The Word of Mouth Marketing

Something really old… derived from a research paper I wrote in first year of FMS (i.e in 2005… so please excuse the hyperbole :)) …

Ford Mustang should have been outsold by the Chevy Camaro, which had more resources and what many consider a better product but Mustang got the word-of-mouth, and outsold Camaro by a wide margin.

Word-of-mouth marketing is the latest term for a phenomenon can make or break a product. In fact as per a May 2001 report from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 67 percent of U.S. consumer-goods sales are influenced by word of mouth.

So if word-of-mouth is so powerful in propelling the growth, it is obvious that all companies would like their products or services to benefit from a positive word-of-mouth. But then why do so few try to orchestrate a campaign to create one?

Probably, because marketers believe that it is a phenomenon they can’t control. But a simple research says otherwise. There are many successful examples of word-of-mouth marketing around the world.

In fact on a careful inspection, all these examples, a common trend is visible. Lets call it ‘9 M’s of Buzz Marketing’. Examples considered for this analysis are both from developed economies like US or Europe and emerging economies like India.

9 M’s of Word of Mouth Marketing

Most of the marketers have tried to follow an unstructured approach to what could have been a very structured and logical procedure for word-of-mouth marketing. Even where some marketers have tried traditional models, they have not been relevant to Word-of-mouth Marketing. Analysis of both successful and unsuccessful word-of-mouth campaigns show that even the 5Ms of advertising, as espoused by Kotler, need certain modifications.


Of course, before embarking upon any campaign, we have to be very clear about our advertising objectives. & of course, the objectives must flow from prior decisions regarding target market, market positioning and marketing mix. In nutshell, Word-of-mouth marketers normally have objective of either informative advertising or persuasive advertising.

Informative advertising intends to create awareness and knowledge about new products or new features of existing products. Mozilla Firefox did educate the net users about the availability of an alternative browser all through word-of-mouth only. Hotmail appended a soft-sell line — “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail” — to every outgoing e-mail from its users.

Persuasive advertising aims at creating liking, preference and, ultimately, purchase of a product or service. There can be three types of propositions that can generate word-of-mouth: rational, logical or self expressive.

  1. Rational word-of-mouth is the word-of-mouth created due to communication of actual logical benefits to the consumers. A few years back when dettol antiseptic was a word-of-mouth in middle class India, it was a word-of-mouth based on rational benefits.
  2. Emotional word-of-mouth titillates the emotional side of human heart. Depicting a mother’s concern for her son’s health created a word-of-mouth for ‘Chawanprash’ in Indian market. It aimed at linking the image of a caring mother with chawanprash.
  3. Self-expressive word-of-mouth hinges on to two aspects of self-image: how a customer sees himself and how others see him. A pulsar rider, probably, depicts an image of a style conscious, forward-looking and modern rider where as a Bullet Electra rider depicts a typically strong, macho personality.


If used in isolation, a successful word-of-mouth marketing campaign requires much lesser money to achieve the same results as compared to traditional marketing but in most of the cases word-of-mouth marketing is used most optimally in combination with traditional advertising techniques. When Tom Cruise used an Apple laptop in Mission Impossible or Kareena Kapoor (A bollywood actress) rode a ‘Hero bicycle’ in Yaadein, it isn’t an accident but a planned ploy to generate word-of-mouth complementing the traditional advertising. This form of ‘complementing word-of-mouth’ requires much larger amount of money to maintain synergy between word-of-mouth and traditional marketing.

Similarly, the desired scale of operation dramatically up scales or down scales our costs. Generating word-of-mouth in the city of New York alone would have been much cheaper rather than whole of USA for Wrigley’s when they sent 4 bubble gums to every residential postal address.

& as is expected higher competition category normally means more effort and money input to ensure effectiveness of your campaign and hence higher costs going in to achieve a desired result.

Come what may, every word-of-mouth has a certain lifetime and fades off after some lean period. How long we wish to continue and revitalize the word-of-mouth for our products, will determine the amount of money and effort we will have to expend. For Perfetti to maintain the word-of-mouth for its Big Babol amongst Indian children, it had to introduce something new and exciting for children every few months like

  1. Picture Story – inside every Big Babol pack (1994 – 96)
  2. Comic books on every stick pack (1997)
  3. Magic Candles (2000)
  4. Lenticular cards (Giga cards) (2004)

And continuing a word-of-mouth like this by inventing does demands a considerable monetary investment.


Before deciding upon word-of-mouth marketing as the most potent tool, we have to consider that word-of-mouth doesn’t necessarily work for each and every product. P&G’s foray into word-of-mouth marketing failed miserably because the stories about daily care products didn’t generate the amount of interest in people minds, as those about Toyota cars would have.

To get some mind space & hence some word of mouth, campaigns have to satisfy some basic criteria.

First, products ripe for word-of-mouth are unique in some respect, be it in look, functionality, ease of use, efficacy, or price. In the case of collapsible scooters, the key word-of-mouth-worthy factors are functionality and ease of use; which other product allows people to dash from place to place on a lightweight, folding device?

If the product can become an object of aspiration, its probability of being successful in generating word-of-mouth for itself increases manifolds. It should have an aspiration value associated with it, which may be either natural or artificially created by rationing the supply. Walt Disney created a huge word-of-mouth when in 1991 it announced that the company would retire certain videos, allowing consumers just a limited time to purchase them. Similarly in Indian Market Kinetic’s Limited edition models of high-end bikes was effort to generate a word-of-mouth for the product by rationing the supply.

Another feature that can take a product on the bestseller lists is its Fashion Statement. Consider funky-colored nail polish, a word-of-mouth-created product, if ever there was one. Mohajer’s homemade concoction created such a stir on the University of Southern California campus that she soon found herself in business. The word-of-mouth then reached a near-excruciating decibel levels when actress Alicia Silverstone gushed about her sky-blue polish on television. In three years, Hard Candy sales hit an estimated $ 30 million.

If products combine two or more of these factors they will form a very strong case for word-of-mouth. Take into consideration the case with Google’s Gmail, which was both a fashion statement and an object of aspiration for people to have. Google created secrecy and exclusivity while initially launching its Gmail account. This exclusivity lent the word-of-mouth to the product.


Customer value is of critical interest to companies, because it determines how much it is worth spending to acquire a particular customer. However, traditional measures of customer value ignore the fact that, in addition to buying products himself/herself, a customer may influence others’ buying decisions also.

Consider case of Tommy Hilfiger, which initially focused on young, urban African-Americans to imprint brand with a street hip ness. The popularity of Hilfiger clothes quickly spread from the inner city to the suburbs, reaching a broad audience of all ethnicities.

To design the word-of-mouth marketing approach for a product, it will be a wise idea to track the path of the word-of-mouth for a similar product that was successful and then seek to replicate that pattern. More sophisticated techniques – attempting to model how consumers interact with one another and how highly they value others as sources of information or as behavioral models – can also be employed.


Message is the heart of word-of-mouth marketing. Message should be successful in generation of conversational value for itself. We can put in millions of dollars and hours of effort but if our message doesn’t inspire a typical ‘canteen conversation’, it has very low chances of being a successful word-of-mouth generator.

The ground rule that is message should be simple and unobtrusive. We should not try to hard sell a particular feature as the entire point of word-of-mouth marketing will be destroyed if we try to do so. An account of effectiveness of simple advertising is Hotmail, the free e-mail service. The start-up company used a fairly simple and easy to remember message — “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail” — with every outgoing e-mail. In its first 18 months of business, Hotmail signed up 12 million people.

But simply being unobtrusive doesn’t generate word-of-mouth for itself. It should have one or more of following characteristics for it to be characterized as a good candidate for word-of-mouth.


If we can get something that is unusual, that has never happened before, that can become talking point of town, the campaign is bound to succeed. During the dot-com bubble, hundreds of brands followed a conventional approach to brand-building i.e. entrusting their budgets to the traditional marketing establishment but ‘’ literally set the bells ringing and put itself on the map by convincing a small town in Oregon to change its name from Halfway to, Oregon.


If the message can generate curiosity among the users, its effectiveness is established. Sony promoted the new serial, `Jassi,’ through `flash mobs’, wherein groups of 15-30 people went into high-traffic areas such as Big Bazaar and Apna Bazaar called out for `Jassi’, and through groups of women on the train who struck up seemingly impromptu conversations about `Jassi’.

Similarly, Electronic Arts used this curiosity factor to a great advantage. A beautiful woman approaches a patron and whispers in his ear, “Save me.” She slips a business card into his pocket and walks out. On the card is a phone number. Not hers, but one for an information line about Electronic Art’s new online suspense-thriller game called Majestic.


If our message can get people emotive about the product, we can smell success. A striking example is how Star Network established itself in India through the serials ‘Kahani ghar ghar ki’ and ‘Kyunki sas bhi labhi bahu thi’ using this factor. These serials generated a huge word-of-mouth because they tickled the Indian family values and led Indian women to identify themselves with the characters in the serials. These serials became regular talking points in women gatherings to the point of mad craze and hence pushed up Star Network to be the number one channel from being a distant third.


Normally it’s difficult to create word-of-mouth for taboo subjects but some companies have succeeded by discussing these taboo subjects in a creative manner. The most obvious case is Viagra, which has become one of the most talked-about prescription medications ever. Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, faced an uphill battle when trying to generate word-of-mouth for its breakthrough drug, because impotence was a taboo subject. But by popularizing the medical terms “erectile dysfunction” and “ED,” the company transformed the ‘un-discuss-able’ into fodder for the bedroom and backyard alike.

Entertainment value

Entertainment, too, provides a positive fodder for word-of-mouth generation. The publicity of the product can go under the garb of the entertainment value of something associated with the product. Lufthansa, for example, announced the launch of Tick-e-Tee, a virtual golf tournament on its website (www.

Similarly, Reckitt Benckiser used comedians in its stores in US to start about a word-of-mouth for its potato sticks that were continuously losing sales. This model has been followed regularly by many companies worldwide (including India) to target various segments of people, primarily kids.

Entertainment value was the thinking behind a recent San Miguel Light campaign, Stickers with images of Sammy, the beer’s rebellious mascot, were handed out to people aged 18-25. The idea was to stamp the stickers, reading “Kick Me,” onto their unsuspecting friends’ backs.


Messenger plays a very important role in defining the line between the success and failure of word-of-mouth marketing. The message can be great but if the messenger is not credible or fails to register an impression, the probability of word-of-mouth generation again is very low. The desirable characteristics –


Credibility is an extremely important factor in word-of-mouth generation. In fact, even behind parity and attention catching ability, it is the credibility of the messenger that consumers put in the messenger that comes out to be main factor. Till few years back, customers would have chosen Bajaj Chetak scooter as their first choice as they got the reference from the most trusted sources – their family and friends.

Birla Cement has successfully used retired ‘overseers’ to create a word-of-mouth for its brands, parking them at local ‘haat’s where people ask them for relevant tips. Retired ‘overseers’, become reference points for people in the villages. It is credibility of these overseers that attracts people to these ‘haat’s.


Probably, this is one of the most ignored factors while selecting a messenger. If the messenger has got some sort of parity with the ultimate consumer, the message will be passed much more strongly. Consider Sony Erickson and its introductory campaign for the T68i cell phone. The company hired paid performers who asked passersby to take their picture with the company’s new T68i cell phone that offers an add-on digital camera. Pokemon cards and WWF cards spread through out India like a craze as children are influenced by messengers, who are closest to them in distance and characteristics: the other children

Similar was the case was with ‘palm top’ word-of-mouth. Whenever the officials saw other executives using the Palm Tops in their meetings, while they were still stuck with traditional paper, the effect created a greater word-of-mouth than say a celebrity using the palm top would have generated.

Visibility / Attention catching ability:

If we can get a well known celebrity to pass over a message in rather modest way, it can have a snow balling effect. Tickle Me Elmo became the best-selling toy of the 1996 Christmas season in the United States after Rosie O’Donnell played with the doll on her daytime talk show. A public relations agency had cleverly engineered this runaway success by sending an Elmo to O’Donnell’s son.

We have to identify early adopters, who commonly try to convert others, and make them part of a community of customers. This gives the customers, a sense of exclusivity and belonging ness to the brand. Harley-Davidson did this by tapping into the fervent loyalty of its customers by establishing and sponsoring the Harley Owners Group, or HOG, and relying on extensive word-of-mouth to rebuild its brand.

Similar case is with using opinion leaders within a community to get a product rolling in Indian Rural Market. When Mahindra Farm Equipment launched its Mahindra Super Turbo 595DI tractor, It gave test rides and sold the product to opinion leaders, who used tractors over considerable periods of time.


Media for word-of-mouth marketing has taken many innovative forms and with the advent of internet, the choice and effectiveness have virtually increased by an infinite scale.

Social gatherings

The basic idea of word-of-mouth marketing is to create awareness about the product by facilitating conversation between people. Social gatherings is one way. This was the idea followed by Tupperware. Selling a line of kitchen containers without advertising and even without distribution? The answer: Have women hold parties and talk about them to their friends.


Email is the fastest way for a word-of-mouth to spread. Ford used this medium to generate word-of-mouth for its Ford Mondeo car. It got a flash clip coded by Satyam Infoway, where users can see and move the car in 3-D platform and can see it from all the possible angles. This mail was forwarded to thousands of users, not only in India but abroad also.

Sunday, a Hong Kong mobile network operator, tried a more up market approach with Eva, a virtual girl looking for love. Registered Sunday users received e-mails from Eva, asking them to meet her in Sunday’s chat-room.


E-Diaries/Blogs are online web diaries and can be very influential tools on web word-of-mouth generation. Normally these are maintained by people who are considered masters of their fields and people tend to benefit from their day-to-day experiences. Mention of your product in a highly visible blog can create a favourable word-of-mouth.

Dot-com companies like & have built their entire businesses and web sites around customer word of mouth: consumers rate and review products, and the results are tallied for prospective shoppers to view. Such forums, as well as the past successes of word-of-mouth marketing, are themselves generating word-of-mouth about the growing power of customer hype. Indeed, companies that are unable to control word-of-mouth may soon find the phenomenon controlling them.

News groups

News groups are another medium that can be used to generate word-of-mouth for our product. Normally, news has a much larger effect on consumers than plain bland advertisements. It has been a norm for companies to place their agents to generate favourable news for the product. The most glaring and recent example in this case is success of Mozilla’s Firefox against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Mozilla created a web platform to mobilize the firefox users to help spread word about mozilla. These users posted stories about mozilla in many news groups and soon the strategy paid off when many leading news papers covered the emergence of mozilla.


Good planning and control requires an effective measurement strategy. Word-of-mouth marketing has always been considered as something highly ideological and the normal belief is that their can be no sound and effective measurement technique for word-of-mouth effectiveness. Of course, traditional approaches have been applied to measure its effectiveness but a striking example of how wrong the traditional measurement can go, is illustrated by 2003 MTV video Music Awards in the US. The aim was to get more people talking about MTV. The year before 12 million U.S. viewers watched the Video Music Awards against 10.7 million people in 2003. One would judge the 2003 program as falling short in building the brand. But anyone tracking U.S. media coverage of the 2003 event certainly recalls the open-mouth kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears that got the whole country talking. In addition to the word-of-mouth generated by water cooler conversations, the news media writing about what happened created a GMI (gusher of media impressions) for the MTV Music Awards far beyond the reduced GRP total. Over 100 million news media impressions were generated for MTV as a result of that one tantalizing moment.

So it is very clear that traditional methods alone are not adequate when it comes to measurement of effectiveness of word-of-mouth marketing. A term popularized by Mark Hughes has been to use MIRP i.e. Media Impressions beyond Rating Points

Now, if we apply MIRP factor to MTV example, MIRP ratio comes out to be 934%. Using the traditional metric of rating points, the marketing of MTV’s Video Music Awards was a disappointment. But when measured in MIRP (934% MIRP factor) you see the phenomenal total impact on the MTV brand (110+ million impressions vs. 10.7 million viewers).


Last but not the least; a marketer has to take care of potential negative effects of word-of-mouth marketing too. One has to take care that the word-of-mouth generation doesn’t go out of ethical boundaries. Some companies like VESPA hired male and female models to hang out on scooters outside cafes and nightclubs in the hope of someone walking by and asking about the stylish scooter. This was an example of manipulative advertisement which sometimes, does cross the ethical lines.

There are times when customers see through the manipulation and deception. This was exactly what happened with Sony. First, it turned out that Sony had fabricated quotes from a fictitious film critic praising movies such as Vertical Limit and The Animal. Soon after, two supposed moviegoers who gushed about The Patriot in Sony commercials were unmasked as studio employees.

And with rising resistance of users towards undesirable advertising methods marketers have to take into consideration proper media to deliver their message in a rather inconspicuous way and without compromising their privacy.

Similarly, a negative word of mouth can do much more damage than can ever be imagined. The reasons of generation of negative word of mouth have to be diagnosed very fast and proper communication via either traditional advertising or any other media has to be done. Let’s not forget the most recent example of “Yours is a very bad hotel,” a PowerPoint presentation developed by two disgruntled travelers that was initially forwarded to five friends but since then has been passed around on the Internet to an estimated million people.

Similarly, a company has to think of congruence among the generated word-of-mouth, the culture of country and image of the company. This was exactly what didn’t happen in case of A&F who promoted t-shirts with a risky racial slant in US (example: Two oriental men accompanied by the slogan “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wong’s Can Make It White”). The offense prompted protests, complaining phone calls and e-mails forcing the t-shirt line to be pulled out of market. This was followed by a corporate apology.

So finally, are we convinced – Word-of-mouth Marketing needs a shift of tactics and thinking on the part of marketing executives. With customer’s increasing indifference to traditional advertising, marketers can no longer afford to force and feed the information about their product to the customers as was done earlier.

Dettol Cool – Where does it fit in overall positioning matrix

Dettol… So what does your marketing hat say!! Is it Germ Protection or does it sound as Health Soap or may be Everyday Protection … of course, what else… it has been the Protection against disease causing germs since ages. And you are not alone as million other marketers would think same.

Now what if u are Brand Manager for Dettol for a day and have to decide on a new soap variant. Ok… well… lets have some time to think… what fits with the existing brand message… (They have already launched a skincare variant… not much chance there)

Huge dilemma… right…

Lets see what Dettol actually did… What about a freshness soap… A lot of us might not agree with launching a freshness soap to take on the likes of Liril and Cinthol… Why? ask yourself, how does Dettol Cool sound… Dettol is not cool… Dettol is reliable but it’s not cool… From pure Marketing theory view, this would be a long term failure. But then test market results were very surprising and four months later this soap with a promise of Freshness with protection of Dettol is a big success across India. In fact the numbers put its sales as a significant percentage of Dettol Original soap in the many outlets.

Is this a phenomena that will change the philosophy of marketing… or is it just an over extension that is an exception to the conventional marketing thinking… or yet further, it’s just an initial success and Dettol Cool wouldn’t be able to maintain its success in future.

Let’s get some perspectives. Well here is what Dr. H V Verma, Senior Marketing Professor, FMS Delhi thinks:

“An extension in a product category like soap characterized by diminished real product differentiation, rampant switching and search for something new and ‘exciting’ may have contributed to unexpected high initial sales. Also there is a great possibility of parent brand cannibalization. So it requires serious statistical analysis to find out the real source of sales the new extension has generated.”

But what does Dettol Brand Manager, Mr. Vikram Datta, who himself is an MBA from IIMB and had an extensive experience at Colgate Palmolive before taking over the reins of Dettol has to say about this move. He first clears the clouds over the source of cool soap sales:

”Source of business for cool soap has mainly been from health and herbal soaps … little cannibalization… approx 10% of cool soap volume sourced from Dettol original and Dettol skincare.”

But Mr. Verma has much more to offer when it comes to branding:

“This move is not new. Many strong brands have gone this way to eventually weaken the parent brand by going overboard on extensions. There are two possible ways moves of this kind may hurt the parent brand in the long run:

First is by creating brand dilution; That means when many inconsistent concepts start hanging on the name, the focus is sacrificed in favor of breadth. The parent brand begins to lose its core value proposition and meaning. Second is brand confusion. This implies haze that surrounds in the mind of customer”

Liril once being a very strong brand with core essence of ‘freshness’ lost ground precisely by line extensions like menthol, cologne, ice blue etc. Also Cinthol was once a strong soap with clear positioning ‘with ingredients that fight odor causing bacteria’. Later the brand suffered when it tried to fight Liril by launching variants that copied Liril’s core ‘freshness and lime’ position.

So ask your self do you want Dettol to be cool? You may want effective bath or you may want cool experience. Probably not both at the same time.”

Well that sounded convincing… probably most of us would have decided by now that this move is a wrong move and is going to take Dettol nowhere in long run. But Dettol Brand manager, Mr Datta, has his own logic:

“This move adds a new dimension to the already entrenched notion of protection…. Variant differentiation is key … The Cinthol and Liril soap extensions failed as they were not sufficiently diffentiated. This is not the case with Dettol Cool.

The key to success for an LX (line extension) lies in leveraging the core brand proposition to present it in a new light to the consumer. Here it’s important to upfront the “new news” – in this case cool refreshing sensation, since a freshness consumer would not compromise on the freshness aspect, protection being an add-on for her. Also, one needs to sufficiently differentiate the LX from the base brand – both for getting new users as well as enhancing consumption among current base brand users. Finally, while the LX does take the equity from the parent brand, it should also give back in terms of enriching the overall brand imagery.”

So who wins the argument finally. A little chance for conventional thinking; a small chance for innovative thinking… a major chance for a stalemate … Dettol Cool may become a major success and it may go into arena as yet another revolution that forced us to add another dimension to the basic laws of marketing … or… it might end up just being another entry into the huge encyclopedia of marketing failures … only time can tell. Best of luck to both parties till then.

Edit – Above was first posted on 7 September, 2006 … Dettol Cool has since become a major NPD success for RB

Update – April 11, 2007 … I found this statement on internet from a Reckitt Benckiser Guy

Parents of western teenagers won’t believe this, but Eastern teens actually shower a lot. It’s their response to the humid conditions. Unfortunately for us, though, they didn’t feel that Dettol was for them.

Our response was to launch Dettol Cool, a variant with menthol to cool the skin.

The advertising, featuring youths playing volleyball, made clear that it was a brand for active teens. They were certainly active in the shops. After just a couple of months, Dettol Cool grabbed a cool 30% of our shower foam sales.

Nick Horn – Category Director, Germ Protection