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Q&A: I Love Local Commercials – a branding and identity viral firestorm

You may never have heard of Microbilt, a company that offers risk management solutions to small businesses. But chances are, you’ve seen one of the spots from their super-viral I Love Local Commercials campaign.

Collectively, these send-ups of local TV channel, late-night spots for tattoo parlors, mobile home and furniture dealerships, and a Cuban-gynecologist-cum-auto-dealer have garnered not only views in the millions, but social media mentions from celebrities such as Errol Morris who called out one spot as his all-time favorite commerical on Twitter (re-tweeted by Roger Ebert, no less).

Microbilt hatched the campaign in conjunction with Rockefeller Consulting Group/Insight Capitalists, and the comedy duo of Rhett and Link. We caught up with Microbilt’s EVP Strategy & Emerging Markets Brian Bradley (left) to talk about the campaign’s genesis, and if all those views of spots that don’t even try to sell anything have translated into business for the company.

Q:  What was the genesis of “I Love Local Commericials,” and what are your strategic goals?

brian bradley microbiltBrian Bradley:  We had an idea that using comedy would be an effective way of reaching our customers.  We started with Rhett and Link, not with “I Love Local Commercials.” During the meltdown on Wall Street, they created a song. One of the guys here got involved and in the process we ended up deciding, “Hey this is something that really touches on our industry, so why don’t we reach out to these guys?”  We ended up sponsoring that video, and it caught on.  People were sharing it, and a lot of people that were customers or partners of ours thought it was great.  That video is called The Economic Meltdown Song

We really enjoyed working with these guys,  so that’s where we started with the idea.  We didn’t think anybody would be all that interested in hearing about our company.

We asked, “Well, how do you actually bring in more business if you’re not promoting your stuff?  But let’s test this.”  We started testing with a series of three.  It was pretty edgy.  I don’t know if you seen Red House, but you know, when we first jumped in we just jumped in and followed Rhett and Link. 

We really took a back seat. If it’s successful, people will get to know Microbilt.  We thought that might happen, but we weren’t convinced.  When “Red House” hit, I said, “Wow, people really like this.”  A lot of people responded and though this was great.  Those are Microbilt customers.  We think this can be something that can have some real longevity because we’ve served these different types of customers.  They all have a great story.

The process continues to build Microbilt’s friends. Not in a direct way, but the real value to us is that a lot of these different businesses are in the industries we can serve.  When we’re calling on a contact, if they’ve never heard of Microbilt they certainly can google Microbilt and “I Love Local Commercials” and they’re going to find out who we are and understand there’s real depth and real substance to Microbilt, although they may have never heard of us.

Q: You’ve had millions of views on these videos.  Were you expecting that kind of volume?  Have you been tracking leads and conversions?

Brian: We certainly have seen leads and conversions.  There have been direct leads where people say “Wow, you guys are a real company. Call us.” We call them.  In the same way they call us. A lot of the businesses [in the videos] end up getting a lot of calls, too.

Q:  They’re all real businesses?

Brian: Yes, they’re all real businesses. Some are Microbilt customers and some are not.  The very first one was TDM Auto Sales.  That was released over a year ago and people are still talking about it, still watching it.  Every time we release a new one, we have new people that find them and then go back and watch them.  That viral aspect is not only immediate, it really continues.  One of our sales people was at a corporate training on social media and they used our commercial.

Q: As an example?

Brian: Of what people are doing right.

Q: I’ve seen Tweets on the campaign from people like Errol Morris and Roger Ebert. You’re even penetrating filmmaking circles.

Brian: Yep, and we just won a viral video award from Ad Age.

Q: Are you tracking conversations around the campaign on blogs, on social media, on Twitter and Facebook?

Brian: Yes, yes we track it,  and we participate sometimes.  It’s all over the map.  Some people don’t like one [spot], but they love another.  It’s been a very rich experience to be a participant.  It’s also made us understand how important it is to remain…I don’t want to say neutral, but as soon as you start to push the sales side of your business in these conversations is when you start to lose that audience.

Q:  Yes.

Brian: So this has been a celebration of our customers, of our types of customers:  Main Street business across the country. Microbilt is there if you want to find out who we are and what we do.  Even the context of “I Love Local Commercials” they ask, “What is this company, Microbilt?”  That is translating into real leads.  And it is translating into a brand. When we call on customers even if they haven’t heard of it, they can easily go on and see everything that has been written about it.  Besides that, it’s fun.

Q:  It is fun.

Brian: It’s been a fun process.  Rhett and Link have been great.  The guys at Insight have been great.  We’re always looking at keeping it fresh. We’ve got a couple more coming up in the spring that are very interesting.  They always come up with something fun.

Q:  Explain the online nominations to enter a local business as a candidate for a commercial.

Brian: It’s an opportunity to nominate yourself or someone as your favorite business. Rhett and Link are really the driving force who say, “Hey this is a business that sounds funny.” Thousands of people have nominated their businesses.  We review that list when we’re looking to do the next one, trying to select businesses that sound funny. 

We give the nominator the opportunity to give us a couple of comments on why they picked the nominee.  Then we get on the phone and talk to them about the process. Once we find a good prospect, Rhett and Link go out there. They spend one day with the business and come up with the idea.  The next day they shoot, and we release it a couple of weeks later. It’s that simple. We’re trying to give everybody an opportunity, any type of business. A lot of small businesses aren’t Microbilt type customers.

Q:  But they’re funny anyway.

Brian: Yeah, and we felt the best way to celebrate Main Street business is to really leave it wide open.

Q:  Right, like the zoo.  Let’s talk about the evolution of this campaign.  Will you continue it with the videos indefinitely?  Is there a plan for another plateau or dimension?

Brian: Good question. I can’t tell you.  We’ve got some great ideas.  Certainly Rhett and Link are getting a lot of interest from Hollywood.  One of the videos was just on “Ellen,” so our videos are still getting a lot of play out there.

Q: You might be a victim of your own success and you won’t be able to afford them anymore.

Brian:  Certainly if that happened we’d be very happy with their success.  But we’ve developed a very good relationship with these guys. I’m sure there are bigger companies than Microbilt that have called and said “Hey we want to do this with our company.”

Q:  Is there anything I haven’t asked you about the campaign or the results?

Brian: No, just that we’re thrilled with how well it’s been received.  You hope that when you do something like this, it’ll catch on.  When we first watched Cullman Liquidation, I got it on a Sunday and I called another guy in New York and I’m going, “This isn’t funny.  You think this is funny?”  They’re like, “Oh, my God.”

We talked to Rhett and Link the next morning. They took a couple of our comments, but they stuck to their guns and said, “No, we think this is one that’s going to really hit it.” And that one just exploded.  People loved it.

You know what? It’s great.  I don’t know why I didn’t see it initially. We took a big leap of faith. 

Even a lot of our employees are like, “Why are we spending money doing this?  Shouldn’t we be doing more direct mail, or email marketing or whatever?” But I think everybody come around. We hit a chord. It does make sense to participate in this type — I don’t want to call it marketing — this kind of entertainment.  It’s an opportunity to touch people. People know who you are, they have a sense of who you are as a company.

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