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September 2009, Issue 508
How a meerkat became a social media hero, creating a cult brand
There's a new cult advertising hero in town, breaking hearts and smashing business targets.
His name is Aleksandr Orlov and he is an entrepreneur from Moscow. In his mid-40s, about
two-and-a-half feet tall, he is highly opinionated and very furry.
That's because he is a meerkat – or, to be precise, a 'business-meerkat' – the founder of
CompareTheMeerkat.com, the world's premier meerkat comparison website. Key in a few details,
such as the size of meerkat you are looking for, your hobbies and your preferred meerkat
location, and you're away.
Aleksandr, Sergei (his trusty IT manager) and the integrated team at VCCP have built a
website, developed innovative social media platforms and launched a database containing thousands of different meerkats.
Aleksandr is adamant that everyone should be able to find their ideal meerkat. Since CompareTheMeerkat.com launched at the start of
2009, over five million people have compared meerkats, over half a million have become fans of Aleksandr Orlov on Facebook, and he has
been heralded as a modern communications visionary for his integrated, innovative use of digital and social media platforms.
If you are not from the UK, or have not seen any CompareTheMeerkat.com content online, you might be forgiven for being confused. A
talking Russian business meerkat? A meerkat comparison website? What's going on? The best place to start is
http://www.comparethemeerkat.com/. But before you read on, go to the site, have a look at Aleksandr's TV ads (and the very funny TV out-
takes) and compare some meerkats for yourself – see if you can find the right meerkat for you. Remember to keep the sound up on your
computer. Hopefully, it should start to make a bit of sense.
You will see that, although Aleksandr Orlov is a very successful business meerkat, he is not happy. In fact, he is becoming rather angry.
The bane of Aleksandr's life is a company called CompareTheMarket.com, a UK-based insurance price comparison website. The problem is that
its name sounds very much like that of Aleksandr's site, so people come to his website wanting to compare cheap car insurance instead of
wanting to compare meerkats. It is taking up his time and valuable band-width and distracting him from his everyday business.
Aleksandr has decided to launch an advertising campaign to clear up the 'meerkat/market' confusion once and for all. You see, it is really
quite simple. Or, as Aleksandr would say, 'simples'.
Let me take a step back and explain the thinking behind this very different approach to an integrated advertising campaign. It embraces a
way of planning and a multi-layered way of cross-disciplinary working, influenced by UGC and user interaction, that will become the norm
in the post-digital age.
The insurance comparison market in the UK is notoriously crowded, competitive and undifferentiated. It's also a very low interest category,
even though you could save hundreds of pounds on insurance costs by switching providers. So, when CompareTheMarket.com asked us to
re-pitch for its advertising account, it was seen as a tough brief.
We were issued with a clear-minded objective: develop a new advertising campaign that shakes up the insurance comparison sector,
delivers outstanding business results to CompareTheMarket.com, and do it on a more efficient media budget than the competition. Where
do you begin planning on a brief like this?
VCCP's planning process started with an insight about the way people use Google. The majority find a price comparison site through
Google, so it was essential to think about the key words they were typing in if we wanted them to come to CompareTheMarket.com, rather
than any of its competitors.
The brief to the creative team was about brand name salience, ensuring that the phrase CompareTheMarket.com was front of mind, and to
make the word 'market' famous as many other companies used the word 'compare' in their brand names. The price of key search terms
also drove our strategy. So it is entirely correct to state that CompareTheMeerkat.com was a Google-led creative strategy.
2. When the initial 'Meerkat' script was presented internally, people seemed to be equally divided as to whether it was genius or sheer
buffoonery. With hindsight, it was probably a bit of both, but what was undoubtedly true was that the approach was original, funny and got
everyone in the agency talking. It seemed to break every category rule. Could this be the stand-out creative idea that generated real
fame, lovability and business results for an insurance comparison website?
BREAKING THE NORMS
From the first time the CompareTheMeerkat.com concept was exposed to consumers in focus groups, we knew we were on to a winner.
People were laughing out loud and clapping. It was clear this idea was something that totally broke the expected category norms and
connected with people on a very human and genuine level. They understood the meerkat/market distinction and it prompted a lot of great
CompareTheMarket.com was suddenly seen in a new and positive light. Here was a company that was prepared to have a bit of fun and
laugh at itself. The fact that CompareTheMarket.com was the company supporting comparethemeerkat.com delighted the groups.
Perhaps the global financial meltdown and pending ecological disaster has left people looking for a bit of light relief and escapism, creating
an appetite for entertaining, feel-good advertising. Aleksandr Orlov and his meerkat comparison business certainly fitted the bill. A wise
man of advertising once said: “You can't bore someone into buying your product.” Aleksandr could not agree more.
Credit where credit's due. It's one thing for an agency to develop a creative idea like this; it is entirely another thing for a client to buy it.
Imagine the pitch: “We would like you to fund an advertising campaign that actively promotes another comparison website, not your own.
Oh, and by the way, we'd like you to pay us to build that other website. And did we mention that you compare meerkats on this new site?
“But people need to be able to compare thousands of meerkats for this idea to really work. The main character of the advertising campaign
is a meerkat called Aleksandr, who hates your car insurance website and tells everyone how angry your site makes him.
“In our opinion, the best way to bring this meerkat character to life is on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, so we will
need you to move money out of your TV spend to put into social media.”
This is what is commonly referred to as a 'big ask'. To CompareTheMarket.com's eternal credit, although it may well have thought the
agency was crazy, it listened and awarded VCCP the account.
CompareTheMarket.com has embraced a totally integrated and symbiotic communications plan that links together above-the-line media
(mainly TV and radio), digital (CompareTheMeerkat.com and search) and social media (Twitter.com/Aleksandr_Orlov and
The introduction in the campaign’s second execution of bespectacled IT
manager Sergei was heralded by posts from Aleksandr on Twitter and Facebook
Each communications platform has been considered and used for a specific purpose within the advertising campaign strategy. Traditional
communication gives mass reach and awareness, developing the lovable character of Aleksandr. TV advertising was the catalyst, without
which the other components would not have worked as effectively.
The digital focus was spent on developing Aleksandr's official comparison website, CompareTheMeerkat.com, and ensuring that
engagement levels were high. In social media, our efforts were spent around conversations. For the CompareTheMeerkat.com campaign,
social media was the perfect platform for Aleksandr to develop conversational relationships with his fans. We wanted people to be able to
ask him questions, share content and to talk directly to him.
3. You could use the analogy of an iceberg: think of the TV advertising as the part that everyone can see, whereas the social media
components are the part that is underwater. You have to look for them, however, as they are all part of the same narrative structure. This
approach to social media seems to have paid off for CompareTheMarket.com.
Aleksandr Orlov has become the UK's first branded social media superstar. We spent a lot of time planning the social media components of
the campaign, developing the fan page on Facebook so that people could see Aleksandr's exclusive content, upload their thoughts and
content and also chat to each other.
It was important to us that this was an active community of fans – new content gets uploaded regularly, and discussions are added to and
developed. There are now over half a million CompareTheMeerkat.com fans on Facebook, making it the most popular branded fan site in
the UK (Aleksandr's closest rival is Marmite, with 238,000 fans).
But it's not just in the world of brands that Aleksandr is outstripping his rivals. He is proving even more popular than real-world celebrities.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that Aleksandr Orlov is more popular than football superstar Wayne Rooney and Girls Aloud
singer Cheryl Cole combined.
The numbers of people who have chosen to participate in Aleksandr's world are unprecedented, but the depth of engagement also took us
by surprise. His Facebook followers are active fans, deeply involved in his life and his relentless struggle to tell people the difference
between CompareTheMarket.com and CompareTheMeerkat.com.
They have created and uploaded almost 1,000 meerkat-inspired photos, left 8,370 wall posts and watched his videos 169,859 times.
Aleksandr has received 311 offers of marriage, 256 offers of adoption, and there are at least 20 active petitions from fans demanding
Aleksandr merchandise – toys, ringtones and iPhone meerkat comparison applications. There is also a popular discussion board on which
one topic is whether Aleksandr could be persuaded to stand for Prime Minister in the UK.
This popularity is not just confined to Facebook. Aleksandr is being followed by almost 21,000 people on Twitter. This number of followers
to a branded advertising campaign is unprecedented. To put it into context, Vinnie, the Fox's Biscuit panda character, is followed by 643,
while Anchor Butter's Maude The Cow is followed by 1,038. Marketing magazine/JCPR recently developed a Twitter influence model and
discovered that Aleksandr is more influential on Twitter than London Mayor Boris Johnson and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The campaign is ongoing, but this new approach to marketing the car insurance category seems to be paying off for the client. In the first
five months, we have seen a 100% increase in traffic to CompareTheMarket.com. Cost-per-visit has reduced by 75%. We have also seen a
100% increase in insurance quotes. Market share has tripled and 5.5 million people have visited CompareTheMeerket.com, of which 21%
go through to CompareTheMarket.com. Softer metrics, such as spontaneous brand awareness, have seen the brand rise from fourth to
first in the sector.
We monitored social media conversations about car insurance before the campaign broke and found that 15% were about
CompareTheMarket.com. Now, the firm accounts for 55% of UK conversations about car insurance. We have also seen our competitors
change their search strategy. They are now actively targeting the keyword 'meerkat'. One wonders how much money they are spending to
target meerkat enthusiasts, rather than people looking for car insurance.
EFFECT ON EMPLOYEES
The effect of the campaign's success has been felt within the CompareTheMarket.com organisation and by its employees. We have been
told, anecdotally, that job applications have leapt up and staff morale is at an all-time high. One employee said: “When I used to tell people
in the pub what I do for a living – that I worked for an insurance comparison website – their eyes would glaze over with boredom. Now, all
they want to talk about is how much they and their family love Aleksandr the meerkat.”
The planning and strategy that goes into developing an idea like this is very different from traditional above-the-line campaign planning.
CompareTheMeerkat.com is a good example of modern 'trans-media planning'. The idea at the heart of the campaign is totally consistent,
but we have used dispersed fragments of the brand narratives across multiple platforms to tell the story.
It is more akin to the way in which a film or TV show might think about communicating – a layered narrative approach, rather than a
linear, campaign-led one. Ideas and characters are introduced in social media environments and later referenced or brought to life in
above-the-line media. The integrated brand narrative is punctuated by 30-second TV spots, but these are not the main story.
We believe the best advertising ideas help to populate pop culture and lead to creative campaigns that people can participate in. At VCCP,
we call these 'unlimited creative ideas'. We use three questions to stress-test our campaigns to see if they are truly 'unlimited': 'why would
I talk/blog/tweet about this idea?'; 'what makes this idea interesting and spreadable?'; and 'how can I participate in this idea, and where
does it go to in six months' or 12 months' time?'.
CompareTheMarket/Meerkat is a funny, original and unexpected campaign, and we all enjoy talking about things that amuse us. The
meerkat is something people want to talk about in the pub or at home with the kids. We have given people catchphrases to repeat, jingles
to sing and websites to engage with.
A vital test of whether a creative idea is truly 'unlimited' centres around participation. CompareTheMeerkat.com hinges on people getting
involved and spreading the message for us. Through social media, we have launched a number of conversation catalysts – ranging from
exclusive content to asking open-ended questions, such as what new types of meerkats to have on the database.
People were asking on social media platforms about the other meerkats that Aleksandr worked with. When we developed the character of
the IT manager, Sergei, for the second creative execution, we got Aleksandr to tweet about him and post about him on Facebook three
4. weeks before the new TV execution broke. This generated a frenzy of excitement online – so much so that, when we seeded the new ad
online before it aired on TV, the traffic to the website almost crashed the servers.
We listen to all suggestions made about the future direction of the campaign and digital and social media content and functionality, such as
mobile phone ringtones and new meerkats. This is a new type of advertising campaign that everyone can be a part of. In fact, we have
even used a number of real-life fans on Aleksandr's testimonial page on CompareTheMeerkat.com.
Some agencies have separate above-the-line creative teams, digital creative teams and social media teams. We don't buy into that kind of
creative separation. Aleksandr Orlov is lovingly written by one creative team, whether it's a TV script, a Facebook post or a 140-character-
long tweet. It takes a lot of time and a huge amount of effort, but we think it is worth it for the people who choose to engage with Aleks at
a deeper, more participative level than a TV ad. The level of integration around this campaign would make it very difficult to run it in any
It is important to clear up a number of Aleksandr Orlov and CompareTheMeerkat issues. This work was not designed to be a social media
campaign, but we believe it will be the social media case study of the year. It was not designed to be a viral campaign, but it has gone viral
in a very successful way. It is also not a digital idea, although the campaign would fall flat without CompareTheMeerkat.com. It should not
be possible to separate the message from the medium.
The separate campaign elements can work in isolation, but they were designed to work seamlessly together and to deepen and enrich the
campaign idea. The campaign narrative was constructed to tell an engaging and participative story that made the best use of multiple
platforms. We aimed to encourage participation and conversation, with the belief that business and brand results would follow. The results
that this campaign has achieved are far more than we could have hoped for.
One happy meerkat. One happy agency. Lots of car insurance quotes. Lots of happy clients. Simples.
Amelia Torode is head of strategy and innovation at VCCP, where she has developed a unique 'social communications' methodology and
thinking for brands such as London 2012, Compare the Market, O2 and the COI. She blogs at www.ameliatorode.typepad.com.
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