As Valentine's Day approached this week, romance was in the air – and Pizza Hut Canada was feeling saucy.
On Thursday, the fast food chain dropped its first single, a Boyz II Men-style ballad called Lovers. The serenade, released online, includes such cringe-inducing lyrics as "I know that we're just friends / but I'd really, really love to treat ya / Will you be my valentine? / And what do you like on your pizza?"
But it was not just the holiday that had the company in such a mood. The smooth jam was meant to thank its fans for helping with a relatively rare feat: a Canadian marketing campaign going global.
As a Valentine gesture, Yum Brands Inc. announced that its Pizza Hut perfume, a marketing stunt that was invented in Canada last year, will now be available in more than a dozen countries. Bottles of the eau de dough are being shipped in places such as Dubai, India, Hong Kong, Japan (where Valentine's gifts are usually mostly given by women to men), the U.K., and Guatemala. In the U.S., the company marketed the scent by asking fans to send messages on Twitter with the hashtag #LastMinuteLovers – because nothing says romance like a novelty fast-food scent that your sweetheart won in an online contest after forgetting to buy you a present.
The perfume started as a Facebook post by Pizza Hut Canada's social media team at its ad agency, Grip Limited. In August, they asked fans on Facebook what a Pizza Hut perfume might smell like. The response was so overwhelming – nearly 2,000 people weighed in – that the company decided to actually manufacture the scent in limited-edition bottles sent to 100 online fans in September.
The attention-grabbing social media marketing initiative is now spreading, a coup for any Canadian marketer that is part of a larger multinational corporation. Soon after it launched, the Canadian office began receiving calls from others wanting to mimic the stunt – including one from the head of international public affairs at Yum Brands head office in Kentucky. He co-ordinated with the rest of the countries to schedule the promotions around Valentine's Day. They will use the same scent concocted here.
Canada is rarely a test market for such global advertising initiatives. More commonly, Canadian agencies are faced with the drudgery of adapting ads from the U.S. or other high-profile markets to air in Canada with as little extra expense as possible. However, the perfume stunt keyed in to something far more important. In a time of pinched advertising budgets and greater demand for ad agencies to demonstrate their business effectiveness, the perfume was lauded for an entirely different reason: It was funny, and put a human face on the brand.
"We actually have a budget [for] fun and crazy things," said Pizza Hut Canada's marketing director, Beverly D'Cruz. "It's a new form of marketing that we've begun to do. Not everything has to generate sales and numbers. You can just have some fun, too."
This investment is about more than fun, however. The digital world has created a fragmentation of media, with countless places to watch video, read articles and stories, hear music, and speak to friends and strangers. That has deeply affected advertisers: Not only is the audience scattered across media, but it is changing, too. The back-and-forth of social media means they expect more from brands. Advertisers have to make things people care about; whether that is investing in a cause or simply creating content entertaining enough to share.
"It's just based off of how social operates … We're not just selling products. We're there in a human element," said Eric Vieira, director of business at Grip.
That attempt to seem more human is part of a major shift happening now, says Bob Garfield, a columnist with MediaPost and The Guardian, and co-host of the radio show and podcast On the Media. Mr. Garfield has just co-written a book, released in March, called Can't Buy Me Like: How authentic customer connections drive superior results.
"People put more value, in 2013, in a company's inner self than even the intrinsic value of the goods and services," he said.
The Pizza Hut example is ironic, Mr. Garfield said, because for the most part Yum Brands has treated social media mostly as tools for promotion, with coupon offers, health claims and traditional ads. In other words, they've been doing it wrong.
"You don't go to the neighbourhood barbecue handing out business cards," he said.
Coca-Cola Co. is an example of a company doing it right, he said. The company has dedicated itself to a decade-long plan to develop its content marketing, focusing more on storytelling than advertising.
For Pizza Hut Canada, Grip was charged with building up its social media presence here – to do that, it needed to have some fun, Mr. Vieira said.
While the perfume was a lark, however, the process was serious: Pizza Hut Canada hired an aromachologist, or scent expert, and tested a number of concoctions. They finally settled on a scent described as "fresh dough with a bit of spice."
In September, when the team posted a note on Facebook saying that the first 100 fans to respond with a message would receive a bottle, they expected maybe 250 replies. More than 1,000 messages arrived in the first hour.
The bottles were never on sale in Canada, offered only as a limited-edition prize. However, at least one made it to a secondary market: a bottle advertised as No. 16 of the 100 bottles sent out was sold on eBay in December for a whopping $417.
And now that it has become an international parfumier , Pizza Hut Canada is trying its hand at the music business. The company will offer a free download of its schmaltzy new song, and will likely do something similar to the perfume promotion, offering a limited number of CDs that it will mail out to fans.
"We see a lot of response from fans when we do interesting tactics like this," Ms. D'Cruz said. "It's about creating an emotional bond with them, beyond our food."