T-Mobile and the flash mob marketing phenomenon

Over lunch with my son and daughter-in-law last weekend, Paula asked me if I’d seen any of the T-Mobile flash mob videos on YouTube yet, specifically using the name of the company. From a marketing perspective, companies love it when consumers link their ad campaigns so inextricably with a brand name. As the president of Harley-Davidson motorcycles once said: “You know you’ve got brand loyalty when customers tattoo the name of your product right onto their bodies.”

Paula hadn’t merely asked me about flash mob videos in general, but specifically about those T-Mobile ones.  

A flash mob, for those in doubt, is defined as an “unusual and pointless act” in the Oxford Dictionary. Flash mobs usually consist of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who show up together in busy crowded spaces for what looks like an impromptu musical dance performance followed by a total disintegration of massive choreography as soon as the music ends.

Few companies have mastered the flash mob phenomenon like the phone company T-Mobile has done. T-Mobile is the mobile communications subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG, one of the largest telecommunications companies on earth with nearly 120 million customers worldwide.

For a crash course on what a perfectly choreographed flash mob experience looks like, watch this T-Mobile’s “Life is for Sharing” flash mob ad created by the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. The ad, shot at London’s Liverpool Street tube station, was named TV Commercial Of The Year at the British Television Advertising Awards in March.

What makes T-mobile flash mobs so appropriate for a phone company ad are the continuous shots of surprised bystanders taking non-stop pictures with their mobile devices, the spontaneous actions of using a camera phone to share with friends. It’s a near-perfect illustration of how to create a viral marketing Internet buzz from person to person, very different than conventional product advertising aimed at TV viewers or magazine readers. Ads like these create what is called viral traction – the ability to be widely forwarded to millions of other viewers almost instantly.

The origin of the flash mob phenomenon is widely credited to Bill Wasik, senior editor at Harper’s and author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, who claimed that he created the first flash mob in 2003 just as a social experiment in participatory street performance. People living in New York City received e-mail invitations to a mob event, where they interacted with others according to a loose script, and then dissipated just as suddenly as they appeared. It didn’t take long for ad agencies to embrace the event in order to increase brand awareness for their clients.

T-Mobile isn’t the only company to employ viral marketing using the Internet and a street cast (big or small, but big is arguably better!) to build brand awareness.  For example:

  • Sunglass giant Ray-Ban staged its own guerrilla marketing ploy in Manhattan, with “street teams” (decked out in Ray-Ban shades, naturally) standing and gazing skyward at a huge Ray-Ban building wrap.
  • A Los Angeles clothing store was suddenly overrun by hundreds of dancers wearing gold parachute pants and cutting a rug to “Can’t Touch This” (an A&E mobile-marketing ploy to attract attention to its Hammertime documentary about rapper MC Hammer).
  • Samsung starts their mob ad with a cutie-pie little girl doing a jump-around dance in a preschool setting, until she gets more (and more) company

The viral success of these ads means that a number of ad agencies have thus moved from creating mere TV spots to creating experiences that they film, thus raising the bar for all television advertising campaigns. Consider, for example, the iconic Sony Bravia TV ad (an eye-popping fireworks show of 70,000 litres of paint using 1,700 detonators exploding over a group of high rise buildings in Glasgow).

When the musical group Black Eyed Peas, along with 20,000 participants, pulled off a surprise flash mob in downtown Chicago for Oprah’s TV audience last season, the exposure gave the Black Eyed Peas some spectacular airtime on YouTube, followed by a dramatic increase in visitors to their website and social network spaces. Everybody seemed to be talking about (and forwarding) the Chicago video, and talk boosted the group’s airtime on radio and in nightclubs.

It’s almost impossible to beat the potential global reach of flash mob marketing compared to conventional brand awareness advertising strategies.

New monitoring services like Visible Measures can now provide industry standard measurements for these brand-driven Internet video campaigns, including their listing of the Top 10 Viral Video Ads. Their Viral Reach Database collects data from more than 150 video-sharing destinations. It then generates stats on not only how many people have seen a video campaign (and how many times), but also on how they’ve interacted with it via comments, ratings and their own video responses.

Not everybody, of course, loves flash mobs. Last February, the British Transport Police criticized the recent rash of London flash mobs, saying:

“When you get thousands of commuters trying to go home at a very busy station in the middle of rush hour, and then joined by thousands of people who want to dance – that can be a problem!”

PS: Here’s one of my (non-commercial)  favourites: a surprise flash mob chorus of Handel’s Messiah performed for Christmas shoppers in the Welland Seaway Mall food court (near my own hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario).

What do you think?  What’s your favourite flash mob video?

5 thoughts on “T-Mobile and the flash mob marketing phenomenon

    • I love those two as well. Plus another favorite of mine: have you seen the Philippines prisoners doing Michael Jackson? Not technically a flash mob as much as amazing bloc choreography. Amazing.

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