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'Alex from Target': Can I Do This With My Brand?

As #alexfromtarget is fascinating the Internet and creating a ton of brand buzz for Target, marketers may be asking: Can I do this with my brand? The answer lies in marketing's knowledge about diffusion and market creation.

On October 26, Twitter user @brooklynjreiff posted a photo of a kid who works at Target in his uniform. It was re-posted several times over the following days. Then, suddenly, the Internet fell in love, and #alexfromtarget was tweeted over 1 million times. Yesterday, Alex from Target hit the mainstream media, CNN, USA Today, and Huffington Post began reporting about him, and celebrities like Ellen Degeneres started following him. So how about Mike from McDonald's or Stephanie from Starbucks?

The case of #alexfromtarget feeds into our longstanding epidemiological fantasies: the idea of creating an innovation, a new technology, an advertising campaign, a meme, or a piece of online content so brilliantly designed, captivating, funny or otherwise compelling, it will virtually spread overnight. 

Originally rooted in biology, viral spread -- or "innovation diffusion" as it is commonly called -- has a long tradition in marketing. Marketing professor Frank Bass was among the first to theorize the process of how new products get adopted differently in a population of innovators and imitators, thereby founding an entire research tradition in marketing. Over time, as researchers have developed ever-more sophisticated theorizations as well as practical applications such as Jonah Berger's Contagious, The Heath brothers' Made to Stick, Seth Godin's Idea Virus, or Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, this so-called diffusionist model has truly become a metaphor we live by. Society is a kind of sponge and an innovation's success can be explained in terms of the product's inherent characteristics and/or the resisting medium (the consumer's individual decisions about what to pick up).

But there are limits. Why, for instance, did the Dvorak keyboard, an innovation clearly superior to the QWERTY keyboard, fail to spread?

Proponents of linear diffusion would argue that people were not aware of the better keyboard or did not have enough knowledge to understand its benefits. But a more realistic explanation is probably that too many vested interests (companies, institutions, consumers, etc.) were attached to the QWERTY keyboard and that this prevented the Dvorak keyboard from being adopted.

And that's where the sociological view on innovation starts: translation -- or all the strategies that are involved in redefining actors and their goals in ways that make a particular new technology, idea or content acceptable, legitimate, or even natural. 

Translation proceeds from a very different set of assumptions to those assumed in diffusion. Perhaps the most important is that the mere existence of a powerful thing (a new medicine, a revolutionary engine, or a super funny joke) does not always automatically confer its ability to spread unless other actors are persuaded to carry it forward.

The success or failure of an innovation lies therefore no longer in Alex from Target, his cuteness, or the humour that is portrayed in the photo, but rather in the hands of multiple actors who may deal with Alex very differently. Some people will adore him. Others will caricature him. Others will look at the Starbucks logo behind him and smell product placement. Yet others will view Alex as prima-facie evidence of some sort of stealth campaign to get Target out of the negative headlines.

All of this leads to a fascinating insight. Instead of diffusion or transmission (a process where the meaning of the thing that gets shared essentially stays the same), we have a sociological process of transformation. Strictly speaking, the meme of Alex from Target did not go viral. Instead, the very idea that there was a contagious meme only emerged during the process of hundreds of thousands of people sharing, manipulating, and adding entirely new meanings to the original photo through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms.

Whereas tradition approaches argue that emphasizing surprise, humor, or usefulness makes a new product or idea more viral, more recent sociological approaches reject virality as an oversimplified approach and instead propose tactics marketers can use to make consumers do something they would otherwise not do (e.g., throw a bucket of ice water over their heads, use their cell phones to measure their heart rate, or get a botulinum toxin injection to look young). As I have shown in a study on the creation the Botox Cosmetic market in the Journal of Marketing, market creation is a sociological process that marketers can systematically execute. But it is also a very tedious, time-consuming, and expensive one that requires marketers to frequently intervene into the meaning-making process -- to ensure the ongoing support of multiple stakeholders such as medical experts, the media, celebrities, and regular consumers.

So, in view of this complexity, can I do this with my brand? Probably not.

Markus Giesler

York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Canada

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.