Sharpie and Others Offer Lessons in Getting Customers Talking

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Almost the instant the news broke on “60 Minutes,” someone had sent a report and a screen shot to @sharpiesusan via Twitter.

Chris Martin, lead singer of the Grammy-winning band Coldplay, was using a green Sharpie marker to doodle possible lyrics and song titles on a white grand piano in his studio, and the news show aired a two-second beauty shot of the product during the 12-minute segment.

“Sharpie shows up in the most amazing places, but I have to say the alignment of Coldplay and ‘60 Minutes’ on one day was just amazing,” says Susan Wassel, social-media manager for Sharpie and currently the one-woman force behind its many social-media initiatives. “Coldplay was up for all those Grammys, and on this top-rated show — and there we were, a part of it. A small part, but a part of it,” she says.

Celebrity catches like that are part of Wassel’s job as Sharpie’s social-media evangelist, charged with spreading the word about Sharpie markers and what their most passionate and creative fans are doing with them. This fits with the brand’s slogan, “Write Out Loud!” It also involves Wassel in almost every social-media channel imaginable, from a blog (http://blog.sharpie.com/) and a Twitter account to a Facebook page and a Flickr site where creatives can post the evidence of their “Sharpie Love” (http://www.flickr.com/groups/sharpielove/).

That Sharpie love is what led Wassel in late 2008 to urge her company to get involved in social media.

“We knew there were a lot of fans already out there,” she says. “We did some very cursory internal research, just going out and counting up Sharpie-dedicated Facebook pages, Sharpie-related blogs and Sharpie YouTube posts. We came up with a nice number of people who were already talking about us.”

So in addition to her promotional jobs — sponsoring gallery shows of Sharpie art, handing out Sharpies at the Academy Awards, etc. — Wassel took on the task of enriching that customer/fan conversation.

“Our intent was not to interrupt the conversation but to complement it and add to it where that made sense,” she says. “We’ve been welcomed by that existing Sharpie community, which is actually thrilled to hear from us. We’re sharing all sorts of good resources, and they love us for it.”

Those resources include a T-shirt designer who customizes designs with a Sharpie, an artist who draws on gourds to create Sharpie snakes, and instructions on how to dye a wig using Sharpie ink.

The Sharpie blog site gets about 10,000 unique monthly visitors, and at press time Wassel is closing in on 1,000 followers on Twitter. Neither of those would be standout stats for a big-budget corporate Web effort. But given that Sharpie’s social-media campaigns have so far involved about $2,000 in start-up costs (“mostly for the blog header, and we probably overpaid,” Wassel says), the returns are strong in terms of brand attachment from Sharpie’s fan base.

“Everybody owns a black Sharpie,” she says. “We want to give them a reason to own the rest of the colors.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

These are tough times for marketing and promo tactics that can be labeled “experimental.” Efforts to reach customers through all channels are being held up to a return-on-investment yardstick, and many that can’t demonstrate an immediate bottom-line impact are being dialed back, at least during the downturn.

But brands like Sharpie, Home Depot, Walmart, Molson and the CPG properties of Procter & Gamble are going ahead with social-media campaigns in spite of the economy. In fact, difficult times might in themselves provide a rationale for opening up the lines of communication with a brand’s consumer advocates.

Nick Ayres, interactive marketing manager for Home Depot, told a corporate blogging conference last month that his company got involved in social media with the strategic aim of differentiating itself from its home-remodeling retailer competitors.

“We got to a point where our brand was not as differentiated as it used to be,” Ayres told the Chicago BlogWell meeting. “We built our brand 30 years ago on world-class customer service and home-improvement know-how. We employed ex-plumbers and ex-electricians in the aisles who could tell you not only how to use the products, but everything you’d need to complete a project.”

But workforce realities eroded that expert contingent among Home Depot’s floor staff, with negative results. In March 2007, a blogger on MSN Money posted about a bad experience and lamented the chain’s decline in expert service. That post got 7,000 equally negative comments in two weeks and elicited an apology from the Home Depot CEO.

“This really showed our executive team not only the power that social media has, but the energy that surrounds our brand,” Ayres said. Customers weren’t neutral on the brand: They either loved Home Depot or hated it.

So about a year and a half ago, the chain began strategizing its “Digital Orange Apron” social-media effort, with three aims in mind: recapturing those customers who might have been turned off, connecting with new homeowners who might not yet have any established loyalty, and engaging staffers, particularly those in-house experts in Home Depot’s 2,000 stores who serve as keepers of the do-it-yourself tribal knowledge.

Last year, Home Depot decided it could use social media to provide real value to customers by publicizing its natural-disaster prep-and-recovery abilities via a Twitter page. The company had already built these capacities into its logistics after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, and was typically the last retailer out and first back in when disasters struck. The company even maintains a hurricane command center at its Atlanta headquarters to plan response.

“There was a huge opportunity for us to take that internal knowledge and use tools like Twitter to spread that knowledge more effectively,” Ayres said. For example, his Internet team was able to tweet the decision to keep 20 area stores open around the clock for the two days before Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast in late August last year, getting the word out to Twitter followers faster than any other medium could.

Home Depot used Twitter to spread pre-disaster prep tips from its corporate guides. After Gustav and then Hurricane Ike, the chain also used Twitter to advise customers on stores that were temporarily out of the most needed supplies, such as bottled water and plywood, saving those customers a useless and probably dangerous store trip.

The company was also rigorous about keeping marketing messages out of the Twitter channel at these times of distress, even arguably relevant ones.

“We weren’t using Twitter to sell products,” Ayres said. “No tweets about how the Home Depot at Sixth and Jones has four power generators and you can get them for $29.99. We were not at all pushing a hard sales message.”

In terms of possible results, while Home Depot’s Twitter campaign may have produced some incremental sales, that was not the primary aim, Ayres told the blogger group.

“We wanted to give a face to the brand. Second, we wanted to lay down a building block for long-term preference and create a differentiator for us,” Ayres said.

He pointed to Twitter posts that suggested the beginnings of that brand loyalty, including one that read, “I can’t believe Home Depot is on Twitter for their stores in affected areas. I’ve forsaken Lowe’s for you entirely.”

DIFFERENT WAYS TO TALK

Sharpie’s social media highlights creativity and fun; Home Depot focuses on service. But the aims and tactics for which social media are deployed, from corporate blogs and Twitter to online video and community comment, can vary widely according to what fits the brand.

For example, Walmart has launched its Elevenmoms blogger initiative, recruiting already-influential female bloggers (now more than 11, and with a few males thrown in too) to comment on Walmart products, services, policies and lifestyle in a magazine-format page on the company Web site at http://instoresnow.walmart.com/Community.aspx. The Walmart bloggers are unpaid and unsponsored, and are given free rein to write whatever they want about the retailer and its products, including critical remarks — as long as they’re constructive.

Walmart has a mixed social-media history, having been caught “astro-turfing” a fake independent blog that they in fact sponsored, and currently running an under-subscribed corporate “Checkout Blog” at http://www.checkoutblog.com/. But the new approach is receiving view-positive reviews from both customers and marketing analysts for leveraging both the power of blogs and the credibility of uber-bloggers.

“Rather than Walmart trying to tell the story themselves … they’ve now figured out how to let their customers tell the story on their behalf — and that’s the difference,” writes Jeremiah Owyang, Forrester Research senior analyst. “Given that corporate blogs aren’t trusted — and people that you know are — this is the way to go for Walmart.”

Other brands, other social approaches. Canadian brewer Molson already knows people like its beers, partly because it’s had a consumer-facing Web site since 1996. But a blog the brewer launched in January 2007 floundered initially because it seemed to have no central topic and no unifying voice.

“So we shuttered it,” says Adam Moffat, manager of brand and marketing PR for Molson. “We didn’t want to have a blog just for the sake of one.” The blog re-launched in November 2007 with a new aim: to highlight the community projects pursued both by Molson corporate and its employees.

“We felt there was a need to publicize the human stories that the traditional press used to cover about the human side of our business, but which they now don’t have the resources or mandate to cover,” Moffat says. “We’ve got 3,000 employees across Canada who are reaching in and helping their communities. Focusing the blog on that involvement is a showcase for our employees, invites visitors back to catch up regularly, and helps define an important part of our corporate brand.”

Sharpie’s parent company, Newell Rubbermaid, blends the human and the how-to in the blogs it operates for its Rubbermaid container products and for its Graco line of baby strollers and infant products. And they have distinct aims: humanizing the brand in Graco’s case, and highlighting the products in Rubbermaid’s.

When Graco first began blogging in mid-2007, “people thought of us like any Fortune 500 brand,” says Bert Dumars, vice president of e-business and interactive marketing for Newell Rubbermaid. “We wanted to show that we are people and parents too, and would never put our kids in unsafe products.” As a result, the “Graco Heart to Heart” blog goes heavy on the personal baby stories and very light on marketing.

“If they want product information, they can click to the corporate Web site,” Dumars says.

On the other hand, the “Rubbermaid: Adventures in Organization” blog targets specific product awareness. “We found people knew the brand and knew we made trashcans,” Dumars says. “They didn’t know we made organization systems for garages and closets or a complete food-storage line.”

So for the Rubbermaid blog, the company shows before and after projects, illustrating, for example, the real-life problems that its Fast-Track garage storage system can solve.

“My Rubbermaid Garage Makeover,” a five-part series posted last summer by one of the Rubbermaid bloggers, was a very popular feature — so popular that the blog has just chosen a reader to win her own Rubbermaid storage re-do, to be documented in the coming months.

Unlike Wassel’s one-woman show for Sharpie, the Rubbermaid and Graco blogs tap into the expertise of multiple in-company bloggers — as many as a dozen bloggers in Graco’s case, and professional organizers as guest bloggers for Rubbermaid.

As for Wassel, she may soon get some social relief. “We’ve just undergone an agency review, and social media is going to be much more highly integrated into our marketing aims going forward,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting some additional support.”

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