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FutureNow Article
Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008

The Brand That Sneezed Its Way to Success and Then…

By Jeff Sexton
October 28th, 2008

Caught a nasty cold.  In an earlier post I challenged readers to come up with a brand that was built within the last 10 years largely upon advertising, and without the benefit of a manifestly superior product or service.

Most people failed by mentioning brands that were built well before the 10-year limit.  But one reader suggested Airborne, and I had to agree that it met the criteria, even if it was the exception that proved the rule.

How so?

Well, first off, Airborne basically invented its own product category.  Emergen-C existed before then but wasn’t widely available outside health food stores, and wasn’t fully marketed as a cold or flu-preventative.  And this new product category made substandard product performance extraordinarily hard to detect for the average consumer.  You took Aiborne and still got sick? Well, you probably didn’t have it nearly as bad as you would have if you hadn’t taken it, right? Or you didn’t take it soon enough, and so on.

Second, Airborne owed more of its rapid growth to a fabulously sticky mythology combined with extraordinary PR than to outright advertising.

The myth is that Airborne was the unique discovery and formulation of a 2nd Grade School Teacher, Victoria Knight-McDowell, and that the demand for the product by friends and local merchants was so great that the product just naturally grew from a home-brewed recipe into a national brand.

If one were to evaluate this story in terms of Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCESS principles, the story is:

Simple – It’s a classic create-a-better-mousetrap-and-achieve-fame-and-fortune story.

Unexpected – A grade school teacher turned entrepreneurial genius and final vanquisher of the common cold? Check that one off.

Concrete – Lots of great details here, ranging from 2nd grader’s notoriously snotty noses to the mental image of the teacher-slash-herbalist cooking up a “super weapon” to combat the common cold.

Credibility – It’s practically a self-made Sinatra test: whose immune systems are more challenged than grade school teachers?  If Airborne works for them, it’ll likely work for anyone, right?  Plus, until ABC News blew their cover, Airborne also had that oh-so-conclusive “scientific” test to back them up.

Emotional – A teacher achieving financial wealth and fame through inventive problem solving definitely has emotional appeal. It’s a modern day Horatio Alger story!

Story – Not only is this a story, it’s one of the most powerful kinds of stories: a creation myth.

Is it any wonder that Victoria’s husband, a successful screenwriter, managed to recognize a great story when he saw one and decided to invest heavily in the company and it’s marketing.

Although Airborne did invest in advertising, it owes far more of it’s growth to Oprah and other great PR than to any traditional ad campaign.

The story behind Airborne made the product an easy pitch to media, and the PR lent the product more credibility than straight advertising ever would have, making the tablets an even hotter commodity.

Yes, Airborne built it’s brand success on the back of marketing, in spite of its rather dubious performance. But, it had no real competitors, and the subjective experience it delivered – as a result of its creation myth and fabulous PR – was more than good enough to allow for continued growth.

In short, if the rule is that a product has to be remarkable for marketing efforts to gain traction, then Airborne is a mediocre product that proves the rule, because what was ultimately marketed was not the unremarkable effervescent tablets, but the remarkably sticky creation story behind them.

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Comments (4)

  1. I’m particularly prone to noticing the emotional part of this whole campaign. I try to believe that I don’t fall for products that have this little tidbit attached.

    But in all honesty I probably do.

    Quality as a metric is something I put a lot of value in. Thought quality isn’t always quality but mostly the appearance of it.

    I fall for it every day and I try to believe that I don’t fall for these things.

    Good article.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tertius,

    I’m right there with you on having a blind spot to pockets of my own irrationality and notional thinking. It reminds me of this quote:

    “When told that man lives in delusion everyone thinks of himself as the exception – hence his delusion” – Vernon Howard

  3. Didn’t airborne get sued into oblivion? Unfortunately their marketing was misleading and false. While the line of truth/myth in advertising has suffered it’s fallbacks, airborne took the “myth” way too far.

    Also, EmergenC is a far superior product IMHO. =)

  4. irrationality While the line of truth/myth in and notional thinking. It reminds me of this quote:Thought quality of value in. blind spot to pockets of my own advertising has suffered it’s fallbacks isn’t always quality but mostly the

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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