The CEO of word of mouth marketing firm Fizz, Wright chatted with Sparksheet about the innovative and successful campaign that got him fired from his first job out of business school, how he engineered the resurgence of PBR among the hip urban crowd by not worrying about it being cool, and about his new book on the power of word of mouth, also called Fizz.

You say in your book, that word of mouth marketing has been around for a long time but has been making a resurgence recently. Why is that?

What’s really interesting is that it’s totally clear that word of mouth marketing is really old; it is at least 10,000 years old.

More recently, you have the invention of broadcast and from the mid-1930s to the mid-1990s broadcast is really ascendent; It’s the most powerful person on the block. Then, in the mid-90s it starts to decline. In mature media markets all across the world, once they’ve had color television for 35 years the ability for broadcast to continue to move markets really starts to decline.

It takes about ten years for that decline to hit whatever its natural bottom is and then it just sort of sticks there. What happens is that, you have people who have really trusted a certain channel [of marketing] and over time they realize that that channel cannot be trusted as much as they thought. So, its utility declines and space opens up for other channels.

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Early in your career your were hired by Delta Airlines during a period when they were losing business to Air Tran. You said that one of your goals was to change the conversation about Delta in Atlanta, your home town where it employs tens of thousands of people. How did you go about doing this?

This was pre-Google, so I hand plotted where about 25,000 of Delta’s employees lived and when I got done with that I realized that people lived in basically every part of Atlanta. It occurred to me that basically everybody has a Delta employee as a neighbor.

Atlanta is very much a place that prides itself on its neighbourliness, so my big idea was we should create yard signs! They could simply say, “Your Delta Neighbour Thanks You For Flying With Us.” I wanted to make flying Delta about supporting a person whose kids go to your kid’s school, about making a choice to support your community.

The idea ends up getting shot down by your boss because of a worry that people will start knocking on doors complaining about lost luggage, but you make your own sign and put it on your lawn anyway. How did people respond?

I lived on a very busy street so I had the sign made up at Kinkos and just stuck it on my lawn and left it there for 90 days. My thought was, “I have an idea, so let’s test it. Let’s not guess.”

In 90 days we had three people stop. All three were Delta employees and all three wanted a yard sign.

But my boss shot it down again. 

Despite your boss, you end of taping the sign to your office door—a pretty ballsy move.  The Chief marketing officer of Delta sees it and likes it. What happened?

The end of the story is that Delta ended up taking the idea. They printed up thousands of signs, employees took them, we put them all over the place and it was helpful. It got people in the Atlanta market talking.

Delta was very gracious. They gave me an award for innovation, but then several weeks later the people in charge of my review found a reason to get rid of me.

One could say that I was fired for insubordination because I should have taken [my boss’] hint, but the airline, my airline, that I’d flown with my whole life, that was one of the economic engines of Atlanta, was loosing a lot of money on a daily basis and I just didn’t think we had time to wait.

Entrepreneurial spirit is not about having a job. It’s about getting a job done, and in my heart Delta was hiring me to put butts in seats. I wasn’t going to allow politics or discomfort to get in my way because that’s not what Delta was paying me to do.

So you’re this young guy just out of business school and you were just fired. What’s the next step?

I’d already started my own marketing company [Fizz] and I was doing some stuff on the weekends, so I just went full time with the company.  Our idea was crazy: word of mouth marketing is really old, but there was no data out there at that point that showed word of mouth worked.

Our first client was the Pabst Brewing Company, which at the time was not moving much of that beer. The CEO of Pabst was a guy name Brian Kovalchuk and his line to me was, “I have no idea if this is genius or this is stupid, but I’ll give you X number of small markets for a few months and we’ll see.”

We all know that PBR became huge. Can you explain the strategy you took with it? What did it mean to use word of mouth marketing to sell Pabst?

The strategy for PRB was this: They needed to sell more beer; they were looking for an angle; and it’s not a terribly differentiated beer from some of its competitors.

So me and Neil Stewart, who was the inside marketing guy, came up with this concept that it wasn’t going to be what’s going on inside the can, it’s going to be what’s going on outside the can.

By not targeting yuppies, PBR's visibility is reaching new levels.  Photo via Flickr by DieselDemon

By not targeting yuppies, PBR’s visibility is reaching a less materialistic demographic says Ted Wright. Photo via Flickr by DieselDemon

You deliberately targeted younger “hipsters” rather than older “yuppies.” What’s the difference and how did this work for PBR?

Yuppieism at its extreme is about having stuff just to be having stuff. So by the time you get to the late ‘90s you have a lot of people in North America who are thanking their parents for raising them and paying for college and then graduating and loudly rejecting all this materialism and this stuff they’d been born with and proclaiming that they’re going to be different.

That was the beginning of hipsterism. Hipsterism started as a political movement that was about celebrating those things that people are doing not just because they want to be seen doing them.

Neil and I figured this out and so with Pabst, since we didn’t have much of a budget, what we did was go out and have conversations with our potential clients, and the story that we told was the story of a company that says, “We make this beer because we like this beer, and it’s ok that not everybody loves it. We’re just here because this is what we like to do.”

Where did this message of unpretentious beer really click?

We went to places where people were doing things just because they wanted to. We went to bike messenger races in New York City. We went to places in the Pacific Northwest where people like to run [kayak] class four and class five rapids. We played a lot of Simpsons Pinball in bars all across North America, because that was a pretty good pinball machine and people liked playing it.

We were not going out there and try to sell beer. We were trying to figure out how to share the brand’s story, which was, “We think it’s cool that people do stuff just because they like it. And we’d like to come to your event because we think what you’re doing is cool.”

Thus, the craft-cocktail movement, and butchery, and exotic mustaches, and fixed-gear bicycles, and Japanese selvedge denim and all these things that, at this point, have begun to become cliché. But all of these things started because people decided that they wanted to live a life where they did things not to be seen but because they brought them joy.

How did you strike the balance between growing sales and making the PBR more popular while marketing it as a something that was anti-cool?

I would say it was less about being anti-cool and more about being whatever sort of cool we happened to be. As a brand, we decided that we were going to like ourselves.

We could do this because I had this data about influencers, and we were able later to prove that it’s one North American in every ten who tells the other nine what to buy. So what we needed to do was be out there where we were sharing and reaching them.

We just wanted to spread the message, “We like our beer, just like you like your thing. And if you want to come try our beer we’d love that. And if you like it too, that’s awesome. And if you don’t, that’s okay as well.”

We’d hit on the formula for marketing, and the formula for marketing in North America today is about sharing and not selling.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.