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Oakley’s $41 Million Marketing Experiment

It was a life-and-death drama that bound the globe together—the plight and rescue of 33 Chilean miners during the summer and fall of 2010. Nearly three dozen men, buried more than 2,000 feet underground, trapped for a total of 68 days.

It was one of those stories that was at once completely remote from my life and yet felt extremely close. I could not look at images of the mine on TV, because I imagined myself one of the miners, slowly suffocating beneath the earth’s surface. I felt the powerlessness of the women who were waiting for them. I felt angry for the men forced to work in an exploitive system beyond their control. And I saw G-d in the way they struggled, stayed hopeful and constructive, and were eventually rescued by amazing technology that can only be described as a miracle.

The world, it seems, was as mesmerized as me, watching online and offline with bated breath as the story unfolded. As Mashable reports, the number of people watching this story is staggering:

· 4 million page views of global news stories (aggregated) by 5 p.m. on October 12, the day the news broke that the rescue operation would begin the next day

· 7.1 million viewers of Fox News and 2.7 million of CNN on October 13

· 6.8 million viewers of UK’s The Guardian’s TV coverage and 8 million of its online coverage

· 104,000 Twitter messages per hour containing 1 of the 6 top keywords related to the rescue on October 13 (about the same time that TV viewership peaked)

Of course, no media spectacle is complete without somebody trying to make a buck. I first learned that Oakley had “donated” (read: created a product placement opportunity for itself) sunglasses to the rescue effort when The Wall Street Journal ran a graphic mentioning this. Without knowing anything about it, I recognized the brand implications. But then I dismissed them. Nobody would be so tacky as to exploit this, right? It was innocent, yes? Accidental?

Um, that would be – “Boy, are you naive!”

On October 13, someone Tweeted a link to a CNBC.com article about the donation of the sunglasses. In it, VP of Project Management for Oakley Eric Smallwood explains the meticulous manner in which the company sought to get the most coverage (branding) from its kindness.

They did quite well – getting an estimated $41 million equivalent in advertising time, as CNBC reports.

If only Smallwood had kept his mouth shut. If only he had said, “It’s about the miners, not the money.” But oh, no. The greed was just too great. Instead, he said:

“It’s a goodwill gesture that will turn into mass amounts of exposure for Oakley in a positive manner.”

Lest one think that this was just an accidental spasm of self-congratulation, we are then treated with an inside look at Oakley strategy. Specifically, Smallwood told CNBC, the company:

“took into account the live coverage, the recaps and a rough estimate of the audience watching around the world.”

Boy oh boy. Not only that, but:

“(The) company gets more exposure at night, when there are more people watching and the Oakley “O” comes out more clear.”

Wow. Even The Huffington Post, which normally doesn’t take notice of such things, ran an item that included a poll to ask readers if Oakley’s behavior had been in bad taste.

Oakley, for its part, has a statement online playing it all down.

If I had to guess, my sense of this is that Oakley was walking a fine line and almost succeeded. But somewhere along the way they lost their step. The question is, have they actually damaged their brand instead of adding $41 million dollars to it?

My instinct on this is that in most cases, it’s better to start talking than to run into hiding. No brand has ever been built that way, except perhaps great icon brands who are “elusive” on purpose. Michael Jackson was cool when he wasn’t reachable, until he was really running away to fend off the accusations. Oakley ought to come out, right now, and say, “Hey, we’re capitalists, and we tried to find a win-win here. We were a little greedy. We’re sorry.”

Let the bloggers in and they will forgive you; fight them off and they will call you exploitive forever.

In marketing, and in life, the truth is very often determined by perception rather than reality. There is still time for Oakley to rescue its brand from being tarred with the “greedy capitalist” brush. But the time window is closing.

You know what would really restore the luster of their brand? And I mean really?

Film a commercial with the miners – like “We Are The World.” Donate part of the proceeds to the miners and their families and set up a charitable foundation with the rest. One that is dedicated to promoting safety for mine workers in perpetuity.

I think that would be worth a lot more than the $41 million they think they’ve gotten so far. I’m not sure what their sunglasses-buying audience thinks, but to me I don’t really see it. I mean, what can they possibly say about the donation that is not going to sound exploitive, tacky and cheap? And if they don’t say anything, what will the consumer put into his or her head – that “I must have strong Oakley sunglasses in case I get trapped in a mine and need to be rescued?”

The whole thing is stupid. They haven’t thought it through.

Do something voluntarily with the miners and show how Oakley is not just a product, it’s a cause brand. It’s not just about high-tech eyewear, but protecting ourselves and those we love against the elements. Against any kind of harm.

Volvo did a good job of that for awhile in the car industry. I think Oakley could do something similar.

But first they have to let go of the greed. If they can’t do that, the supposed $41 million advantage could very well collapse to minus zero.

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