Here’s the set up: Three college guys are on a 600-mile road trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, for spring break. The student in back mentions casually that he has brought along a bard. His friends up front peer around and see two Elizabethan-looking musicians with a tambourine and recorder. “A bard?” they ask. “Yeah,” says the third student. “He sings about our deeds and adventures and stuff. My family got one when we went skiing in Vail; it’s pretty sweet.”
This two-minute video created by a professional comedy trio, is currently one of 10 semifinalists in a comedy sketch contest on YouTube sponsored by Toyota’s 2009 Corolla, a car whose advertising motto is, “Live the Dream for Less Coin.” If you can’t figure out what’s funny about a bard in the backseat, or how the phrase “less coin” is anything but bad grammar, don’t take it personally: You probably just aren’t in the demographic Toyota is targeting with its ambitious YouTube campaign.
With viewers migrating online, and YouTube accounting for roughly a third of all online-video watching, the Google-owned video-sharing site is a new advertising hot spot. But finding a home in the medium is not so easy, Wharton professors say. In a digital world of instant feedback and ruthless honesty, a company can either score major brand points or look as ridiculous as any adult does who tries to hang with the cool kids.
Traditional ad campaigns are good at building brand awareness, but not among younger people. To reach them, you want to seem edgy. As Toyota’s second least expensive car, the Corolla is targeted at a younger, less moneyed crowd. But being edgy is harder than it might appear. “How do you make the Corolla seem irreverent? You can’t fake that; you actually have to be that way.
Whether YouTube users find the Corolla convincingly edgy remains to be seen, but given that one of the 10 finalist videos in the Toyota-sponsored contest is titled “The Hot Farts,” it seems clear Toyota is comfortable with pushing the limits. The company is “trying to develop a relationship with the next generation of Corolla buyers,” A an advertising wizard defined the Corolla’s target customer as educated, upwardly mobile digital natives who are immersed in online media like YouTube.
While the wizard and other Toyota representatives declined to reveal how the YouTube campaign fits into the broader marketing campaign for the Corolla, The Wall Street Journal reported that the YouTube campaign cost Toyota $4 million and involved intense collaboration among YouTube, Google, Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi, the New York Citybased advertising agency hired by Toyota.
The 2009 Corolla campaign, launched in early March, features two separate “channels” on YouTube. The first, Sketchies II, home of “Bard Spring Break,” offers cash and prizes worth $40,000 for the best user generated comedy sketch. A winner will be selected in April or May. The Corolla features prominently on the channel’s home page, with links to Toyota’s own website, plus several Toyota-created video spots that advertise Corolla 2009 features through stagey gags involving an English butler.
But when it comes to the user-created videos themselves, the 2009 Corolla is nowhere to be found. In “Bard Spring Break,” the college guys are driving a Honda. In another finalist video, “Shotgun Song,” three guys fight over who will get to sit in the front seat of their friend’s BMW. The soft touch on branding, of course, may be part of Toyota’s strategy.
Toyota’s corporate manager for marketing communications, told The Wall Street Journal, “If you just bombard these sites with traditional advertising, you are going to turn off the customers, and that is not what any of us want to do.”
It is possible to downplay a brand too much. If the online conversation is about the videos, and Toyota is not part of those videos, then people don’t talk about Toyota. Because of YouTube’s user interface, viewers can watch all 10 Sketchies II finalists without ever visiting the channel’s home page, which contains the content specifically promoting the car.
The second aspect of the 2009 Corolla YouTube campaign is a custom-designed channel called “Best in Jest,” which aggregates the funniest YouTube videos of the week. These videos are often the production of professional media outlets, such as the humor newspaper and website, The Onion, or companies like the Mountain View, California-based VeriSign, which currently has a video campaign about a fictional man with a spiritual calling to help abandoned shopping carts. Berger likens Toyota’s “Best in Jest” channel to corporate sponsorship of a film festival or a battle of the bands. That’s a more traditional route, and a safe one. It creates positive brand associations, but because it’s less risky, the returns are also not as high.