Untested talent, restrictive ad rules, six weekly shows performed live: the Vodka Cruiser TV campaign should have been a brand disaster.
Live performance is always a high-wire act. Yes, things can go well – success is a possibility. It can be daring, spontaneous, surprising and delightful. But even with careful planning, live disasters can strike with lingering force. Ask any stand-up comedian, or Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Brands go to extraordinary lengths to avoid self-inflicted injuries. Looking unprepared and unprofessional are not customary business objectives. So why would an established brand lend its name to a lifestyle show with performers who have only ever done scripted and edited skit comedy, and then show the results, over six parts – in real time – on Facebook Live?
This was what the Asahi Group signed up for when it looked for an imaginative way to promote its range of Vodka Cruisers – pre-mixed “alcopops” preferred by young females. The issue for Asahi Group is that many women love the drink but don’t like the stigma attached to it – that it’s only for teenagers. It seems the very day Vodka Cruiser drinkers turn 20, they reach for something that makes them look more mature. So Asahi asked agencies to pitch for creative ways to help solve this issue.
The result was Vodka Cruiser TV (VCTV), a series of six weekly shows broadcast on Facebook Live. Asahi partnered with Vizeum Australia and Cummins & Partners to create what it claims to be a “category-first” execution, shot with exemplary production values in high definition.
The hosts of the Facebook Live series, which ran from late November 2016 to early January 2017, were the Australian comedy trio SketchShe. The three comics – Lana Kington, Madison Lloyd and Shae-Lee Shackleford – have achieved a large following for their short skits on YouTube, especially those in which they lip-sync pop songs. Their appeal led to a spot on Ellen DeGeneres’s blockbuster US chat show in 2015 and almost 2 million Facebook followers.
For VCTV, SketchShe would chat about issues affecting young people – careers, dating, food and travel – keeping it as light, bright and funny as possible. Each show would run for 15 to 30 minutes and include guest appearances by social media influencers, upping the show’s shareability quotient. As well as going live on Facebook, the shows would be housed on a VCTV page, ready to be viewed later with “live” reactions and flying emoticons.
Asahi Group category manager of ready-to-drink and spirits Virginia Woodger says Facebook was the obvious place to deliver its message. “The main thing we needed to address was the relevance of the brand for its target audience, and recognise where this audience ‘lived’,” Woodger says.
“The younger audience doesn’t appreciate being talked down to – they want to have a conversation with the brand – and their lives revolve around their mobiles. We wanted to get the brand involved in a conversation that was relevant to them but in a genuine way. It was about giving them social currency – having something to talk about with their girlfriends – associating the brand with those life conversations.”
Woodger says SketchShe was chosen as the front-line talent for a few reasons, despite having no previous experience performing for a live audience. They look (and are) over 25 – a necessity under the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code – have a massive social media following and are comfortable in front of the camera.
“We thought they were a good fit,” she says. “Twenty-year-old women aspire to be like them, so they’re in the right age bracket, aspirational and fun. We probably had lower expectations than [those who follow them] but I think they did a really good job of being relevant for a younger audience.” She admits a limited budget also played a role in the selection. “We couldn’t afford well-known television hosts so we prioritised the character fit over the experience because we knew we couldn’t afford both.”
“We thought [the show’s] innovative nature and relevance would outweigh some little glitches. It also makes it more human.”Asahi’s Virginia Woodger
Doing a live show is challenging enough without including an untried format, untested performers and tricky advertising rules. Intricate planning was vital. Woodger says the Asahi team had a dry run with SketchShe a week before every VCTV show as well as a complete run-through on the day of each performance.
“We worked really closely with them for the whole six weeks,” she says. “They would ad-lib and we would say ‘No, you can’t say that’ or ‘Just have another think about that’. It was about guiding them but keeping the spontaneity. It required a lot of work.
“It was good they were a bit older and had worked with brands before. They were able to operate within our constraints. I think they jumped at the opportunity because they want to do more live TV and the production company we worked with [The StoryLab] was really good at managing that.”
Still, this is live TV – no scripts, multiple cameras and microphones, hosts moving around, studio guests … wasn’t Asahi worried the show (and the brand) might look a bit, umm, amateurish? “Definitely,” Woodger says. “That’s why we had a run-through with the cameras – everyone experienced what it would be like [ahead of time]. Things like ‘You can’t all talk at once’, ‘Don’t follow this camera with your eye’ – these little practice sessions helped them get the idea.
“We watched what was being done on Facebook Live by publishers – rather than brands – and worked out what we didn’t want … [on some shows] you can’t hear what they’re saying, the images are static, it’s boring. I think [VCTV] turned out even better than what we’d hoped.”
Woodger says it was useful that VCTV was planned as a series of six shows rather than as a one-off. “If disaster had come, we could have pulled out one episode and still had five to stay live on the site – we weren’t just relying on the one show,” she says. “We thought the innovative nature of the format and its relevance on the platform would outweigh some little glitches. It also makes it more human.
“A very small proportion of viewers watched it live. I think the fact it was live drove more people to watch it rather than if we’d posted a series of videos. Our fans would get a notification that VCTV was live so even if they watched it on delay they would think ‘oh, this was live’. Also, with the emojis floating around, the likes and the comments appearing – that gave it a sense of more interactivity even when it wasn’t live any more.”
Asahi says the Facebook Live strategy achieved many of its goals and yielded impressive audience figures. Here’s a snapshot: 9 per cent increase in brand favourability (against a regional benchmark of 1.8 per cent); 23 per cent increase in ad recall (against a benchmark of 8 per cent); reach of 1.35 million Facebook users (90 per cent in the target demographic of women aged 18 to 24); 3.2 million total content views; a 9.3 per cent uplift in sales, which was triple the forecast.
Of course, the “3.2 million views” needs to be taken along with a sip of the sponsor’s product … a “view” is registered by anyone “seeing” the video on their feed for as little as three seconds. What are more tangible are the Facebook brand research study results that recorded excellent campaign recall and brand favourability figures. The increased sales number speaks volumes, too.
So, are we likely to get another taste of VCTV, or something like it? “We’re in the process of getting our heads around what we do next,” Woodger says. “We would probably want to keep [the shows] more bite-sized; we felt they were probably too long for the live format.” An issue facing all brands or publishers choosing Facebook Live, she says, is the audience has no idea how long the show will run for, unlike a video with a set viewing length.
“In terms of reach and engagement, the overall awareness level and initial brand health results, we definitely want to continue down that path.”
It sounds like Asahi might be ready for another trip on the high wire.