RAM: Flavor of the Month

Despite the usual hype this year around Super Bowl ads, one of the most talked about campaigns so far in 2009 couldn’t have been more different than one of those big-budget extravaganzas: Skittles-maker Mars and, came up with the new site after asking themselves, “How can we sort of play up the unexpectedness of what Skittles is about?” according to Mars spokesperson Ryan Bowling.

People who visited the new, which launched on Feb. 27, were redirected to one of five rotating social media sites — Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia — and the chatter each contained concerning the brand. (A Skittles-branded navigation box served as an overlay.) Though the Boston agency Modernista! had done a similar thing with its company Web site in 2008, the Skittles site marked the first time a consumer products brand had taken the popular mantra, “The consumer owns the brand,” and turned it into a marketing effort. (Bowling repeatedly pointed out that the revamped home page is not considered to be a flash-in-the-pan campaign.)

The rest will go down in social media history. While initially, the site got praise for its novelty, the decision to turn the brand over to consumers had an unwanted side effect. Some people took the opportunity to say things that definitely do not befit a brand largely targeted to kids. Things like: “Yeah, #starburst would totally beat the shit out of #skittles in a back alley fight” — and much, much worse, but the buzz about the change to the Web site was undeniable. Media ranging from old-timers like The Wall Street Journal to blogs like Mashable picked up the story.

However, there are conflicting viewpoints on whether the redesign’s buzz succeeded in moving beyond the social media intelligentsia and into the mainstream. According to data from Nielsen Online, much of the spike in online talk about Skittles during the first week of March, when the brand was a trending topic on Twitter, can be wholly attributed to the social media/advertising/technology cabal. Nielsen searched 75 different blogs, finding that 48 percent of those who posted about Skittles were in the areas of social media, technology, advertising and marketing; 8 percent was attributed to either “news” or “other”; and 37 percent of the posts are on what Nielsen classified as “personal” blogs.

Data from WPP Group’s TNS Cymfony shows more of a balance. Says Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer: “The ‘intelligentsia’ definitely glommed on to this one, but that’s not the whole story.” Of the 3,200 bloggers who posted about Skittles, 2,600 of them posted about it only once.

The Nielsen and Cymfony data agree on one thing, however, and it’s not positive. After a week’s worth of buzz, there was a significant dropoff; in fact, mentions of the brand went down to pre-launch levels. Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services, attributes much of this to the same bloggers who gave the new site so much notice in the first place. “The marketing community acts like the high school party crowd,” he says. By the next week, they’d all moved onto the next big thing.

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