What Bros Icing Bros Can Teach Us About Marketing (And Humanity)
Thank god somebody is talking about "icing" from a marketing perspective, because I really wanted to write about this and just wasn't sure how. And by "this," I mean the bizarre game/meme known as icing, as documented by the site Bros Icing Bros. And by "somebody," I mean the New York Times. Earlier this week the NYT's J. David Goodman asked, in the form of an embarrassingly lame headline, "Popular New Drinking Game Raises Question, Who’s ‘Icing’ Whom?" (At least they didn't misuse the phrase "begs the question.")
If you're not a frat boy and you've somehow missed this cultural phenomenon, it consists of one "bro" presenting another "bro" with a Smirnoff Ice, frequently lukewarm, as a kind of dare. To maintain his honor the challenged bro must drop to one knee and chug it on the spot, regardless of context. The only defense (there is one, which is one way icing differs from a crane kick) is to carry a bottle of Smirnoff Ice on your own person. If a bro attempts to ice you and you're holding, said bro must chug both malt beverages.
So who, indeed, is icing whom, besides bros? If you think this sounds like a viral marketing scheme cooked up by Smirnoff, you're not alone. Goodman writes:
Amid suspicion that the trend is an elaborate viral marketing campaign by Smirnoff, which the company has denied, new icing photos are posted daily on various blogs, Twitter and Facebook … The game has exposed the mercurial line between guerrilla advertising and genuine social media trends, raising questions about how young consumers can know when they have co-opted a brand for their own purposes, and when that brand has co-opted them.
Is there any reason to doubt that Smirnoff is behind it? Let's look at the evidence from both sides. A few reasons to believe it's Smirnoff's doing:
- The game is responsible for a huge spike in sales.
- "Icing" has allowed Smirnoff to penetrate a young, male demographic with a beverage that this fratty clientele would typically consider a "chick drink."
- The whole thing seems too wildly contrived to have been conceived by an innocent third party, and then to actually catch on without some backing.
But there is also some evidence that Smirnoff didn't start the trend, whether or not the company is enjoying the benefits:
- Part of the premise of the game is that Smirnoff Ice is gross, so you wouldn't want to chug one. If someone handed you a delicious frosty beverage, drinking it wouldn't be much of a challenge. So even if sales are spiking,"icing" can be seen as a reputation management issue.
- Along the same lines, the game interferes with Smirnoff's "Drink responsibly" messaging.
- There's some evidence that it began organically. The "exact origins are murky" (according to the NYT), but "Members of Pi Kappa Alpha at the College of Charleston said they were the first to put the rules online, posting to BroBible.com in early April." But it's possible that Smirnoff caught wind of the game and helped it spread.
- For what it's worth, Smirnoff denies any involvement. (You'd expect that of course.)
I'm pretty cynical about big corporations, not to mention malt beverages, but I don't feel entirely comfortable ascribing these shenanigans to Smirnoff. They may be racking up sales this summer, but "icing" has the feel of a trend that will die soon and die hard. Then once again a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice will be the last thing left in the cooler after a bad BBQ.
If this is Smirnoff's marketing strategy, it's a pretty dumb strategy—in a few months what people are going to remember is the sickly aftertaste, and the glory and hilarity of making other dudes experience it—not the good times they had sitting around the fire sipping bottle after bottle. This might help Smirnoff Ice become a legend, but in a bad way—as with Zima or Clear Pepsi.
So what are the lessons for marketers? What can we learn from icing, if anything?
- Since the trend is still going on, we don't know yet if Smirnoff will experience a lasting boost in sales. Hell, it's possible that half these "bros" actually like the taste, and are just pretending to hate it. But my prediction is that once the meme plays itself out, sales will crash back down and probably dip lower than before—Ice will feel "so Summer 2010" that no one will be able to bring themselves to buy it, except maybe ironically in a few years, if it still exists by then. So if you're coming up with viral marketing strategies, try to create one that celebrates your product rather than trashes it.
- And if Smirnoff really has nothing to do with it? The lesson is, it's pretty hard to control your brand. The only thing you can really do it try to make products that don't suck.
Note to my coworkers: I am aware that we have a full six-pack of Smirnoff Ice in the fridge here at WordStream, for some reason. Let the record show that I preemptively refuse to drink an Ice, even if iced—they're not gluten-free. Peace.
Other Search Marketing Highlights This Week
Google announced that its new indexing system, Caffeine, is officially complete. They claim that "Caffeine provides 50 percent fresher results for web searches than our last index, and it's the largest collection of web content we've offered," meaning new pages (blog posts, news) will be indexed faster and show up for relevant queries sooner.
Lisa Barone lists 10 books to read or reread this summer, including Don't Make Me Think, Words That Sell, and BBQ Makes Everything Better. (I've now used "BBQ" twice in this post. Wait, make that thrice.)
The aforementioned Lisa wasn't able to live-blog SMX due to an injury, but Susan Esparza live-blogged away at the Bruce Clay blog. Some highlights includes sessions on pumping up PPC conversions, a Q&A between Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts, and how to optimize for Google vs. Bing.
Have a great weekend, all!