In this technology-driven age, a common challenge for companies has been integrating new technologies into their existing business models, marketing and operations. This has been said to remain true for luxury brands. Convention has held that digital commerce is for the penny-wise. Research and consulting firm McKinsey dispels this perception. It reported that nearly 50% of luxury purchases are in fact influenced by digital. Warc’s Darika Ahrens aptly notes, “High-end income earners love high-end technology.”

Recognizing this, luxury fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff, an early adopter of new technologies in retail, is leading the way in immersive experiences that touch upon all senses to resonate with these digital-savvy, affluent consumers. Speaking at the Columbia Business School’s Emily-Culp-BRITE BRITE ’15 conference this past March, Emily Culp, Rebecca Minkoff’s SVP of eCommerce and Omni-Channel Marketing, discussed driving customer lifetime value by delivering multi-faceted experiences derived from technology, insights and organizational structure.

In 2014, Rebecca Minkoff launched its “Connected Stores” in New York and San Francisco with a fully integrated consumer experience. Interactive mirrors entice customers to browse video and content, order complimentary beverages, save merchandise options to their devices via the Rebecca Minkoff app, and check in-store and online inventory. Culp explained that by leveraging beacon technology and RFID tags, Rebecca Minkoff offers an even more perRebecca-Minkoff-Connected-Storesonalized experience. “When [our customer] walks into the fitting room, it recognizes merchandise and gives recommendations on what to wear [the item] with.” Customers can even adjust fitting room lighting to reflect the setting in which they would don the outfit (i.e. “SoHo after dark”).

In developing experiences for their omni-channel consumer, the question Culp asks herself is straightforward: “How do we flawlessly execute this omni-channel marketing in such a complex ecosystem?” At BRITE ’15, she outlined four essential points to succeed at this:

  1. Leadership: the ability to embrace smart risk and experimentation
  2. Expertise: building teams with hybrid skill-sets (e.g. creativity combined with an understanding of metrics)
  3. Linkage: breaking down the silos to align the KPIs of different departments
  4. Communication: sharing insights even when they may seem irrelevant to another team. “Maybe they can take it in a different way that another hasn’t [considered],” explained Culp.

Culp stresses the importance of not employing technology for technology’s sake. It should have a purpose. Rebecca Minkoff’s objective is to use technology to seamlessly deliver value to their consumers, relieving pain-points and empowering them to make informed decisions while shopping in-store and on any device at any time, anywhere in the world.

Through research, Culp’s team discovered that their consumer checks her smartphone, on average, 150 times a day, spiking at different points depending on when she’s at work using her computer or at night on her tablet. “The constant is mobile. So for us, when we’re looking at omni-channel marketing… we start with mobile.”

Rebecca-Minkoff-App

That said, culling data from all touchpoints—mobile, web, events, public relations, in-store—is at the foundation of their approach. “A lot of people think that data is boring,” she explains. “I inherently think that this is one of the most creative and fascinating parts of marketing today.” Quantitative and qualitative insights paint a holistic picture of their consumer. “[W]e can see as she traverses across these different channels what her behavior is and help her make informed decisions when it’s right for her.”

Dodgers - Franchise Value

Ah, the L.A. Dodgers, a team whose recent woes under the leadership of Frank McCourt resulted in a purchase that rocked the baseball world. In 2011, Forbes estimated the Dodgers to be worth $800 million… more than the average value of a major league baseball team team. Thanks to a TV deal in March 2012, Forbes upped that number to $1.4 billion. One month later, news erupted that Guggenheim Baseball Management, a consortium lead by Magic Johnson, would acquire the team for a whopping $2.15 Bs.

Many questioned the rationale behind this dollar amount, exclaiming the consortium vastly overpaid for a franchise with such a comparatively low net worth. David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, tells Fox Business, that it’s not solely about buying an organization at face value. “It’s purchasing a baseball team that is an anchor that allows you to make money off other revenue-rich opportunities.”

Chief executives that agree with this see the value of a brand. However, many CEOs and CFOs still see marketing and communications as cost line items rather than buttresses that sustain brands and lend book value to companies.

Columbia Business School recently published two studies related to varying perspectives organizations have about the value of marketing. The first, “Accounting for Marketing Activities,” found that part of the problem is internal communications. Experts feel that marketers don’t clearly articulate the impact of their expenditures on bottom lines to finance officers. The second, “Marketing ROI in the Era of Big Data,” adds that there’s a need to develop a better understanding of how marketing creates financial returns for companies. Attributing value to marketing is a common struggle.

Marketing’s role, in its most fundamental form, is to get the word out to the right people through a range of channels. But an integral part of this is communicating a brand’s core message and relevance to its audience, demonstrating value for consumers, which in turn adds value to a company. The foundation of a strong brand is built by delivering on a promise—providing quality and dependable products and/or services. But intangible items like brand persona, experience and reputation have tremendous weight when it comes to actual purchase and loyalty, generating sales and revenue. Much of this process can be attributed to the emotional connection formed between brand and consumer.

Developing meaningful relationships with a brand’s audience is a vital part of path-to-purchase, advocacy, financial growth and longevity. Humanizing brands leverages such relationships. In addition to products and services, they offer distinct images, feelings, experiences, thoughts and perceptions creating differentiated value in the mind of its audience. In fact, a brand is, in essence, an extension of one’s self. Consumers are more apt to buy products from a particular brand that reflects their personality and aligns with their interests and personal values, subsequently raising the net worth of a brand.

Apply this notion to the Dodgers. Another factor contributing to the high-priced offer is that they’re… the L.A. Dodgers, a well-known brand that officially acquired its name over 70 years ago. There’s history behind these “boys of summer,” a term that’s not only in a Don Henley song, but the title of a book based on this very team. More than ticket sales, sponsorship, and TV deals, the bid amount stemmed from relationships with devoted fans and the iconic value of the Dodgers brand in and of itself.

Drink Coke Vintage Ad

Click to enlarge

Another prime example is Coca-Cola. In CNBC’s documentary, “Coca-Cola: The Real Story Behind the Real Thing,” Donald R. Keough, former president of Coca-Cola, discussed the implications of its 1985 debacle, the launch of the now-defunct “New Coke.” He received a tearful call from a stranger, an elderly woman. She was heartbroken by the reformulation of its trademark beverage. Interestingly enough, she hadn’t sipped the soda since the 1940s, and therefore not tasted this new iteration. However, the Coca-Cola brand held memories for her, ones that she strongly associated with her childhood. She told Keough that they were playing with her youth. When Coca-Cola decided to lay the original Coke to rest, it took a piece of her past with it.

A CFO may say this is a nice story, but she hadn’t been a consumer in decades. Though she may not have spent even the nickel Coca-Cola once cost in years, the brand clearly resonated with her. And there were plenty of present-day consumers who also protested New Coke. Value to her and the millions of others was emotive. For those who didn’t like the taste, had the emotional connection not existed, they wouldn’t have bothered expressing such outrage over the new formula. Instead, they simply would have ceased buying it. Keough noted to CNBC, “We did not understand the deep emotions of so many of our customers for Coca-Cola.”

Forming relationships with consumers, knowing audience likes, dislikes and interests, and reflecting corresponding values, is as much an asset to brand valuation as sales and licensing. Companies that understand this and invest in developing rooted relationships rather than solely being driven by quick, impersonal sales have a greater chance of longevity with numbers that finance, marketing, and all other stakeholders can agree on.

You need not be a product of the sixties to experience the sixties.

Mad MenThe producers of AMC’s Mad Men can attest to this. Since 2007, the series about advertising in 1960s American society has masterfully wielded marketing partnerships with both modern and legacy brands across a range of industries—retail, finance, household goods. While brands of yore can benefit from narrative integration, companies born post-sixties can reap rewards from campaigns outside the context of the show. Unlike many of its competitors, Mad Men’s producers collaborate with sponsors to develop campaigns reflective of the show’s distinctive personality. Hipster brands looking for flashy gimmicks should seek representation elsewhere. Associating with this award-winning series connects mid- to high-end brands with an intellectual, “taste-making” audience spanning 20-year-old consumers to 54-year-old baby boomers.

Background

Set in New York City, Mad Men tells the story of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency, as it rises through the golden age of advertising. It offers a candid depiction of the political and social transformation from the conservative 1950s to the “swinging sixties.” The show is renowned for its provocative portrayal of sharply dressed ad execs who embrace chain-smoking, propositioning women and drinking scotch before noon; all this while conjuring up campaigns for clients such as Hilton Hotels, Heineken and Maidenform. Mad Men marries fictional storylines and ad campaigns with real products and events. Fans and critics alike feed off the nostalgia, the characters’ personal and professional struggles, and the behind-the-scenes world of advertising.

Since premiering in July 2007, four seasons have aired, the last of which ended in fall 2010. In March 2011, AMC picked up Mad Men for a fifth and sixth season. In 2010, it made history as the first basic cable television show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series for three consecutive years. Additionally, it has received numerous awards from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. This critically acclaimed show is now AMC’s highest-rated original series.

Although viewership was initially lower than similar shows on other networks, it has increased with each subsequent season. The consistent increase is largely attributed to the fact that Mad Men is heavily watched via DVR and TiVo. Nielsen Media rated it number two in its 2009 Top 10 list of digitally recorded primetime programming. This helps capture first-time viewers, converting them to watch the show live. Prospects are strong for increased viewership over upcoming seasons.

Analysis 

A common misperception is that because Mad Men is a period piece only legacy brands can partner with it. However, Mad Men benefits brands of all eras in a variety of industries, including consumer goods, luxury goods, retail, spirits, automotive and financial services.

Banana Republic, founded in 1978, negotiated a barter deal for three seasons. It collaborated with Mad Men to implement in-store and digital campaigns promoting both the show and the retailer’s new line of apparel. The series, lauded for its fashion, complements Banana Republic’s collection of stylish “work-wear.” Although Banana Republic marketing manager Michael Braga says it’s difficult to directly correlate sales with the campaigns, stores did experience an increase in visits. Braga notes, “Mad Men’s a hot show. It’s advantageous for any retailer to associate with it.” Banana Republic plans on partnering with Mad Men again for its fifth season.

Banana Republic Mad Men Collection With Mad Men’s core audience ranging from ages 25 to 54 and skewing 55 percent female, it’s no surprise that a retailer like Banana Republic would benefit from such a partnership. Mad Men boasts the highest concentration of “upscale” viewers as compared to other scripted series. More than 50 percent of its fans have household incomes of $100k and above. Banana Republic, which targets 25 to 44-year-old career-driven women with household incomes averaging $75k, thus reaches young, professional consumers who can afford its price point.

AMC’s marketing representative calls Mad Men viewers “tastemakers,” arbiters of trends who read publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times as well as listen to NPR. He describes them as highly educated, liberal urbanites that frequent news and entertainment websites such as Salon.com and Gawker.com, and tune into shows like HBO’s True Blood.

Fans actively look for brands while watching Mad Men. AMC’s marketing representative explains, “It’s a show about advertising. Viewers are already primed to pay attention to brands.” Thirty-year-old viewer Gregg Lederman says brand integration is his favorite part. “It helps paint a picture of the decade.” He finds it interesting to see not only which brands have survived or fizzled, but also to discover brands he hadn’t realized existed.

For Utz Quality Foods, Inc., this worked in its favor. Utz potato chips have been on grocery store shelves for more than 75 years, but it is not a widely recognized brand. After Mad Men producers incorporated it into an ancillary storyline, Utz experienced an increase in brand awareness. Although the company did not pay for integration, Alec Sivel, vice president of marketing for Utz Quality Foods, Inc., says it was a great return on their product investment. “We received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of TV exposure… not to mention thousands of dollars in PR exposure.” In fact, several viewers I interviewed had never heard of Utz prior to watching Mad Men. Deborah Lipp, creator of a popular Mad Men blog, explains that after seeing it featured on the show, she noticed it on concession stands and purchased a bag of Utz chips. “It amused me to buy it,” she says.

Brands say it’s difficult to attribute sales spikes to partnerships specific to any television series. Market research companies, however, did find an increase in “intent to purchase products” and a boost in “favorable attitudes towards brands” with some of Mad Men’s sponsors. iTVX, a company that measures effectiveness of commercials, reports that spots for Dove and Klondike improved overall perceptions of their parent company, Unilever.

Unilever produced commercial vignettes in conjunction with Mad Men to showcase the longevity in six of its affiliate brands. The minute-long spots featured another fictional 1960s ad agency developing campaigns for products such as Dove soap and Klondike Bars as they existed in the sixties. The commercials, which incorporated the same cinematic look and vernacular of Mad Men, then transitioned into present-day commercials for the same products.

These spots captured Mad Men’s audience who thought the vignettes were part of the show. One fan told stylist.com, “The real genius… is that when viewing the show on a DVR, you stop fast-forwarding at the start of the ad, thinking the show has resumed.” He said that for the first time in months he had watched an entire commercial. iTVX found a seven percent gain in brand attitude with a four percent increase in intent to purchase. In an interview with The New York Times, iTVX chief executive Frank Zazza explained that two to three percent increases are typically good. He called Unilever’s results “substantial.”

Mad Men Barbie Dolls

Mad Men Barbie Dolls

Although brand alliance in television programming is not a new concept, Mad Men effectively integrates sponsorships. Viewer Sarah Feinberg calls Mad Men’s brand integration tasteful. “It’s obvious in other shows, but it’s not gratuitous in Mad Men. I don’t know which brands paid for placement.” Executive producer Matthew Weiner prefers it this way. He weighs in on what and how brands can be integrated so they fit with the tone of the series. The collaboration ensures that neither the show nor its sponsors are cheapened by blatant gimmicks. Producers highlight brands in an entertaining way. They become as engaging as the show itself, making them more memorable.

A potential drawback for brands is that product integration must be bought as part of a larger spend with the network. Meaning, while a brand can be incorporated into the show, it must buy commercial time with AMC, not just the show itself. AMC’s marketing representative explains, “If you’ve never seen a commercial for a product or company on air or our website, then it’s a pretty solid bet they’re not a sponsor.” These multi-million dollar investments can be pricey.

What truly distinguishes Mad Men from the competition is its content. The show about advertising stands out from the slew of hospital and courtroom dramas. Additionally, its metaphorical script challenges the audience. Lederman notes, “Mad Men isn’t meant for cheap laughs or nicely wrapped storylines.” The period piece entwines intricate storylines with multivalent allegories. It receives praise for its witty dialogue, historical accuracy, cinematography and visual elements (set, wardrobe, etc.). It is void of background music or superfluous cues that add melodrama typical of other shows. The high production value captivates people who seek intellectually stimulating narratives rather than formulaic entertainment.

While ratings are lower in comparison with ad-supported drama series, the audience is different. Programming on TNT and USA is geared towards what AMC’s marketing representative describes as “middle America.” The average household income of TNT’s audience is $73k. Mad Men, on the other hand, boasts the wealthiest audience on television. Viewers are more apt to spend a little more for quality products.

The style of drama that sets Mad Men apart from TNT and USA also leverages it as a competitor for original dramatic programming on subscriber-based, premium cable channels. It embodies the same prestige as HBO’s hit series True Blood and Showtime’s Dexter, an uncommon correlation for basic cable shows. Although Mad Men’s ratings are on par with Showtime’s original series, they are not as strong as HBO’s. In 2010, True Blood’s season three finale held 5.38 million viewers, more than twice as many as Mad Men’s season four finale which aired that same year. However, AMC’s marketing representative explains that because revenue for these channels comes from subscribers, brands cannot buy ad time on HBO and Showtime series.

Recommendations

With nearly half of its audiences’ household earnings split above and below $100k, mid- to high-end brands can reach value-seeking consumers as well as those with discretionary income. Flashy brands targeting fad-obsessed emulators should steer clear. Mad Men works best with brands offering a sense of prestige and individuality.

Brands established after the sixties can work out a barter deal, buy commercial time or sponsor an event. Although The Standard Hotels is a modern national chain, it promotes itself as a boutique hotelier emphasizing luxury and a sense of individuality. It combines mid-century architecture with 1960s modish décor embodying an aura similar to that of Mad Men. Standard Hotels would be a great partner for Mad Men, sponsoring events such as a series premiere party.

 

Legacy brands needing to bolster their position in today’s market can also benefit. IBM, making a comeback after years of being dubbed a dinosaur, was considered groundbreaking in the sixties. It unveiled its revolutionary new line of computers in 1964. Now that IBM is starting to rebound, investing in show integration would help revitalize its image. It can supplement storyline integration with commercial spots and digital campaigns.

Preeminent brands that have been around for more than 50 years can likewise tap into Mad Men’s audience. High-end financial services company American Express could be woven into the show’s narrative. Targeting mid- to upper class businessmen and women, the prestigious image offered by American Express is in line with the image the show’s audience seeks. American Express began advertising its first credit card in the sixties. By 1967 it had become the most visible symbol for the company. Perfect timing with Mad Men since its upcoming season will purportedly cover 1967-1968.

Case Study by Allie Abodeely

In an article entitled “Why California is Still America’s Future,” Time Magazine identified them as social-network entrepreneurs offering “gourmet dining at recession-proof prices via Twitter.”[i] Bon Appétit magazine awarded them a spot on its 2009 “Hot 10” list “for being true innovators as grassroots guerrilla restaurateurs… [through] the intersection of food and technology.”[ii] Newsweek labeled them “America’s first viral eatery.”[iii] They are talking about the Kogi BBQ truck—the Los Angeles based, family-run gastro-mobile that has received notoriety for its integration of social media with haute cuisine street food.

Kogi BBQ TruckOver the past few years there has been a surge of gourmet food trucks in the United States. These trucks have capitalized on the use of social media and transformed the traditional image from “roach-mobiles” serving fast food at blue-color lots to “mobile-bistros” offering foodie fare on hipster streets. Devout fans monitor tweets and blogs to wait in what can often be hour-long lines. Like most start-ups, Kogi faced the initial challenges of attracting customers. Once social media became an integral part of its business plan, it quickly gained a growing fan-base and international publicity for its Korean-Mexican inspired dishes as well as its digital marketing strategy. Mike Prasad, Kogi’s former brand and new media director, coined this the “Kogi Effect.”[iv]

Since 2006, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have altered the dynamics of marketing communications. These platforms enable virtual conversations between and amongst consumers and companies they love, hate or are curious to learn more about. In today’s environment, it is not enough to simply advertise products and services. Companies must nurture relationships, treating people like active participants rather than faceless targets.[v]

The founders of Kogi BBQ learned early on that the key ingredient for success is engagement. They devised a creative marketing plan using emerging social networking platforms to generate word-of-mouth and word-of-mouse buzz for the company’s unique product. Within its first year, Kogi grossed approximately $2 million and expanded its single-truck operation into a fleet of vehicles. [vi][vii] Within its second year, it added two brick-and-mortar restaurants to its roster.

Not only did social media benefit Kogi as a company, the news surrounding it spread the concept of gourmet food trucks, playing an influential role directly and indirectly in the rapid proliferation of gastro-mobiles throughout the United States. American Express Market Brief reported that in August 2009 one in eight consumers had visited food trucks within a span of six months. In July 2010, that number jumped to one in four.[viii] Moreover, the convergence of food trucks and social media has had a ripple effect on associated technological, political, and socio-economical factors.

Through social media Kogi BBQ was able to cultivate its brand, curate a community, and advance business milestones. It exemplifies the impact digital trends can have on businesses today.

Background

In 2008, Mark Manguera, his wife Caroline Shin-Manguera, and his friend Roy Choi were on the hunt for sustenance after a late night out in Hollywood, but were disappointed by limited options. It was then that the concept for Kogi BBQ was born—a food truck serving high-end street food at affordable prices. The product was a unique marriage of Korean and Mexican fare, an expression of the founders’ heritage—the Korean BBQ taco. The budding entrepreneurs borrowed a friend’s catering truck and embarked on a small business venture.[ix]Kogi BBQ Founders

Taking it to market was not as easy as they had anticipated. Despite parking in pedestrian-heavy neighborhoods Kogi gained little recognition during the first few weeks. On average, it received ten to twenty patrons a night.[x] The fusion of these two ethnic cuisines caused local controversy. “People were laughing at us… throwing gang signs,” explains Choi.[xi] Adding to the challenge was an insufficient budget; meager profits made each night were used to purchase ingredients for the next.[xii] Furthermore, without a brick-and-mortar venue, Kogi needed a way to publicize its ever-changing locations.

Manguera hired Mike Prasad to develop a marketing strategy. Prasad enlisted family, friends, and “foodies” to blog about Kogi. He also established a Twitter account announcing locations and menu specials.[xiii] While parked outside a popular, new nightclub Manguera and Prasad handed out free taco samples. The crowd began coming back for seconds and using smartphones to photograph dishes, share pictures on Facebook, and follow Kogi’s Twitter feed.[xiv] Kogi, in turn, disseminated SMS texts, emails, status updates, and tweets. Through social media and mobile applications it was able to speak directly with thousands of people, broadcasting messages in real-time. Choi tells Newsweek, “That was really the cornerstone of how we grew so quickly.” He explains, “I like to think it’s the food, but I have to give all credit to Twitter.”[xv]

Communications

Social media was an ideal solution for the roving eatery. It became Kogi’s hook—a food truck on a relatively new digital platform. The ability to update followers in real-time gave it flexibility. Kogi could instantly notify people if it was running late or unexpectedly switching locations. It could forewarn eager customers of long lines, short lines or the unthinkable—taco shortages. The constant communication and transparency provided a heightened level of customer service enabling Kogi to garner trust and a devout following. Within its first few months, Kogi was serving 300 to 400 pounds of food to sometimes 800 people a night.[xvi]

Kogi came at a time when Twitter and Facebook were rapidly becoming popular. It made headlines for its use of social media from prominent news outlets across the country and across the pond, from The New York Times to the BBC. All this for what Prasad estimates to have cost less than $200. “Our entire marketing budget consisted of a WordPress template, a domain name, $10 on iStock photo for vector art… and maybe a hundred free tacos.”[xvii] With minimal resources in a struggling economy, Kogi capitalized on social networking tools to inexpensively transform a spontaneous idea into an international success story.[xviii]

While Kogi’s newsworthiness generated press and attention from a vast network of fans, Prasad knew it needed a compelling way to turn customers into “regulars.” In an interview with GuruTube he explains, “You identify the audience, you identify the venues they’re hanging out at, and then you engage them.”[xix]

Social media goes beyond providing tactical solutions. There has been a shift in relationships between companies and consumers. They have evolved into talking with people rather than to them, engaging them in meaningful, mutually beneficial conversations that cultivate and deepen relationships.[xx]

Through social media, Kogi produced an experience making it more than a grab-and-go joint. Prasad recognized the shift in power and instead of fighting it, factored it into Kogi’s business plan. He tells GuruTube that it’s a convergent strategy, a collaborative project with fans. “The actual shape, the color, and the form of that structure moves and changes and reacts based on the interactions and the engagement of your audience.”[xxi] This ongoing conversation empowers fans, making them feel a part of the company. Prasad explains to eMarketing & Commerce, “…in turn, it drives them to tell friends about the company, keeping the Kogi wheels moving.”[xxii]

Kogi created an integrated virtual and real-world interactive, social experience that has been likened to gaming. “People search for it,” explains Alice Shin, Kogi’s creative director and the fingers behind the tweets, status updates, and blogs. She tells CNET, “It’s kind of like a treasure hunt…”[xxiii] Fans and followers sign onto Twitter, Facebook, and Kogi’s blog to locate the truck, exuding a chase-like quality. Once they find it, they stand in line for sometimes hours. At the end of the line awaits their payoff—an edible reward. One local fan, Disc Jockey Akaider, produced a YouTube video documenting this very experience—“Chasing the Dragon (The Kogi BBQ Adventure).”[xxiv]

Kogi also concocted a secret menu that, in theory, is only known amongst insiders, creating an element of exclusivity. Newcomers hear “regulars” ordering a secret dish and, in an attempt to assimilate, strive to learn more about it. Curiosity sets in and so begins their adventure. “In the process you meet a bunch of cool people, you have a little bit of fun,” explains Prasad to GuruTube.[xxv] Ironically, the menu is easy to find—posted on Kogi’s website. Kogi’s specials further emanate the gaming experience with dishes named “PACMAN” described in tech terms as “the everything burger mashup.”[xxvi] Employing such mechanisms stimulates fan dialogue—sharing information, pictures, accolades, and occasional criticisms. The key is the conversations with and amongst its audience on social networks and through its website.

Kogi Kulture

Social networking platforms have functioned as a virtual venue for Kogi; a substitution for a tangible, stationary establishment before opening its current restaurants.[xxvii] The social aspect carries over to the physical realm as people search for the truck, wait in line, and stand together eating. Having a transient operation enabled Kogi to reach a wider audience, seeding various neighborhoods rather than just one. Through these encounters, Prasad created what has been referred to as “Kogi Kulture.”[xxviii] “Being able to leverage each part [of social media] and intelligently direct it towards a vision and actively engage and grow the community is what made Kogi BBQ successful.”[xxix]

Developing a community is vital for any company. So how does an itinerant business, not bound to one neighborhood, drawing from impersonal computer screens and mobile applications, foster a collective bond with a widespread audience? Sense of community goes beyond geographical parameters and technological walls. The late psychologist Seymour Sarason (1974) defined it as a feeling of being part of a larger organization with a perceived similarity and a willingness to uphold interdependence based on group expectations.[xxx] McMillan & Chavis (1986) found that members exhibit more than perceived similarities. They have a shared belief, a sense of belonging, and a commitment to being together.”[xxxi] Gusfield (1975) further identified a relational aspect; a quality of relationships separate from territorial borders.[xxxii]

Social networks are virtual communities analogous to real-world communities. They impart a sense of belonging, interdependence, and quality relationships through shared interests and frequent interactions. Outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube play into this—suggesting friends become “Fans” of Facebook pages, expressing “Like” for commentary and articles, following the tweets of friends and companies, sharing photos and viral videos. Kogi went beyond tapping into social networks. It merged virtual and physical worlds escalating the perception of community through repeated online and in-person interaction around common interests spanning food and technology.

Lord of the Rings pals, Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Woods

Kogi’s community transcends professional lunch crowds, Hollywood scenesters, and LA locals. Its fans could be considered members of Generation C, the “I share, therefore I am” generation.[xxxiii] Gen C is defined by mindset more so than by age.[xxxiv] It comprises digital-savvy consumers tied together by a “need to share their lives via social media,” explains youth marketing strategist Dan Pankraz at a Nielsen Consumer 360 Conference.[xxxv] He calls them “Connected Collective” consumers who thrive on constant connectivity, collaboration, change, co-creation, and curiosity.[xxxvi] They are “tribes” of multi-dimensional “cyborgs” livestreaming opinions and experiences through digital technology. With chameleon-like qualities, they adjust identities to associate with numerous tribes. As co-creators, they are active participants who play integral roles in developing brand story. Effective marketing strategies create conversations about which tribes, or communities, discuss and share. The outcome is an expansive social network making members of Gen C strong influencers and brand ambassadors.

By making brand development a collaborative project Kogi successfully engaged Gen C. It empowered people by encouraging an interactive environment and involving fans in various aspects of the business. “You give them the brand, they take the culture,” notes Prasad in his interview with GuruTube.”[xxxvii] As the demand for Kogi spread throughout southern California, Kogi added trucks to its fleet. It called upon fans, its co-creators, for help naming vehicles, thus conveying a sense of ownership to its followers. Shin tweets:

KOGIHEADQUARTERS… ISGIVINGBIRTHTOANEW BABYTRUCK . . . I’m leaving it to YOU, the peopLes to nominate names…[xxxviii]

The experience Kogi created sparked various forms of fan adoration such as viral videos. “Chasing the Dragon (The Kogi BBQ Adventure),” released on YouTube only two months after Kogi’s launch in November 2008, has to date received over 12,000 hits.[xxxix] Complimented by DJ Akaider’s ingenuity, Manguera invited him to spin one night. Another fan commissioned GreetBeatz to produce a virtual gift—a rap song. The song was published on http://www.greetbeatz.com along with lyrics, fan commentary, a link to Kogi’s website, and a Facebook “social plugin.”[xl]

Kogi’s Flickr photostream is filled with pictures of fans, friends, and family. Ethan Hein, social media consultant, calls it an “aesthetic experience with personality… not simply utility-based.”[xli] Rather than advertising dishes, photographs showcase the Kogi experience; people enjoying themselves. Hein adds, “It’s an artistic display that carries its own value.”

Kogi does more than simply update fans on specials and locations. Shin beseeches them for advice on soothing sore muscles and laments about getting a speeding ticket.[xlii][xliii] Her blogs are relatable. They impart the feeling of a personal relationship thus humanizing the brand. Tweets are written in edgy, down-to-earth vernacular incorporating slang and quoting rappers. One of its most popular dishes, “CREAM,” is an homage to a Wu-Tang Clan song. “Even if you don’t like that type of music, it’s funny to see how their minds work,” explains Hein.[xliv] “It doesn’t get any more personal than food. Your hands are on something I’m going to put in my mouth. I want to know your values.”[xlv]

Kogi garnered such a loyal following that some people drive three hours to satiate their Kogi craving. Caroline Shin-Manguera tells CNN:

It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We make our people wait in line for two hours, we make them wait in the rain, we don’t give them chairs to sit on, we don’t take reservations. We’re late half the time, but we must be doing something right.[xlvi]

Kogi’s founders identified and appealed to behavioral trends. They were not afraid to relinquish some control to fans nor were they intimidated by social media. Instead, they embraced these tools establishing street credibility, literally and figuratively. Kogi maintained relevancy amongst its audience by engaging people in an entertaining way. Prasad tells Mashable blogger Jolie O’dell, “It’s the Kogi Effect… customers love it… you come hang out as the experience. It’s not just the food.”[xlvii]

Beyond the Experience

The food truck social networking trend extends beyond spreading the gastro-mobile seed amongst “foodies” and Gen C. It has triggered an influx of correlating technology. Live food truck mapping sites have popped up in cities across the country. There is an increasing number of smartphone, iPad, and GPS applications, podcasts, blogs, and a nationally broadcast reality television show. The different technologies likewise feed into the proliferation of mobile restaurants by escalating interaction and engagement with people. The more trucks appear on various sites and applications, the more consumers deem them worthy of trying, adding value and credibility.

There have also been political and socio-economical implications. The popularity of food trucks has elicited animosity from brick-and-mortar retailers and restaurants. They argue that trucks disrupt businesses and have thus fought for restrictions. Many food trucks counter-argue that these establishments are hampering fair competition.[xlviii] Through social networking platforms, organizations such as the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association have functioned as lobbyists rallying support for local council members who curb emerging regulations.[xlix] Celebrity commentator Adam Carolla joined the food truck fight blogging about what he calls “stupid laws,” injustices against free enterprise.[l] On the other hand, many establishments and political figures are now using social media to promote the benefits of food trucks. They view them as contributors to local economy that help gentrify dilapidated neighborhoods.[li]

Recommendations

While platforms such as Twitter and Facebook continue to make waves in today’s business world, mobile phones have become what Pankraz characterizes as “social oxygen” acting as  “lifelines to the world.”[lii] According to a July 2010 comScore study, approximately 70% of cell phone owners use devices for more than making calls; 40.7% of those surveyed use them for internet browsing, content download, and applications.[liii] Like social media, mobile technology is transforming communication.[liv] Social media consultant Avi Savar calls mobile technology a “bridge.” “It connects offline to online in a story… [whereas] laptops are 100% online.”[lv] Mobile marketing thus goes beyond providing straightforward product information and event notifications. It complements social media to further blur the line between virtual and real worlds.[lvi] It has the ability to enrich consumer engagement and deliver truly interactive campaigns. It also facilitates companies’ ability to measure response rates and ROI.

Mobile devices are increasingly manufactured with two-dimensional barcode readers such as Quick Response (QR). QR readers allow consumers to launch mobile websites and applications through snapshots, or barcode scanning, as taken by smartphones.[lvii] Bluetooth technology makes proximity marketing possible by transmitting content and exchanging data between fixed and mobile devices over short distances.[lviii] Augmented reality (AR) feeds into the amalgamation of real and virtual worlds creating three-dimensional images viewable through mobile and computer screens. AR markers create holograms that seemingly overlay the immediate world.[lix]

According to a study conducted by Technomic, respondents used social media to connect with restaurants for menus, discounts, and coupons.[lx] Through a convergence of these mobile trends, food trucks could do more than announce specials and locations. They could elevate the gaming experience by placing AR markers on communications to create interactive games. Coca-Cola Europe did this. Consumers used mobile devices to scan packaging and advertisements with built-in markers to activate augmented reality tennis courts. Cell phones functioned as tennis rackets enabling fans to play matches against each other.[lxi] Food trucks could produce similar experiences for people standing in long lines at food truck events, which are common throughout southern California. Better yet, they could use QR codes to process wireless transactions and expedite wait times. With the help of AR browsers and Bluetooth technology, people could locate specific trucks, retrieve customer reviews, and receive instant discounts simply by being within vicinity of these mobile-bistros. Additionally, automatic check-ins would make it easier for fans to notify friends of their whereabouts, subsequently increasing patronage.

While not all mobile devices currently have such capabilities, marketing strategist Rick Mathieson predicts that these mechanisms will become standard features in various devices over the next few years.[lxii] Mobile technology will create an even more powerful way to connect with customers at point of impression and activation, reaching people at the right place and time. It will become increasingly important for companies to incorporate mobile media marketing and engage consumers by fueling utility with entertainment to create an extraordinary experience.

Summary

Kogi became newsworthy for its use of social media and it continues to successfully reach people through these platforms. As of December 2010, Kogi had nearly 79,000 Twitter followers and 16,600 Facebook fans, an increase from approximately 74,000 followers and 14,000 fans in September 2010, respectively. In Los Angeles County there are currently an estimated 4,000 food trucks. Of those, over 115 are considered gourmet, most of which have a presence on social networks.[lxiii] Their use of social media has helped transform an inconsequential food business into a lucrative trend.

The challenge for Kogi and food trucks alike will be standing out amongst the saturation of gastro-mobiles on social networking sites. This begs the questions—with so many food trucks on Twitter and Facebook, will social media become a less effective marketing tool for them? Could gourmet food trucks become a passing fad? Though difficult to predict, the crucial thing for businesses like Kogi is innovation. As technology, communication, and virtual communities evolve, so will consumer behavior and idea generation. It is increasingly important to adapt to these changes. In his blog, digital strategy consultant Brian Solis refers to it as “Digital Darwinism.” “If we are not competing for tomorrow, today, we lose critical opportunities to capture attention now and in the future….”[lxiv] Kogi BBQ has been successful because it embraces digital evolution; it innately understands how to engage its audience through the progression of new media.