At first glance, Auckland, NZ-based 42 Below vodka is a classic success story in the premium beverage industry. The company's rapid growth has been accomplished through "viral marketing," or using person-to-person selling without the originator's involvement, through the use of web-based postcards, text messages promoting company events, and "virals" (online videos). In doing so, however, the company has also engendered controversy over its ads and executive statements. The author of this article argues that the company's decision to be "irreverent and reverent at the same time" might reflect a need for communication researchers and practitioners to examine the paradigm of corporate social responsibility, and more specifically, the theoretical frameworks of image restoration and relationship management in public relations. This is because in 42 Below's case, the company--rather than apologizing or bolstering its image with offended publics--has aggressively countered public controversy and criticism with a vengeance in what critics consider a socially-irresponsible corporate fashion.
This is a story of Pink Dollars, Russian brides, fake blogs, and online wars. The story features a company that breaks the rules of image and relationship management, and doesn't "give a toss" about the consequences; of the praxis of public perceptions and public relations; and a look into a place where corporate social responsibility is not only honored, it is blatantly disregarded. This is the 42 Below story.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF 42 BELOW VODKA
42 Below premium vodka was the idea of Geoff Ross, its CEO and founder (and a former director at Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand). Working out of his garage, Ross developed a 42-proof high-quality vodka with sales that have risen from 60 cases total in New Zealand in June, 2002 to more than 120,000 cases of product per year worldwide (O'Brien 2004; Young 2003). Featured in trendy clubs from the Soho House in New York to London's The Ritz, the company has now added "typical New Zealand" flavors, such as passion fruit, feijoa, manuka honey, and of course, kiwifruit, to its original product line, as well as its 42 South gin (Todd 2005).
42 Below is considered by many to be an extremely successful venture. The 42 Below line has been recognized for its "staunch Kiwiness" (Young 2003: 22) in terms of both its purity and its corporate "attitude." Our interest in this article, however, is not just in the company's products or even its success, so much as in its public relations strategies--and its rulebreaking.
42 BELOW'S USE OF VIRAL MARKETING TO REACH ITS PUBLICS
42 Below's promotional strategies fall under the category of viral marketing. Also referred to as "brand in the hand" marketing when it happens via mobile devices (Sultan & Rohm 2005) viral marketing is summarized by Chan (2006) as "taking advantage of existing social networks to spread a message". Pete Brown, the founder of the online archive
True viral marketing differs from word-of-mouth in that the value of the virus to the original consumer is directly related to the number of other users it attracts. That is, the originator of each branch of the virus has a unique and vested interest in recruiting people to the network (cited in Phelps, Lewis, Mobilio, Perry & Raman 2004: 333). Phelps et al. (2004) concur: "Consumers often hit the delete key when they know the message is from a marketer. They are much more reluctant to delete a message from a person they know" (p. 334). Sultan & Rohm (2005) give a second key explanation for viral marketing's impact by comparing less interactive or "lean-back" communication (print advertising, television viewing, radio spots) with corporate messages that are more interactive (and, by extension, more memorable) when sent via "lean-forward" online and mobile media.
Laue (2006) claims viral marketing got its start about a decade ago when Hotmail began appending a brief message to the end of every e-mail sent through the system, offering the reader a free Hotmail account. Other authors identify the introduction of the actual term viral marketing as having occurred first in 1997 (Phelps et al. 2004). Dick Musil, director of marketing at Omaha's Oxide Design, explains that the "clever and hip" tactics of viral marketing (Internet video clips, share-with-a-friend buttons on websites) are especially appealing to consumers under 30 (quoted in Laue 2006).
Even the respected London School of Economics has studied the outreach of the viral marketing phenomenon. They report that the results of a 2004 UK survey showed 86% of respondents forward emails to friends, and another 45% had forwarded mobile text, pictures, or video messages ("Viral Marketing: Pass it on" 2006). Another study identifies more than 40% of cell phone users worldwide as actively accessing messaging, games, and news content (increasing more than fourfold from 2003 to 2004), indicating that viral marketing has penetration both on and offline (Kearney 2004, cited in Sultan & Rohm 2005). Mainstream companies such as Sony, Proctor & Gamble, Lynx, and Molson Canada are following the trend and launching major viral marketing campaigns ("Viral Marketing: Catching on" 2006; Daniels 2002).
In using viral marketing strategies to introduce 42 Below's initial product line both domestically and internationally, the company trained young, "hip" staff members (sometimes referred to as "mobile promoters" in marketing) to serve as mixologists and "manic street preachers" (Young 2003: 22). The company collected emails and cell phone numbers from interested young event attendees to rep the product further at the world's 100 most cutting-edge bars through competitions such as its controversial Vodka University (http://www.42below.co.nz/). 42 Below also employed viral marketing by using mobile communication to contact event participants, capitalizing on a grassroots approach and clever, satirical online videos to increase awareness of the product and brand.
As PR writer Mitch Arnowitz (2005) has observed, even though these kinds of viral strategies can result in some corporate loss of control over the nature of the messages being disseminated, the strategy can "galvanize passionate supporters who are empowered to share that message" (p. 1). The combined appeal of a high-status, high-alcohol content premium vodka with the "exclusivity" associated with the product through tastings and mixologist competitions has proven popular with young clubgoers in New Zealand as well as internationally.
THE CONTROVERSY OVER 42 BELOW'S CORPORATE MESSAGES
The controversy over 42 Below, however, has nothing to do with the product and everything to do with the viral marketing strategies promoting its online corporate messages. The company website at received criticism early on that has continued to the present day. New Zealand consumers protested to the national Advertising Standards Complaints Board in early 2003 about...