Advertisers cannot afford to be boring – even when their job is to put people to sleep.
But Mark Quinn is the first to admit that his business is the definition of dull. As the segment vice-president of marketing for Leggett & Platt Inc., his job is to make people interested in the mattress components the company manufactures.
"We don't even sell mattresses. We sell coils, for goodness sake. That's boring," Mr. Quinn said.
And this year Mr. Quinn faced a problem: Even in a sleepy industry, the businesses specializing in orthopedic comfort – think memory foam, Tempurpedic and the like – were "beating the crap out of" spring mattresses by claiming their product was better for people's backs. He figured the best way to respond would be to do something totally unexpected for a 129-year-old company based in a small town in Bible Belt Missouri.
He hired a bunch of comedians, and made a rap video .
The campaign created by Second City Communications launched in May. Lyrics touted the "bounce" of mattresses that combine both coils and foam, insinuating that an overheated foam mattress is not the ideal location for getting frisky.
It's just one part of a growing business for the company known primarily for improv theatre shows (and in Canada, for the classic television program SCTV ). The Communications division has been around for more than a decade, but in recent years, with the growth of YouTube and an expanding demand for "content marketing," the side business is expanding. It's a natural fit for a company that churns out actors who are regularly cast by ad agencies in their commercials. The branded content division now accounts for roughly one-quarter of the entertainment company's revenues, and is expected to account for a much larger proportion in coming years.
"Brands are, frankly, loosening up more," said Steve Johnston, president of Second City Communications. "To perform and stand out on the Web, you have no choice … You can't buy your way into the conversation."
But marketers everywhere are coveting the kind of conversation, especially after the bonanza success that Procter & Gamble's Old Spice enjoyed with its "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign, which used comedy to create a huge amount of buzz on social media sites. In addition to humorous TV commercials, the agency Wieden + Kennedy took its hunky spokesman to YouTube, where he responded to comments on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and other sites in 186 short videos posted online. Sales of Old Spice body wash spiked, proving that a social media campaign done right can have a direct impact on the bottom line.
Just last week, short-form Web content scored highly at the Canadian Marketing Association awards, with metal handed out to campaigns such as BMW Canada's 1M launch, Skittles' bizarre "Touch the Rainbow" videos, and even a parody of the industry's obsession with Web content, " Catvertising," which joked about Toronto's john st. becoming an ad agency entirely dedicated to cat videos.
As a well-known comedy brand, Second City markets itself directly to companies, as well as to their advertising agencies, as a quick and cost-effective solution for building this kind of Web-tailored short content. Business has been picking up: Second City Communications revenues have grown more than 40 per cent over the past two years, and the branded-content business is projected to grow 50 per cent this coming year.
This August, the group mobilized its performers for an "Improv-tastic Road Trip" to help promote the launch of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s 2013 Pathfinder.
The 12-hour improv marathon invited people to send in the kind of audience suggestions that are typical in a classic Second City show – except instead of a live audience, people could send in suggestions through Facebook. The team would then produce a musical video addressed to each person, and posted on the brand's Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Each video was filmed on a set where the Pathfinder was displayed, and the songs wove in lyrics describing features of the car, buffered by enough pure goofing around to keep people watching.
In April 2011, it did something similar for Seattle's Best coffee. Over a period of 24 hours the group made 330 videos, netted 93,371 new Facebook fans for the brand, and generating 4.2-million "impressions" – people that saw parts of the campaign. It was also a creative way to get roughly 40,000 coffee samplers in the hands of customers who registered to try the product.
The Second City unit also helps firms spice up the usually bone-dry internal corporate videos on subjects such as leadership training and ethics and compliance policies. Bank of Nova Scotia is one company that has tapped that side of the business.
And its external marketing deals in both the consumer and business-to-business space, as is the case for Leggett & Platt, which sells components to major mattress makers such as Sealy and Serta. The company had actually attempted Web content before, an online series called " The Virgin Mattress," which Mr. Quinn admits was not a success and struck the wrong tone.
The Second City music video, "Get Hybrid," used a marketing strategy Mr. Quinn had hatched – to talk about foam-encased mattress springs using a term familiar to people from its use in automotive marketing – to help consumers understand the product and to make it seem more cool.
The tone is slightly risqué for Leggett & Platt's usual strategy.
"What a bunch of morons we are in the mattress industry. Everyone in the consumer products space – food, cosmetics, whatever – all use sex to sell their products … we have a mattress. If anybody can connect their product to the act of sex, I'm pretty sure we can," Mr. Quinn said. "How bizarre is it that the entire industry has completely missed that?"
The strategy is working. Leggett & Platt's 2012 sales have seen solid double-digit growth , far outpacing the 16-per cent-growth in the comfort coil category this year, which Mr. Quinn attributes partly to the marketing push. The firm is readying another Second City campaign to launch mid-2013.
The Second City division has other projects already in the pipeline for the new year , as well. It is readying a men's health initiative for a pharmaceutical firm, and ads for cereal and a retail store. In Canada, which has lagged somewhat but is beginning to pick up business, a campaign for a bank is in the works, proving that even the most conservative marketers are looking for a little comic relief. (Second City could not disclose the names of the clients since the campaigns have not launched yet.)
"The Canadian market is really progressing" after an initial lag, Mr. Johnston said. "… If you want a dialogue with your consumers, you have to engage them. It's more of a two-way conversation now."