JULY 30, 2001
Suddenly This Stealth Strategy Is Hot--but It's Still Fraught with Risk
Frequent the right cafes in Sunset Plaza, Melrose, or the Third Street Promenade in and around
Los Angeles this summer, and you're likely to encounter a gang of sleek, impossibly attractive
motorbike riders who seem genuinely interested in getting to know you over an iced latte.
Compliment them on their Vespa scooters glinting in the brilliant curbside sunlight, and they'll
happily pull out a pad and scribble down an address and phone number--not theirs, but that of the
local "boutique" where you can buy your own Vespa, just as (they'll confide) the rap artist Sisqó
and the movie queen Sandra Bullock recently did. And that's when the truth hits you: This isn't
any spontaneous encounter. Those scooter-riding models are on the Vespa payroll, and they've
been hired to generate some favorable word of mouth for the recently reissued European bikes.
Welcome to the Summer of Buzz. This season, it seems, marketers are taking to the streets, as
well as cafés, nightclubs, and the Internet, in record numbers. Vespa importer Piaggio USA has
its biker gang. Hebrew National is dispatching "mom squads" to grill up its hot dogs in backyard
barbecues, while Hasbro Games has deputized hundreds of fourth- and fifth-graders as "secret
agents" to tantalize their peers with Hasbro's new POX electronic game. Their goal: to seek out
the trendsetters in each community and subtly push them into talking up their brand to their
friends and admirers. By orchestrating a
of chatter, marketers are hoping to replicate the
pattern set by such overnight sensations as independent film
The Blair Witch Project
, the Harry
Potter book series, and Razor kick scooters. In each case, buzz that seemed to come from out of
nowhere transformed what otherwise would have been a niche product into a mass phenomenon.
This is the new world of buzz marketing, where brand come-ons sometimes are veiled to the
point of opacity and where it is the consumers themselves who are lured into doing the heavy
lifting of spreading the message. Sure, generating great buzz for their products has been the holy
grail in marketing circles since P.T. Barnum learned to work a crowd. But the art of generating
word-of-mouth has grown far more sophisticated since the early days of simple publicity stunts.
Marketers are learning to turn their brands into carefully guarded secrets that are revealed to a
knowing few in each community, who in turn tell a few more, who tell a few more, and so on.
Rather than blitzing the airways with 30-second TV commercials for its new Focus subcompact,
Ford Motor Co. (
) recruited just a handful of trendsetters in a few markets and gave them each
a Focus to drive for six months. Their duties? Simply to be seen with the car and to hand out
Focus-themed trinkets to anyone who expressed interest in it. "We weren't looking for celebrities.
We were looking for the assistants to celebrities, party planners, disk jockeys--the people who