Despite his comedy tour meltdown last year at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, among other transgressions, Charlie Sheen still has the Midas touch. Or, more to the point, the Fiat touch.
Fiat, which holds a majority stake in Chrysler, had a wild idea earlier this year for a commercial to debut the Fiat 500 Abarth. But corporate officials were skittish about hyping the sporty coupe on traditional broadcast television with the controversial actor: The 60-second spot, “Not all Bad Boys are Created Equal,” featured Sheen, whose erratic behavior after his contract wasn’t renewed for Two And A Half Men made headlines around the world.
The solution? Launch the Abarth commercial on Fiat’s social media platforms. “It’s a real-time focus group,” says Casey Hurbis, Fiat North America’s head of advertising and communications. “We’ve had over 20 million views since launching on YouTube, and we have 530,000 fans on Facebook. I mean, that’s a pretty sizable forum from which you can get immediate feedback.”
Calling it a “social gut check,” Hurbis says the spot, in which Sheen drives an Abarth through the inside of his Hollywood mansion to the delight of partygoers, drew a few naysayers. The commercial’s signature line, “I love being under house arrest,” is delivered after the actor emerges from the vehicle with an electronic tether around one ankle.
The results, however, speak for themselves: In June, Fiat announced that the 2012 Abarth was sold out, and the automaker is increasing production for the 2013 model. The campaign couldn’t have come at a better time; the first Fiat 500 only sold 26,000 units last year — just over half the 50,000 units Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne had forecasted.
As the once-regimented world of media outlets begins to blur — traditional brands are becoming more like publishers, while publishers are becoming more like brands — DBusiness decided to partner with Market Strategies International, a market research firm in Livonia, to create the first Michigan Social Media Brand Index.
Using a listing of the top 200 companies in the state based on revenue (public and private), Market Strategies identified 50 of the state’s most popular social media brands over a 12-month period. “How do you score brands based on social media volume and social media connections?” asks Erin Leedy, Market Strategies’ lead researcher.
Leedy and her associates utilized NetBase, a social media analytics platform, to help answer questions about how consumers think, talk, and interact about particular products and brands. “How do brands engage with social media?” Leedy asks, “and how are they interacting, or maybe not interacting? How are customers and prospects using social media to talk about brands? How much is that brand encouraging or engaging in that discussion? And how much of that discussion is positive, versus neutral or negative?”
On an ongoing basis, NetBase indexes more than 9 billion sound bites extracted from more than 1 billion posts on 50 million social media sources (such as public Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts). It also monitors 40 million blogs and 7 million forums. Breaking down the data, Market Strategies determined that four elements drive a successful brand presence in social media. They are:
Volume: The number of conversations — sometimes called “buzz” or sound bites — that express an opinion, emotion, or behavior by a consumer. The number of posts, comments, or “mentions” represents the extent to which a brand is being discussed online on any social media platform. The category accounts for 50 percent in the final calculation.
Net Sentiment: Represents the ratio of positive to negative sentiments expressed about a brand in posts, comments, or mentions. “For instance,” Leedy says, “if someone says, ‘I’m at the Starbucks at Fifth at Vine,’ that’s a neutral statement. If someone says, ‘I totally love Starbucks,’ that would be coded as positive. And if someone says, ‘Starbucks’ latte sucks,’ that would be coded as a negative.” Net sentiment carries 30 percent in the Index.
Positive Emotions: The number of content items that are identified as positive emotions. This is worth 15 percent.
Sponsored Presence: Represents the number of “Likes” on a company’s sponsored Facebook U.S./English page, the number of followers per sponsored corporate Twitter accounts, and the number of subscribers to sponsored YouTube channels. “It’s not just about all the chatter that’s going on,” Leedy says, “but the engagement, too.” This category accounts for 5 percent of the calculation.
The Index was based on online activity spanning from mid-July 2011 through mid-July 2012. General Motors came out on top, due in large part to a volume score that was exponentially higher than any other Michigan company measured — including its local competitors, Chrysler and Ford, who finished second and third respectively.
When the results were skewed to volume and net sentiment, Kellogg came out on top and was joined in the top 10 by Ilitch Cos. (Little Caesar Enterprises, Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings) and Domino’s Pizza. Other industries in the top 10 were Affinia Group, Ford, Chrysler, Penske, Herman Miller, and Whirlpool.
“Those are big, national brands,” Leedy says. “People like the products they’re getting from those companies and they like talking about them a lot in little ways, here and there, and we’re seeing that come through. And these are brands that go beyond Michigan.”
Examples include Domino’s and Little Caesar (Ilitch Cos.), which both finished in the top 10 of the Index. The two pizza companies rely heavily on social media for every aspect of their branding strategies. “Pizza is a social food, and always has been,” says Phil Lozen, social media specialist for Domino’s, based in Ann Arbor Township. “Pizza is fun and, as a brand, that’s what we try to convey.”
Still, there is a point where a positive campaign can turn negative. For Domino’s “Show Us Your Pizza” campaign, consumers were encouraged to send the company actual pictures of their Domino’s meals. The photos were featured on the company’s various Web properties and were turned into a national TV commercial.
“Our CEO, Patrick Doyle, held up a photo of a poor-looking pizza that a customer sent us,” Lozen says. “Patrick said very clearly that this was unacceptable. We eventually visited that customer in an effort to make things right.”
Of course, the visit was chronicled on a YouTube video.
The pizza maker also launched Domino’s Tracker, where consumers are able to provide feedback to the store that prepares their order. It has since posted the feedback, good and bad, on a billboard in New York’s Times Square. “It’s a great way to find out how we’re doing with very little delay,” Lozen adds.
Penske Automotive Group in Bloomfield Township is a business that gets high marks for its social media presence. Penske, another top-10 finisher, has a corporate Twitter account and a Facebook page for each of its 170 dealerships in the United States, as well as a corporate page where relevant content is shared with customers and fans alike. “Social media is as important to us as it is to our customers,” says Niall Hay, Penske’s social media and eCommerce leader. “It’s like television and radio, in that you are never able to totally measure its effectiveness, but it’s the presence of it that matters.”
GM made the most impressive imprint by virtue of a volume score that exceeded 4 million. The closest competitor in that category was Ford, at just over 1 million.
“What ended up with GM is a function of how many cars they have,” Leedy says. “GM has double the brands of Chrysler and Ford, so if we looked at all the GM brands and sub-brands, there were many, many more pieces of data, conversations, snippets, and things that were said about GM.”
Pete Ternes, a social media strategist at GM, says there’s more to it than the sheer numbers of vehicles the automaker produces.
“We’re active in social media across the board,” he says. “And in addition to that, our customer service group is assigned to social media all day. So they look at Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but also at online forums. So if someone says, ‘I’m having trouble with my vehicle,’ they interact right away. We’ve gotten it down to a one-hour turnaround from the time that somebody posts something about a vehicle to the time our customer assistance center is interacting with them and asking if there’s more we can do.”
GM is interacting with its customers and fans in a multitude of other ways, too, such as sponsoring ventures like do-it-yourself projects and cross-country expeditions for bloggers in GMC vehicles.
In addition to pushing promotions and other dialogue online, GM will sit back and watch the conversations develop organically. “We’ll let other people drive the dialogue, and they’ll post comments on Twitter and also on their home pages, as well as on our site, and it’s got much more of a community feel to it than just pitching and selling our products,” Ternes says.
But pitching and selling certainly can happen online.
At Ford, the approach to social media dovetails with the company’s overall “One Ford” mission, which was established with the arrival of Alan Mulally as CEO in 2006. “We decided to get more serious about social media,” says Scott Monty, the automaker’s global head of social media. “We took it from kind of a hobby and a series of one-offs and made it a strategic part of all of our communications moving forward.”
The focus of the strategy was to rehabilitate Ford’s reputation, but in a way that differed dramatically from traditional advertising and marketing.
“We were dealing with a deficit of trust and a deficit of attention (in 2006), and we figured if we could make it clear that there are people at Ford — employees, dealers, line workers, designers, you name it — who are just like the people who buy Ford, we could start to get Ford back into the conversation again. And we can do it in an authentic way.”
Ford also saw value in its relationships with what Monty calls “influencers” — people who are well-established experts in the field, like Leo Laporte, whose podcast show, “This Week In Tech,” has been sponsored by Ford for the past three years.
“So we’ll bring guys like Leo to our research and innovation center,” Monty says, “and we’ll put them in the same room with our chief technology officer. We’ll give them behind-the-scenes experience so they can really dig in deep and see things that a normal consumer wouldn’t see, and then take that to their audience — which is hundreds of thousands, or even millions — and share what they saw.”
It’s not just well-established media stars like Laporte who receive preferential treatment from Ford, but also regular fans who are at the helm of popular blogs or forums. In some instances, regular fans can become social media celebrities.
“The bottom line is people have been talking about their cars since Henry Ford’s time,” Monty says. “They buy a vehicle, bring it home, park it in front of the house; they bring the family out, have the neighbors over. They’re proud of — they even call it — their accomplishment. It’s certainly a major purchase.”
Still, it can take time to convince everyone.
“A few years ago there was a mom blogger that I wanted to loan a Ford Flex to,” Monty recalls. “A fleet manager at Ford asked, ‘Does she know how to write a car review?’ And I said, ‘God, I hope not!’ No one would know what she was talking about.”
In a very short period of time, the impact of social media has gone far beyond its initial purpose of communication, marketing, and customer service.
“The best success stories in social media often start with a significant brand,” says Michael Bernacchi, a marketing expert and professor of business administration at the University of Detroit Mercy.
“The trick is to take that brand and parlay it into the social media space. Edginess and sex-appeal still work, but it has to be an integrated campaign that involves traditional media like TV, radio, and newspapers, and combines it with social media. The glue that holds everything together is exceptional creativity that resonates with people in a profound way.” db