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Viral spirals awareness

Quirky chain profits from YouTube ad


Candle Cannon

The Candle Cannon has blown life into Erbert & Gerbert’s ads.

Most interns' jobs are repetitive, but standing against  a wall and changing T-shirts 150 times seems a bit much.

That's what the advertising firm Colle+McVoy asked intern Jonathan Frahm to do. Illustrations – placed precisely, so they would give the illusion of movement when added together – were ironed onto 150 shirts. Frahm, the model, had to stand in the same precise spot for each of the photos. A task that  required nine hours. 

The result was a low-budget, high-buzz Erbert and Gerbert's video known as "The Human Flipbook." Shown rapidly one after the other, the T-shirts/flipbook form an illustration of a cartoon man floating on a balloon, sailing on a boat and discovering treasure in the form of an Erbert and Gerbert's sub.

The YouTube ad was so successful – it's been viewed at least 1.5 million times – that the Wisconsin-based chain asked for another one to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The ad, which was released in March, depicted a giant air vortex cannon and an anniversary cake with two candles shaped like the number 20.

"A lot of their stores are based on college campuses," said John Neerland, a copywriter with Colle+McVoy who worked on the ads. "It's a community that is tapped into YouTube."

Indeed, the ads should almost be expected from a brand like Erbert's, because it has a quirky personality to begin with. Kevin and Beth Schippers opened the first sub shop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1987, naming it after two time-and-space-travelers invented by Kevin's father.

So-called viral marketing, like the Erbert and Gerbert's videos, has become an increasingly important advertising tool, especially when a company is targeting a particular demographic.

The strategy is word-of-mouth on steroids, a type of marketing that aims to generate buzz between users – so word spreads like a virus. Viral marketing emerged in the 1990s as use of the Internet skyrocketed and has taken on a new life with social Web sites like Facebook, MySpace and the popular YouTube.

The latter is easily the most popular video site on the Internet. According to comScore, a Virginia-based digital tracking company, YouTube and its fellow Google-owned sites accounted for more than a third of the 9.8 billion videos watched in January.

Because their goal is to generate buzz and be spread, they are designed to be outrageous, funny or generate discussion. The online "ads" are not restricted by television's 30-second time slots or, for that matter, censors.

A few franchises have used the strategy effectively – Burger King recently released a series of ads in which it secretly filmed customers being told that the chain had stopped selling the Whopper. 

But Erbert and Gerbert's is not Burger King. It is a modest, 40-unit chain located almost exclusively in the Midwest. Its ad budget is modest and, for much of its history, has been restricted to radio.

Colle+McVoy, which had just finished helping Erbert's redesign its stores and menu to better reflect its quirky personality, told the company it could get some late-night spots for what it was spending on radio. And so the ad guys began thinking about a Human Flipbook.

The ad had its desired effect: Sales at the company's stores grew 5 percent in the quarter, according to Colle+McVoy.

The company's chief executive was pleased, even if, at 41, he didn't quite understand viral marketing. "I'll be quite honest," said Erbert CEO Eric Wolfe, "When they were doing the ad I wondered, 'Where's the food shots? Where's the food at?'" He showed the ad to a group of executives, some of whom thought, "Wow, this is edgy,"  and others who thought, "I don't get it."

The second ad, "Candle Cannon," was designed to mark Erbert's 20th anniversary. It has been viewed 850,000 times.

The online ad has drawn interest from around the world for the small regional chain. "We've had tons of hits in Singapore, Germany and all around North America," Neerland said. "People in Tampa don't know what the subs are like. But they started (by watching) Human Flipbook. It's created a connection. A potential franchisee would see this."

Some of those have been franchisees: Wolfe said he has received leads for potential new franchises because of the ads.

Not surprisingly, it's unlikely that Erbert's will stop at two ads.

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