This story began at ad:tech in New York a few months ago. Jammed into a room with several hundred marketers, I struggled to see a TV screen displaying a series of user-generated Heinz Ketchup commercials. Well, perhaps "commercials" isn't the right word for what was on the screen. Maybe they were just videos.
As a YouTube vice president jabbered on about the potential of a platform that could harness the creativity of the masses, and marketers wondered what consumers might have to say about their brands, I couldn't help but notice there was a voice missing from the room: the users.
If the user is the critical ingredient in the new marketing model, it seemed only natural to hear what men and women -- many of whom have never heard the term "brand advocate" -- have to say about their new role. But as it turns out, tracking down so-called brand advocates for an interview isn't as easy as you might think. While thousands of people enter these contests, they aren't exactly in the brand advocacy business. They are teachers and accountants, waiters and students, passionate consumers and aspiring filmmakers.
While they can be the spearhead of a cutting-edge interactive campaign, most brand advocates simply make a video or two, post it somewhere on the web and quietly retreat into everyday life.
Marketers trying to pitch their bosses on user-generated creative probably dream about a guy like Brian Christopher Cates. The 24-year-old filmmaker is poised, pleasant and handy with a camera. The fact that he's as talented a storyteller as he is adept at recognizing (and delivering on) a brand message probably has a lot to do with his victory in the Southwest Airlines "Want to Get Away" contest.
Cates, who beat out a field of 121 competitors, strikes you as the kind of guy you'd hire to direct your next TV spot. And there's a reason for that. As a pastor who creates multimedia sermons for his congregation and an aspiring director, Cates is the kind of guy you'd hire to direct a commercial. He's just not that far along in his career -- yet.
But while Cates managed to riff on Southwest's theme by telling the story of a love-struck office worker who asks his dream girl out as she announces her engagement, his video doesn't display any real passion for the brand.
To be fair, Southwest didn't ask Cates or his fellow contestants to be passionate about the brand. The TV spots and the YouTube posts that followed simply directed users to focus on the theme: getting away. And perhaps that was a wise choice. Given the dread most Americans express about the airline industry, Southwest probably didn't want a wide-open contest.
But in a conversation with Cates, the brand comes up as something of an afterthought.
"Southwest isn't really something I was passionate about before [the contest]," Cates explains. "I didn't really have a connection with the brand. When we were making the video, we focused on the theme, but not the brand."
In fact, Cates' original idea for the video predates the contest. As an aspiring filmmaker, Cates had planned to make a short based on a similar event in his own life. The contest -- and YouTube -- simply gave him the outlet.
"It's crazy to think what YouTube has done for the consumer," Cates gushes. "Before them, there wasn't really an outlet for people to express their creativity."
That drive for cinematic expression may also have been the motivating factor for Brian Apt, a 37-year-old program manager at a mortgage company. As a film school graduate, Apt talks about someday making commercials for a living, but for now, videos remain something of a hobby.
Apt, a veteran of Southwest's contest, says that experience prompted him to try again, this time with Heinz Ketchup.
In his "Heinz Dreamin'" video, Apt blends his keenness for the product with a bit of humor and some stock footage of French fries, onion rings and burgers being dipped in ketchup.
Unlike Cates, Apt seems to have straddled the line between passion and professionalism. While he says he likes ketchup, he doesn't come across as the kind of person who could talk your head off about the condiment. His video, which depicts a man dreaming about ketchup to the mild annoyance of his wife, is more fictional than anything else. But his creative delivers on Heinz's message that ketchup is an integral -- and perhaps inescapable -- part of American life.
Apt, who was just one of nearly 4,000 entries, seems to have made the brand proud by taking a humorous look at how important ketchup -- a product many of us use but overlook -- is to our everyday lives. Perhaps that's why Heinz, which garnered more than 5 million total views for the campaign, has re-upped with YouTube for a second go.
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