I Pinch

By Nadia Shipovsky
Agency: RPA
Client: Honda Element
Category: 2007

This is a story of how a different kind of account planning for a different kind of vehicle led to an entirely different advertising campaign. One where a client fired the animated star of its commercial and where that star started a petition, got arrested, and ultimately ended up getting his job back and more. One were the best piece of research was done by a web designer and the best media planning was done by a creative director. One that enerated over 100,000 friends on MySpace, became #1 in arts and animation on YouTube, and spawned a popular on-road game. What follows is a story of the Honda Element and Friends campaign. Be careful when reading or you might get pinched.


Bringing Doughnuts to the Table... Historically, advertising has been developed in a linear fashion, which we know can be very limiting. Rather than fitting ideas into a media plan, we wanted ideas to lead. We wanted to think content and delivery simultaneously. We wanted strategy to dialogue with execution, rather than direct it. We were working to do things differently within our agency-and Element represented a keen opportunity. To overcome the linear process - we pulled a team together. A couple of creatives, a planner, a media person, an account person and specialists from our interactive group. This isn't a new idea, but the way we worked together was. The beauty of this team is that we left our job descriptions at the door. On some days creatives did research and media talked creative and planners brought the donuts to the table, and on other days planners developed events, media brought the donuts, and creatives ... .well you get the point. We talked a lot about marketing stuff, but we had more fun discussing real life - the world, people, YouTube and the context in which advertising was REALLY working. Our process was a dialogue, just like the advertising that resulted from it.

The Element is Getting Lost When it first came out, the Honda Element's boxy looks stood out. Yet oddly enough by the fourth year of its model cycle, the Element was in danger of going silent. Awareness was stagnant, imagery unchanging, and sales flat. Competing in one of the industry's fastest growing categories, Crossover Utilities Vehicles (CUVs), the once head-turning Element was starting to get lost in the crowd.

It Has Character In a category dominated by rugged, outdoor, extreme sports imagery, the Element was something of an anomaly, sort of a half truck, half surf-wagon if you will. Some early research exposed it as a \"box on wheels.\" In truth, it's a vehicle with a lot of functionality. You can use it to bring your art to Burning Man, stand up in it to change into your wetsuit, or get creative with the 64 different seat configurations. But the most distinctive part of Element is its love it or hate it looks. And those looks aren't for everyone.


Inspired Independents Over the years, we had developed a good grasp of the Element mindset. A segmentation study revealed a group called \"Inspired Independents.\" Inspired Independents look for opportunity to indulge their individuality even within the routine of everyday life. They love brands like Trader Joes and Jones Soda. Quote movies like Napoleon Dynamite and The Big Lebowski; browse with Firefox and get their news from places like Digg. Inspired Independents aren't anti-conformity or the mainstream. They just click with the unusual, offbeat and different. That's why they like the Honda Element.


The original vision behind the Element was all about functionality. It was designed by active people, for active people and had some unique features. We could have capitalized solely on that. But the more compelling story was right in front of our eyes - it's an odd vehicle with a quirky design that's not for everyone; it's very un-SUV. So why not run with this simple truth? In a category dominated by macho, active lifestyle imagery, the Element could and should be different. Functional, but friendly. Quirky, but approachable. Unique, but accessible.

Our team came up with the Element Creed: A Different Kind of Animal

And the work followed suit.


Phase I: Low Budge Engagement Compared to our competitors we didn't have a lot of money, so we needed to maximize our client's investment. We knew that all media impressions were not equal. We wanted high quality, engaging, even participatory impressions. Our campaign began as a series of low budget web vignettes. They featured Different Animals like a Platypus and a Possum conversing with the easy-going, but acerbic Element. The videos drew viewers to a website, where people could spend time with their favorite Different Animal and download more videos. The site was sticky. The average user time was over 15 minutes! Our whole approach was driven by the desire to reinforce the Element's quirky uniqueness and engage the public on their own terms. For search marketing we chose campaign-oriented words like \"Platypus\" and \"Crab\". These words accounted for 40% of hits at elementandfriends.com. People also got to hear Different Animal conversations through radiotransmitted billboards. Some of the Different Animals even debuted at the U.S. Open of Surfing. Eventually, the Different Animals became so popular we just had to put them on TV. And that's when we created a star.

Phase II: A star is born! Creatively, the campaign was a success. The client was excited. Sales were looking up. Even Honda dealers, who typically only react to sales issues, chose to run the campaign over other Honda ads. Most importantly, people dug it. How did we know? Sure tracking studies began to show a rise in Element imagery. But our best research didn't use the artificiality of a survey to find out what was going on. As we were eating donuts and surfing online we saw that our \"Crab\" spot had become a huge hit on YouTube. It was even spoofed. We noticed people talking about it on Element's MySpace page. We realized that we had something here! Something that people liked enough to invest their own time to interact with. Something that we could build upon.

We had an idea. it was obvious that people wanted more of the crab, so why not create a story around him? One that people could participate in, even help create. One that is quirky and fun like the Element. One that uses media in the way Inspired Independents do.

So, our team thought about what we could do online. We approached it from a behavioral perspective - not thinking about what we wanted to \"message\", but about what people like to do and how they actually used the media. We noticed that people like to make friends, they like to create and upload their own videos, they like to gossip about celebrities, they like to debate topics they care about. This became the recipe for the online debut of Gil - formerly known as the \"crab\". Gil was the crowd darling with his motto: I pinch. So, we created a place where people can get to know him a little better. We presented Gil as a classically trained British actor, living in Malibu with surfing as a hobby.

Over the next three months Gil's MySpace profile inspired 30 personal blogs and numerous debates. And then it happened ... One day Gil announced to his friends that he had been fired by Honda and would not be appearing in the new Element campaign. Pissed off and feeling pinchy, Gil started an online petition that was signed by over 26,000 fans. He was arrested for wrongful pinching and his mug shot appeared on SmokingGun.com. But in a classic story of redemption Gil eventually got his job back, directing and starring in a new commercial, which premiered on his MySpace page and quickly made its way around the web.


Soon, 100,000 Myspace users considered Gil their buddy, many adding him to their “Top Eight” and posting his commercial on their own homepages. In the end, there were over a million “Myspace” page views. On YouTube the “Crab” spot became the #1 all time in the arts and animation category. There were over 1.35 million video views and many, many spoofs. People even purchased Gil gear: ”I pinch\" baseball tees and BBQ aprons on cafepress.com, earning close to $12,000! The advertising even spawned a variation of the classic driving game punch buggy, with a pinch being the new punch and the Element being the new Bug. You can’t pay for advertising like that…or maybe you can.

Did it work? Yes! Honda’s fun, youthful image got a significant bump after years of flat lining. Element sales were sustained without the need to resort to costly sales incentives. Even more importantly, it was a good investment, one that helped our client’s understand the benefit of new media. One where a relatively small investment led to deep engagement with their product and created a strong, distinctive persona for the brand.


Why it Worked I'd like to say that we planned the whole thing out. But we didn't. We were clear about our positioning and our goal. We applied how advertising is really working in today's culture. We didn't look at consumers, we looked at people. We didn't look at media, we looked at life. The advertising that resulted from this was a true dialogue. It was not only our team's collaboration that made it work, but the consumer's collaboration as well. All along, we had the attitude that rather than invest our client's money in big production TV ads, we wanted to get people to invest their time to engage with us. We knew to do that we would have to be creative, participatory, and honest. And, we needed our client's support. After all, Gil the Crab was so popular that we were concerned about a potential backlash against Honda when news got out about his termination. One of the very first posts on Gil's MySpace page was F*%$ YOU HONDA!!! But in the end, everyone was \"in on the joke\" and Honda got credit from the public for being innovative and fun. As a planner, my role was to provide focus. But even more importantly, it was to help us work together, to let ideas lead, to get us to think media and content simultaneously and to keep at the front of our minds the way communication is really working. To be honest, you can't inspire that with tracking studies and focus groups. You have to nurture it through promoting dialogue.

In the end, our team all contributed to the creative process. I still take pride in checking out You Tube every once in a while. When I read one of the comments that says \"Best Commercial Ever\", I know that our advertising did actually pinch.