While viral marketing has been around since the dawn of the internet, the dominance of social media has given whole new levels of power to marketing efforts that "go viral". Given the shared purpose of both concepts, this isn't surprising; at its core, viral marketing is about creating appealing, sharable content and putting it in front of the right audience so that your message becomes shared organically and raises the exposure of your brand.
However, even the most well-intentioned of viral campaigns can sometimes be harmful, especially when the public is invited to contribute.
Therefore, it's vital to understand what constitutes a good approach.
Successful Examples of Viral Marketing
To help illustrate how it should be done, we've compiled a list of nine organisations that have mastered the art of viral marketing. Each of these campaigns hit their mark perfectly, so we've explored why – as well as what your own potential campaigns could learn from them.
Here are our picks:
Old Spice | "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like"
One of the best examples of an effective viral marketing campaign comes from the men's deodorant brand Old Spice. Their "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign debuted in 2010, with the original video racking up 54m views in short order on YouTube.
The campaign mixed humour and was effectively designed to appeal to women rather than men, as the company's market research suggested that women were primarily purchasing aftershaves and colognes on their partners' behalf. More than 200 videos were produced, including custom filmed responses to tweets, and the campaign saw excellent customer engagement. It even revived and reinvented Old Spice as a brand, which had hitherto been perceived as outdated and unfashionable.
Dollar Shave Club | "Our Blades Are F****** Great"
While Old Spice had the luxury of a large marketing budget and brand recognition prior to their viral success, Dollar Shave Club – a subscription-based shaving products startup – is proof that small budgets can achieve wide levels of engagement, too. The company's "Our Blades Are F****** Great" campaign utilised a deliberately provocative message to garner attention, supporting the tagline with an amusing video that cost less than $5,000 to produce.
This budget video was an unbridled success, with the company's website crashing under the weight of more than 12,000 subscribers in under 48 hours following its release. The video now has 26m views on YouTube, with Dollar Shave Club firmly established as both a brand and a serious player in the shaving products sector.
ALS | Ice Bucket Challenge
Viral marketing isn't always profit-oriented; it can also be a great tool for non-profits and charities, too. This was certainly the case with the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, in which participants filmed themselves (or a friend) pouring a bucket of ice water over their head and then challenging three acquaintances to do the same.
Designed as a way to raise awareness and donations for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Motor Neuron Disease), it saw the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Tom Cruise, Bill Gates, and Rihanna getting involved. However, it was the some 17m regular users employing the hashtag and uploading their own videos that really drove the campaign's growth; by the time the ice bucket challenge had sizzled into obscurity, it had helped raise a staggering $115m for charity. The ALS Association reported in 2019 that their annual research funding has also grown by 187% since, crediting the campaign directly.
Always | Like A Girl
A female-focused brand, Always – which produces menstrual hygiene goods – challenged expectations that the phrase "like a girl" should have negative connotations in 2014. It examined the effect such thinking may have on a young woman's confidence, and shared a positive message by utilising child and adult actors to maximise the emotional impact.
This original video quickly went viral, thanks mainly to the inclusion of the #likeagirl hashtag which encouraged female viewers to make their own videos highlighting their abilities. The original video has over 68m views, and is a great example of a campaign designed from the ground up with its target audience in mind.
Dove | Real Beauty
Another viral success that focused on female empowerment was Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign in 2013. It centred around a video that asked women to describe themselves to a sketch artist, and compared the results to a sketch prepared using someone else's description of them.
The campaign encouraged women to value their own worth and beauty, and while the video featured little Dove branding, it succeeded massively in elevating the brand. Named the most-watched video of 2013, it was translated into 25 languages and reached customers in over 110 countries; it now has almost 70m views on YouTube.
International House of Pancakes | IHOB
Viral marketing doesn't necessarily have to be social media oriented. When iconic US restaurant chain International House of Pancakes (IHOP) announced it was changing its name to IHOB and introducing a line of burgers, it made national headlines.
Except the change wasn't real. Although the company committed to the ruse – even going so far as to change the signage on their restaurants temporarily – it was essentially nothing more than a publicity stunt. It was undoubtedly effective, though: the campaign attracted waves of opinion and commentary from observers convinced the change was permanent, with the conversation around the campaign drawing a lot of buzz. It didn't just generate brand awareness, either, with the company quadrupling their sales in the period just after the pretend name change.
Coca-Cola | "Share A Coke"
Even the giants of the advertising industry benefit from a successful viral marketing campaign from time to time. In 2014, Coca-Cola launched "Share A Coke", with the company removing the iconic logo on its bottles and replacing each one with one of the 250 most popular names in the US. They then encouraged customers to find the bottles featuring their own names, as well as those of friends and family members.
The campaign was a massive success, with consumers sharing their finds on social media and generating huge levels of brand engagement online. Indeed, more than 500,000 posts were shared using the #shareacoke hashtag, with Coca-Cola gaining more than 25m new Facebook followers that year.
Pepsi Max | "Test Drive"
In 2013, Pepsi debuted a video called "Test Drive", in which professional NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon – dressed in an elaborate disguise – took a car salesman on a harrowing test drive. Produced in partnership with comedy brand Funny Or Die, it quickly captured the attention of the internet and earned over 43m views on YouTube.
While the link between the video and the product was tenuous – the idea was to promote Pepsi's "Zero Calorie Cola in Disguise" campaign – it garnered attention and enabled the brand to stay relevant. Unfortunately for the beverage giant, however, it then undid all this good work in 2017 through its now-infamous "Live for Now" campaign starring Kendall Jenner.
Red Bull | The Stratos Project
Energy drink giant Red Bull has a long and very successful history of tying its advertising together with extreme sports and athletic endeavours, but it took this relationship to a whole new height – literally – in 2012, when it sponsored Felix Baumgartner's iconic "space jump". Some 7m viewers tuned in live to watch this historic achievement, in which Austrian BASE jumper Baumgartner jumped out of a helium balloon at an altitude of 39,000 metres (generally defined as the "edge" of space).
The event engulfed social media under the #stratos hashtag, and made national news all across the world – ideal exposure for a company whose product claims to "give you wings". A video documenting the journey was released soon after and now has 46m views on YouTube.
Although viral marketing and social media marketing are two different concepts, they are – as many of these examples show – often interlinked. Viral marketing can be an excellent tool for modern entrepreneurs to utilise when trying to reach a new audience quickly, and social media is the perfect platform on which to do this; the level of subsequent consumer interaction and the value of online word of mouth can be a game-changer for your brand.
Of course, on the flip side, there is no way to guarantee what will be successful and what won't in this context; after all, if viral marketing were easy, everybody would be doing it. What you can do, however, is take advantage of social media platforms by creating content that is fresh, unique, and which capture the zeitgeist of your target market. The results might not go viral, but by producing such content, getting it in front of the public, and encouraging interaction with it, you will certainly help build your company's brand.
What do you think? What are some of your favourite viral campaigns? Let us know in the comment section below!