Going Viral in Pursuit of the Perfect Lawn

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Published: June 8, 2009

Back when being the chief executive of General Motors meant something, one of G.M.’s leaders, Charles Erwin Wilson, became the secretary of defense and was widely known by a nickname, Engine Charlie. Decades later, a marketer is centering a campaign on an alliterative alternative, Engine Eddie.

The Briggs & Stratton Corporation is using the character of Engine Eddie to encourage consumers to take better care of their lawns.

Engine Eddie is an animated character who encourages consumers to take better care of their lawns by offering them the chance to send “EddieGrams” to friends and neighbors. The messages can be personalized to enable the senders to talk up the condition of their lawns — or suggest that someone else’s lawn needs some help.

And where, pray tell, would such assistance be available? Why, of course, from the sponsor of the EddieGram effort, the Briggs & Stratton Corporation in Milwaukee. As the leading maker of gasoline engines for outdoor power equipment, the company would benefit if Americans were seized with an overwhelming urge to improve the looks of their lawns.

The campaign is housed on a Web site where computer users can engage in some “backyard bragging with Engine Eddie,” who is a lawn mower with a head where the engine usually goes.

To indicate the origins of the character, whom Briggs & Stratton describes as its “online spokesmower,” he has a full head of grass rather than hair. (No need to buy Eddie a comb-and-brush set for Father’s Day, just a nice pair of lawn clippers.)

Visitors to the Web site can create e-mail messages in which Engine Eddie — bearing his own face or the sender’s, through the use of an uploaded photograph — “speaks” to the recipient. There is also a link to another Briggs & Stratton Web site, which describes why the company’s products “are on more lawn mowers than any other engine in the world.”

In other words, if Schlitz was “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” as the old slogan proclaimed, Briggs & Stratton wants to be the engine that makes it even more so.

The campaign is similar to many these days in having multiple agencies involved in its creation. Marx McLellan Thrun in Milwaukee conceived of the Engine Eddie character. The Milwaukee office of Cramer-Krasselt provided strategic direction by suggesting the character be the star of a viral campaign.

Oddcast in New York contributed its new PhotoFace technology, enabling the personalized messages to talk and bear the likenesses of the senders.

And two agencies in Minneapolis, LiveSpark and One Simple Plan, brought Engine Eddie to life for a so-called satellite media tour, during which reporters and anchors at local TV stations were able to “interview” the character.

The EddieGram campaign, with a budget estimated at about $250,000, is also similar to others nowadays in that it seeks to reach consumers who are younger than the typical audience a marketer communicates with through traditional advertising.

In this instance, the goal is to introduce Briggs & Stratton to home owners ages 25 to 35 who are “self-directed,” says Rick Zeckmeister, vice president for consumer marketing and planning at Briggs & Stratton, and “very Web-savvy; they like blogs and like getting customer information online.”

“We celebrated our 100th anniversary last year,” he adds, “and like any company around 100 years, what you make, and how you communicate, need to evolve.”

“For a conservative, 100-year-old company, it seems a little more out there,” Mr. Zeckmeister says of the campaign, “but we’re trying to connect with our younger consumers.”

“Honestly, when I presented it to senior management, the room would be divided,” he adds. “One part of the room would be, ‘I don’t get it.’ The other part of the room would say, ‘Man, I should send that to my brother-in-law.’ ”

One major change “in the last 5, 10 years,” Mr. Zeckmeister says, is that what he calls “generational information” is being shared less between, say, fathers and sons, in matters like “what car to buy, what power equipment to buy.”

As a result, “people don’t know as much about engines as they used to,” he adds.

Enter the self-directed consumer, who goes to the Internet to get filled in. As a result, “we’ve done several initiatives online for young homeowners,” Mr. Zeckmeister says, among them yardsmarts.com, a Web site devoted to lawn care that contains video clips, articles and a Yard Doctor feature. (Yardsmarts also has presences on Facebook and YouTube and offers e-mail newsletters.)

“We want to go where our next generation of consumers is,” Mr. Zeckmeister says,” and at the same time ‘have fun.'”

“We need to have a little more fun,” he adds, laughing. “Yards and grass and family, it’s supposed to be fun; we forget that sometimes.”

The perceptions of Engine Eddie seem positive, based on the results so far of research into how the campaign is being received.

“It’s a confluence of fun and the viral element,” says John Feld, vice president at Cramer-Krasselt.

For instance, say “you’re 32 years old, you get e-mail from a neighbor that says your lawn looks like hell,” he adds. “You might send one back.”

The initial goal of a 70 percent “open rate” for the e-mail messages has been far exceeded, Mr. Feld says, with recipients “clicking multiple times.”

The goal of a 10 percent pass-along rate for the e-mail messages has also been exceeded, he adds, reaching 12 percent, while the goal for the number of repeat visitors to eddiegram.com, set at 20 percent, has reached 24 percent.

The only metric that has fallen short of its goal is average session length, Mr. Feld says, which has been running less than the projected 4 minutes. One theory is that people who return to the site spend less time there because “they know what they’re doing,” he adds.

If the ability to send talking e-mail messages sounds familiar, it may be because Oddcast is the agency that has developed many such applications including one for CareerBuilder — Monk-E-Mail, which dates to early 2006 — that was a huge viral hit. There are still “hundreds of thousands of users a month, three and a half years later,” says Adi Seidman, chief executive at Oddcast.

“The first thing we look for in a viral application is entertainment value,” he adds, so in coming up with the EddieGrams the idea was to produce something that would appeal to “the Home Depot crowd.”

That is the reason for features like inviting the senders of the e-mail messages to “pimp your lawn,” and design unique backgrounds for Engine Eddie.

“We were all about making the pimping fun,” Mr. Seidman says, so senders can “put a barbecue on the lawn, put a cool chicken on the lawn.” “I would always push for the wilder and the more novel, for sure,” he adds.

Hmmmmm. Perhaps the recipient of the next EddieGram will hear Engine Eddie echo “Engine Charlie” and say that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for Briggs & Stratton and vice versa.”