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Dark (or covert) marketing is the concept of brand building and demand-creation through largely ‘invisible’ (in terms of tracking spenders) and unregulated media: marketing below the radar. Tobacco marketers are typical suspects of this style of promotion, owing to their status as largely outlawed entities, at least communication-wise. Stereotypical engagements include such events as the ‘elite’ Lucky Strike parties, or the ‘underground’ Camel Urban Wave parties, wherein the brands in question create a sense of ‘elitism’ through guest lists and underground and word-of-mouth campaigns, and offer a luxury experience, often involving rare international artists, to attendees. However, as legislation becomes increasingly tighter, and tobacco marketers continue to seek to grow their markets, techniques become ever more creative. With the advent of the impending regulation of alcohol brands’ communication with their audiences, there is a clear need to explore this avenue, and further, to develop increasingly innovative brand-building techniques to communicate with their markets. Most importantly brands will need to ensure that they have strong personalities and positionings before the advent of this type of legislation, lest it be incredibly difficult to communicate clearly with consumers in any shape or form. It is also essential that they develop below-the-line communication so that consumers are used to this form of communication when the law is established.
At the heart of dark marketing is its perceived innocence – it would appear to be like any other human communication in its manifestation; however, underlying this is the somewhat subversive intent to promote the interests of the brand. For instance,
Henessy Martini ran a five year campaign in the US to both educate consumers, and build distribution, managing ‘street teams’ who would appear in upmarket venues (particularly those without distribution) and would loudly order the product and engage nearby consumers in conversations about it. Similarly Skype in the UK sent pairs of professional actors into the Underground system, who would loudly discuss their ‘discovery’ of the offering and attempt to draw nearby audiences into their conversation. Sony ran a campaign promoting the new T68i camera-phone, with an operation dubbed “Fake Tourist” wherein the brand hired 60 brand operatives to ask passersby to have a photo taken; upon their acceptance, they were regaled with a pseudo-product-pitch. However, these techniques are not limited to subversive face-to-face communication. Such brand-building, can take place through any word-of-mouth vehicle: Dr. Pepper's Raging Cow campaign paid bloggers in their target market to write up favourably about their new Raging Cow milk-based beverages; Ford literally gave some Ford Focuses away to employees of celebrities in an attempt to make use of what Gladwell calls the Tipping Point, seeding product with the appropriate persons who would imbue it with value and likely evangelise others on it voluntarily. Political pundit Armstrong Williams was paid by the Bush administration to talk up No Child Left Behind, while Lauren Bacall on the Today show spoke about the drug Visudyne, all in efforts to leverage their celebrity status subversively in order to raise the value of the brand.
Many brands have infiltrated social media, with varying degrees of success (and ethics): some offering free gifts to influential bloggers, others creating productcentred discussions on forums and social networks, and others subverting category discussions to favour their brand. Social media holds enormous promise for brands, especially owing to its highly unregulated nature, and its ability to generate and continue relationships with consumers. YouTube enabled tobacco manufacturers to upload videos of stars smoking in movies, and popularising other content that glamorises the use of tobacco, and in particular their brand.
In a concept known as “Advergaming” Toyota and other car manufacturers pay for their cars to appear in Sony's Grand Turismo game, thus embedding the brand into the world of the target audience and imbuing it with value – it is rumoured that some tweens, when questioned on car choice, responded that the ‘best’ car is a Subaru Impreza, former top car in Grand Turismo. The human skin is even a possible medium, where the brands might make use of social momentum, offering a stamp at the door to certain venues, which if presented would avail its holder of specific drinks specials, etc.
In the event that the brand’s actual logo and explicit communication is outlawed, the brand may resort to linking specific sub-elements of the brand and communicating them such that they link directly to the brand without being explicit. The most obvious example of this would be to use the logo or symbol that belongs to the brand. This is more easily achievable if the logo is distinctive and recognisable, as such being most suitable for such iconic and defined brands as Smirnoff, Johnny Walker, Bacardi, Savanna, Brutal Fruit, and Sarita, wherein the brand would be able to leverage a part of their name and/or identity. In France, where alcohol advertising is largely illegal Heineken endorsed a rugby union tournament under the name the “H Cup”; one can almost envision Savanna mobile brand spaces, appearing as islands of relaxation, desert, beach and summer making use of only the Savanna ‘tree’ icon. Beyond this, the brand might attempt to own a specific look and feel, as well as a specific tone: these would necessarily be very distinctly connected to the brand in the minds of the target audience. For instance the iconic Jack Daniels’ black and white, with its distinct art-direction, which is clearly distinct from the also recognisable Peroni black and white. The iconography of a brand can also be leveraged, for instance, Richelieu with its peculiar French iconography – however, this may potentially require a sharper focus owing to the ubiquity of brands attempting to own
French iconography and glamour. The brand may even connect itself to a season or distinctive moment, such as sundowners, (which might be connected with Savanna), celebrations and happenings in a peculiar style, (for instance the very distinct Klipdrift scenario); or even a way of living and engaging with the world (Le Roux – “le good life”). Even the shape of the bottle can be used to leverage the brand, provided it is a particularly well-recognised and iconic shape – and here we note specifically those iconic brands as Savanna and Absolut Vodka. Finally, even the more abstract aspects of a brand can be leveraged in this way, including the stories associated with the brand, and into which the brand is woven. For instance, Smirnoff, which embodies a strong link with history of the brand and the prestige of its national heritage, could clearly claim the classical and sophisticated Russian story.
At times the brand may find it useful to create a pseudo-brand for public purposes, so as to draw public interest towards the brand indirectly, and once consumers have engaged in the pseudo-brand, the true brand can begin to engage with them: for instance, Camel, which runs the Urban Wave brand took on the development of a distinctive and alternative symbol and brand that is utilised as an intermediary between the consumer and the actual brand, facilitating targeted and profitable legitimate relationships.
The brand may even substitution their own brand name, with copy or imagery that leverages their pre-existing look and feel: Benson & Hedges for instance sponsored the Jordan Formula One Grand Prix Team and in restricted environments substituted “Bites & Hisses” for the “Benson & Hedges” logo (in reference to the serpentine image of the Jaguar vehicles).
Brands may offer (and thus obtain) maximum value by entering into (or becoming!) the content their audiences seek: Mercedes-Benz created a fictional movie trailer as a commercial; while BMW created a series of short films within which it starred. Rapper Jay-Z was paid to mention Motorola in his music to lend his value to the brand; and Apple laptops ad depth and value to the experience of a number of popular movies. Much viral content available online are mutations of the Value-Added Communication concept, offering consumers genuinely valuable experiences and stories (relevant to their worldviews, such as Smirnoff’s “Tea Partay” viral video, or Bacardi’s cocktail recipes and Salsa dancing site), and even products or services, in exchange for an underlying recognition of the brand’s involvement and association with the content. The events and parties hosted by the various tobacco brands might also be construed as value-added communication in one sense, in that the medium in and of itself offers the audience value. In another twist, Benson and Hedges, leveraging their iconic ‘Ampersand’ symbol created a seven by nine foot working mechanical sculpture as an art attraction, drawing crowds to its viewing and clearly lending the brand an air of chic sophistication.
Current Consumer Catalysation
Brands that are purchased on a regular basis have a unique opportunity in leveraging their pre-existing consumer base as a vehicle for marketing, by offering them value and incentivising them to both purchase increased amounts of product (and be more loyal) as well as to share the brand and its message with their social circles.
Brands might engage in this practice by creating forms of collectable ephemera included with product; Archer’s Aqua might create large format posters of the “Archer’s Aqua Guys”, while Russian Bear might make itself ‘rumourable’ by drawing or temporary tattooing brand-related humour onto purchasers, entitling them to slightly discounted future purchases and a conversation starter.
Despite the clear segregation of the traits and relevant techniques applicable to Dark Marketing in this document, in reality these techniques do not exist in isolation – rather, they co-exist simultaneously in various ‘quantities’ and in various implementations in each unique project. Many of these examples are of campaigns whose ethical credibility is questionable; if discovered the harm caused to the brand could be substantial, despite the apparent high return on investment in the short-term. As such, we suggest that brands make use of promotions that derive from their authentic, deep identity (an identity that goes beyond the mere sale of products) and positioning. This is not just good morals, it is – equally importantly – good business. When the brand’s promotion is not one hundred percent coherent with the brand’s identity and positioning there is a tendency for waste and misunderstanding (especially in relation to that which is perceived by the consumer whether that is the intended identity or not – it is crucial to “pace and lead” consumers: that is, to come from their positions of understanding and to resonate with them there, and then subverting that drawing them into the reality of the brand). Objectives are crucially important: a campaign without clarity in its objectives will tend to deliver inappropriate awareness material or persuasion material too early in the interaction. Slapping a symbol onto an event won’t cut it – it must be derived first and foremost from the brand’s identity. However, these need not be hard and fast rules: by understanding their target audiences on a deep level, brands are able to develop content they are likely to seek out – this content can be vastly unrelated to the realm of the brand, but if it is appealing and the brand is able to fabricate a link and a story within the content, the
brand stands to benefit (for instance the Gauloise cigarette brand might generate popular content relating to the story and culture of the people of France, with itself embedded there, and with no clear indication of linkage to the brand). Two key elements would seems to be common to all successful Dark Marketing endeavours: 1) A strong and recognisable symbol or idea 2) Deep-seated resonance in a story likely to “tip” in the target market Brands must seek to own (through the above two elements) language, characters, ‘being spaces’, ideas and symbolism in the discourses of specific niche markets they deem likely to spread the concept into a more mainstream audience. It is highly recommended that brands begin to recognise what these are, and who these niche ‘spreaders’ are, and thus strategise the spread of the brand into their larger target markets in the long-term (particularly with the impending legislation, but even regardless), by dominating these niche markets in the short to medium-term, leveraging the advantages of the present scenario wherein traditional media can still be utilised.
Potential Brand Icons
This appendix covers only the rudimentary aspect of the brand icons that might be leveraged by a number of various alcohol brands.
Jack Daniels – black and white
Absolut Vodka – bottle shape
Savanna – bottle shape
Benson & Hedges Ampersand Sculpture:
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