Publishers and agencies can use this to tap the vast market of local businesses that want to benefit from the internet but don't necessarily want to become web-savvy.
Jigsaw then presented its online business contact marketplace -- a database of individuals with their direct phone numbers and email addresses, which has grown from 20,000 to 358,000 listings in just five months. Users earn points by adding contacts and lose them if the contacts are incorrect or out of date. Sales reps and others who spend hours trying to find and reach appropriate decision-makers can imagine the time and effort this system could save.
Although Kefta claimed its clients experience, on average, 20 percent growth in online sales and a sevenfold increase in ROI within the first year, three minutes simply wasn't enough time to explain the company's solutions for converting clicks to sales. The company offers a suite of CRM applications that automate the process of testing, refining and tailoring customer messaging across multiple channels. However, Kvanne commented that the technology seems too complicated to explain in an elevator pitch.
Pheedo presented the first ad server specifically designed for RSS feeds, allowing advertisers to lower acquisition costs, generate more leads and improve their search rankings. The company also offers ad space on RSS feeds and blogs, blog traffic exchange to increase readership and sophisticated ad tracking, giving advertisers total control over their audience.
Finally, Z3Com demonstrated technology that creates photorealistic 3D objects that can be embedded in a web page, email, banner ad or other online medium. Users can zoom in on the object, turn it around, and examine it from many angles, either in its original context or as a file saved to their own desktop. The object tracks every action by the user, giving advertisers more insight into how consumers might interact with their product or campaign.
When the presentations were complete, Kvamme reminded the crowd that Sequoia has a history of investing in promising unknowns before declaring Feedster, Ingenio and ezboard ready for the next level of the "tech shootout." Any one of them, he hinted, might become the next success story of Google-like proportions.
SF/BIG's next event will be an informal "frequency" networking get-together on March 24, sponsored by AJ Interactive. Launched in October 2004 with approximately 500 members, the organization now has more than 800 members, Durham said.
Fawn Fitter is a freelance writer. Read her full bio.
Visitors to Planters.com don't have many opportunities to interact with the dapper Mr. Peanut. You can't take a tour of his office. He won't sing you a song. You can't make him dance (which was actually an option up until a recent site update). In fact, Planter's lead pitchman doesn't do too much other than stand still and grin proudly.
The monocled legume is so remarkably non-interactive when compared to some of his brand icon brethren, it would be easy to overlook the importance of his online existence. But, if you're visiting Planters.com, it's impossible to overlook Mr. Peanut. He's in the page header. He's in the page margins. In fact, there isn't a single page on the site that doesn't feature Mr. Peanut. He's everywhere and his silent-but-omnipresent existence helps make an important point regarding interactivity and traditional brand icons.
For all the interactive bells and whistles available to marketers, the fundamental yet considerable power of brand recognition still applies in the online world. In his current form, Mr. Peanut is limited to GIFs and JPEGs, but his static presence hasn't lost any value just because he can't bust a Flash-animated move. The character's presence, while simple in the execution, still exudes decades upon decades of brand development.
It would be nice if everything were adorable. Adorable bosses. Adorable junk mail. Adorable lower back pain. In reality, there aren't too many things that are adorable, but the Pillsbury Doughboy certainly does make the list.
The "Doughboy Fun" area of Pillsbury.com features downloadable Doughboy ads, buddy icons, wallpapers and a branded desktop application. There's also the Dancin' Doughboy viral component that lets users share the videos they make of the Doughboy cutting a rug.
Pillsbury's use of the Doughboy online seems to follow some simple syllogistic reasoning: people want to surround themselves with cute things. The Pillsbury Doughboy is cute; therefore, people want to surround themselves with the Pillsbury Doughboy. The Pillsbury site makes cute ownership a convenient reality. People interested in the character get a little slice of digital delight, while Pillsbury is able to not so subtly insert a diminutive salesman onto consumers' computers.
Ronald McDonald has a posse. Less than a decade after his conception, McDonald's brand icon was already elevated to such a level of fame that in 1971 he was given a veritable Saturday morning cartoon's-worth of supporting characters, including Grimace and the Hamburglar. Few brand icons reach a level of fame where they earn a cast of friends, but McDonald's mascot has achieved a completely unique cultural status.
Astonishingly, not everyone is born with an immediate and intimate knowledge of Ronald and the company for which he is Chief Happiness Officer, but as one of the world's most pervasive brands, even toddlers seem to be aware of the iconic clown. Ronald.com is McDonald's effort to ensure the just-out-of diapers demographic gets an early education in the Ronald McDonald universe.
Intended for "3 to 7 year old children," Ronald.com is all about positioning the fast food clown as an ambassador of fun and learning. Parents are given an overview of how the site might aid in the child's development, and kids can play Ronald games, create music or even practice their ABCs.
What kids can't do at Ronald.com is learn more about a Big Mac or McNuggets because there's no mention of food anywhere on the site. The only connections to McDonald's Restaurants are a couple of fine-print links that take visitors to the company's corporate page and location finder.
Unfortunately for McDonald's, it's hard to disguise branding as altruism when the following text appears at the top of every page: "Hey kids, this is advertising!" Ronald may mean well, but McDonald's has blown his cover. The iconic clown is really just hanging out online in an effort to make an early connection with tomorrow's french fry consumers.
While Michelin's tires last several years, its mascots last much much longer. Created in 1898, the Michelin Man has played a major role in the company's advertising for more than 100 years.
Despite his considerable age, Michelin is currently using their tire guy as the centerpiece of an online effort that promotes a distinctly futuristic attitude. Visitors to the Michelin Man site, typically directed via the tires section of Michelin.com, are transported into a virtual Michelin universe populated by legions of Michelin men. Once inside the interactive domain, the Michelin Man helps illustrate the company's attitudes toward research, safety and environmentalism. In between tire presentations, visitors can visit the Michelin Man lounge for a big helping of character-centric branding. Activities include downloading Michelin Man desktop wallpapers, watching Michelin Man ads (new and vintage) or playing a Michelin Man game.
A character that predates the Model T shouldn't necessarily make sense in a sleek, modern setting such as the one created at MichelinMan.com, but the scheme works quite well. Rather than surrender to the reality of its icon's considerable age, Michelin simply created a futuristic Michelin Man universe that re-imagines the character as a visitor from future, instead of a relic from the past.
This isn't the first time a brand has updated an icon and certainly not the first revision for the Michelin Man. If anything, Michelin's site showcases the amazing durability of a major brand icon.
Uncle Ben is a rare brand icon whose level of controversy is directly inverse to his level of activity. In fact, up until a recent update, he was a figurehead in the most literal sense of the word. Most consumers only know him as the face on the box of rice. Unfortunately for the eponymous brand, that character gave off a strong sense of servitude, which many consumers found offensive. Developed during a far less racially sensitive time, Uncle Ben had long been perceived as a relic with racially charged overtones.
A recent brand update with a corresponding website overhaul attempts to transform the icon from part-time pariah into full-time CEO. The new interactive portal offers visitors a tour inside Ben's (he's not really using the "Uncle" anymore) plush corporate office. You can browse through his emails, rifle through his datebook, check out his library and even get some chess tips. Rice recipes and information are interspersed among the various character-building elements.
The new site is a good example of how a brand can try to reinvent its core without completely losing its identity. In Uncle Ben's case, absolute reinvention would have required disposing of the company's entire brand identity. Because Ben had been so relatively absent in his own marketing, the company was free to fill the resulting void with as much or as little they saw fit. The company simply presented the public with an updated mythology that reinforces positive messaging for its irreplaceable icon. The result is an online presence that consumers can find appealing for what he is, rather than who he was.
The Brawny Man has appeared on Brawny packaging ever since the paper towels first hit store shelves in 1974. As star of Brawny's recently completed BrawnyAcademy.com, he serves as a great example of how powerful a strong brand icon can be, occasionally overriding the very product it promotes.
The Brawny Man's defining characteristic is his constant eagerness to help clean up a mess. Based on that fact alone, he easily qualifies for perfect-guy status. Rugged good looks are just an added bonus. A handsome and helpful mascot is perfect for a product marketed toward female consumers. It isn't surprising that Brawny wouldn't just make the Brawny Man an important part of the Brawny website, it would also shift the entire focus to the character and ideals he represents.
Brawny could easily market its product with paper towel minutiae and specifications. Instead, visitors to BrawnyMan.com are given a choice between reading paper towel facts and visiting BrawnyAcademy, a series of online videos in which a real life Brawny Man attempts to whip men into Brawny-style shape. If site visitors are struck by a bout of indecision, the site automatically directs visitors to the webisodes featuring the Brawny Man and his aspirants.
Even a paper towel company seems to know that paper towels are boring. Finding the perfect man is a much more compelling pursuit than shopping for cleaning supplies. Fortunately for Brawny, they found their perfect guy more than 30 years ago.
The Maytag Repairman has spent 50 years doing a whole lot of nothing. Unlike many brand icons who primarily function as a charming mascot, Maytag's guy is unique in that he acts as a rather explicit representation of the company's effort to promote product dependability. By either luck or design that dependability has extended to the actors who portray the character. Until recently, only three men had donned the trademark blue suit.
Maytag just completed a national search for a new actor to portray its brand icon. Visitors to Maytag.com are currently directed to the contest page for an introduction to contest winner Clay Earl Jackson. Over the course of the contest, people were invited to check the site regularly for updates, and the focus is now on Jackson.
According to the site, Jackson is a married, 33-year-old BBQ-loving juggler from Richmond, Va. What does any of that have to do with marketing major appliances online? Very little, but, from Maytag's perspective, at least we're still talking about its brand icon and its specific message of dependability.
The search for a new face gave Maytag a great way of generating new interest in the company and the Repairman character. Providing updates on new Repairman Jackson helps to keep some of that momentum going.