Cross-Media Case Study: Look Sharpie
The marker maker follows its own scribbled path
The marketing brains behind Sharpie markers once thought their brand's biggest claim to fame was that celebrities liked to sign autographs with the pens. Most people used the markers to label moving boxes or leftovers in the freezer, but the autograph thing linked the prosaic felt-tip to glitzy names like Tori Spelling, Jessica Simpson and David Beckham. In fact, last year Sharpie built its ad campaign around soccer heartthrob Beckham.
But while Beckham was hawking the brand's newest product, some die-hard Sharpie users were moving in a different direction - away from celebrity envy and toward hey-look-at-what-I-can-do self-expression. The growth of social media over the last 18 months amped up the grassroots movement.
The result: Sexy Beckham was replaced with a campaign designed to woo clever everyday folks, such as a Massachusetts high school couple who used Sharpie markers to decorate their white prom dress and tuxedo with wild abstract designs.
"Two forces seemed to grow at the same time," says Susan Wassel, Sharpie's social-media and public-relations manager. "More people, especially young people, started using our inexpensive permanent markers to make ordinary things more creative" - drawing custom designs on clothes, shoes, walls, sunglasses, bikes and lunchbags. "Unsolicited, more and more of those people were proudly mailing and emailing us pictures of their artwork. At the same time MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and blogs allowed these amateur Sharpie artists to share their work and talk to each other about it."
From Becks to Bloggers
In fall of 2008, the company, owned by Newell Rubbermaid, maker of those ubiquitous plastic bowls your mother once used, began to pay attention. Staffers informally monitored online buzz about the brand and pored over who was doing what with Sharpie markers. Soon after, the company threw the creative portion of its ad account into review and in March awarded the business to Draftfcb Chicago. The new agency applied formal strategic research to the company's informal findings, and in June came up with the Sharpie Uncapped campaign, with the tag "Uncap What's Inside." Estimated budget: $8-10 million. The cornerstone of the initiative, not surprisingly, was a social-media-oriented microsite, sharpieuncapped.com.
A recessionary mindset is used to leaven the self-expression message. "The personalization trend is gaining momentum as the economy continues to struggle," says Sally Grimes, Sharpie's global marketing vice president. "Our campaign challenges people to reimagine everyday items in their lives to express their creativity and embrace value in these tougher times."
The microsite is designed to be a hub for inspirational ideas, where visitors submit images and videos of items decorated with Sharpie markers. The site also offers how-to and new-product information and access to Sharpie's blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr sites. In addition, the site serves as home to the "Sharpie Squad" of hand-picked bloggers and artists, including designer Laura Kelly and skateboard artist Mark Rivard. Squad members share insider tips in exchange for product samples and promotion of their art and blogs on the Sharpie sites.
Offline elements of the campaign included magazine ads and a trio of TV spots that ran through Sept. 30, all with the microsite URL. The print ads appeared in Real Simple, US Weekly, Good Housekeeping and similar publications. Most featured a closeup of a marker drawing colorful swirls on a pair of sneakers.
The 15-second TV spots aired on abc Family, TBS, E!, HGTV, TLC, Bravo, Lifetime and VH1. One ad shows a pen drawing a sunburst and moonscape on a white background that turns out to be, you guessed it, a pair of sneakers.
Barack and Betsey Onboard
But, for all its grassroots inclinations, Sharpie isn't leaving the celebrity connection far behind. During Fashion Week in New York in September, Betsey Johnson, the 67-year-old fashion designer known for her colorful lace, used the iconic marker to design an exclusive T-shirt that was given away to about 2,000 people who visited Sharpie's do-it-yourself booth at the event. Facebook photos covered every step of the promo.
The microsite also links to a YouTube video of President Barack Obama after a State of the Union address telling autograph-seekers to keep their Sharpies because he has his own in his pocket. In addition, the site hosts a celebrity gallery with photos of semi-famous entertainers like Leeza Gibbons and Shari Belafonte signing their autographs with the marker.
But celebrities and Presidents aside, the biggest impact of the campaign has come from the hundreds of creations downloaded by users in the main gallery of the Uncapped site, says Wassel. By mid-September, three-and-a-half months after launch, more than 700 images of artwork had been uploaded to the gallery. "Who would think that a little old marker could have fostered this crazy universe of people who love it?" she asks.
The company has tracked several other results from the initiative, says Akash Pathak, interactive strategist at Draftfcb. From June to August, the Uncapped microsite saw 20-25 percent more traffic than the main Sharpie Web site, with most of that traffic driven by search engine marketing and online PR efforts, Pathak says.
During the first two months of the campaign, about 2,500 fans joined Sharpie's Facebook page, daily visits to the Sharpie blogs jumped 250 percent and the number of people who follow Sharpie on Twitter increased 34 percent. Another indicator: In the first two months of the campaign, registrations at the Sharpie sites increased 70 percent, without any incentive offered to registrants, Pathak says.
Such results have helped change the brand's advertising focus. Instead of talking about "cost-per-unit and gross-rating-points, now it is all about [consumer] relationships and loyalty," says Wassel. While socal media was only a small portion of the overall marketing budget this year, that allocation is expected to be double or more in 2010, she adds.
On that front, Sharpie is not alone. According to the "2010 Media Planning Intelligence Study," by the Center for Media Research and InsightExpress, advertisers and agencies across the board say that having a "presence on social networks" is one of the top priorities of their media plans for next year.
Experts are generally positive about the Sharpie work this summer, with a few reservations. David Blum, executive director of interactive services at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, says, "The notion that a personal artifact can be turned into a 'piece of art' is truly inspiring," but the execution could be better, he says. "Having a separate microsite creates confusion for the consumer trying to remember the different URLs that each brand puts up. Consumers expect their branded experiences to be held together for them, without much thought or explanation." A better way would be to build on the Facebook experience because "everything that is happening at the microsite can happen at Facebook from a technical perspective. And with more than 2,500 fans there already, you tap into an existing fan base that will propel the brand's viral potential," he says.
Though it may not have started out that way, the Sharpie effort evolved to put social media first, backed with event marketing, notes Wassel. "Both forms of marketing offer consumers a one-to-one experience. In today's marketplace, that seems to be eclipsing what traditional advertising has to offer."