Ford’s recipe for a viral video campaign: First, take a puppet…

A little orange felt, a lot of comedic leeway, minimal product pushing, and Ford’s ‘Doug’ hits it big on YouTube, promoting the redesigned Focus.

Last year, Ford Motor Co. surpassed Toyota to become the No. 2 automaker in the United States. The company earned $6.6 billion in 2010. As of early March, the online campaign for its brand-new Ford Focus centers around an orange puppet who looks like he cost about five bucks.

Doug, voiced by comedian Paul F. Tompkins, has his own YouTube channel, a Twitter account and a Facebook page. And though his videos feature a well-known comedian and are directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, you won’t be seeing him on TV.

“We really developed these videos for the YouTube generation, if you will, that really enjoys entertainment,” says Jon Beebe, digital communications manager at Ford. “The purpose of the videos is to make people take a left-hand turn from their daily Web activities and pay attention to Doug the personality, but also the vehicle that he’s in and discussing.”

The company has shied away from pushing its new car too far down people’s throats, he says, keying in on being funny rather than listing off the features of the new Focus.

So far, it’s working. Some of the Doug videos have garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube and other video sites.

Really? A puppet?

The Web-only, U.S.-centered Doug campaign was about nine months in the making, Beebe says. Ford wanted to introduce people to the “completely radical, new design” for the Focus, but not in the same way it was doing on TV, where ads worldwide show off the car’s new features.

“If we took those TV ads and just played them online, they would get some attention,” Beebe says, “but when we started doing research, we started to notice that there were a lot of negative reactions to just the words ‘Ford Focus.'”

To put it bluntly, people in the United States found the car boring. Message board commenters would say things like, “Driving a Focus is like driving a desk,” Beebe says. Beebe’s team aimed to combat that sentiment.

“We knew we needed to get their attention, so we came up with this idea of a provocateur,” he says.

The team thought up about 50 ideas for characters, Beebe says, including a kid who acted like an adult, a council of people who righted wrongs on the Web and even a sentient version of the car itself. But when the idea of a puppet came along, Beebe says he fell in love. “We thought we could really push boundaries with a puppet,” he says.

Beebe’s team settled on a simple design for Doug after testing marionettes, humanlike puppets and Muppet-style characters.

Grabbing attention

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the first four Doug/Focus videos is that they’re almost all Doug, and very little Focus. The lack of a product pitch comes from something Ford learned during its Fiesta Movement campaign. Views of those videos never got into the millions, he says, because they were too obviously ads.

“People were very receptive to stuff that was entertaining, but we were so heavy-handed with our branding,” he says. Simply, people won’t share outright ads with their friends.

That’s why the first three videos to feature Doug—all depicting him doing heroic acts—have no apparent connection to Ford. They weren’t even uploaded by the official Ford account.

“We wanted to get people’s attention, but we also wanted to build the backstory of Doug,” Beebe says.

One of those videos—in which Doug disrupts a robbery at a convenience store—has more than a million views, he says. “In one week, we’ve already surpassed a whole year’s worth of the campaign for the Fiesta,” Beebe says.

The next video, of Doug giving a press conference, “is really sort of a story device,” says Beebe, to ease viewers into the next two videos, in which Doug actually tours the new Focus. But even with the videos that prominently feature the car, the aim was to keep things as entertaining as possible, he says.

“We could make a whole bit of Doug talking about the heated leather seats, but nobody would pay attention to that,” Beebe says. “We’re sneaking in commentary and information about our products where appropriate.”

This puppet’s all hands

Ford has taken a little flak in the days since Doug’s introduction from commentators and news organizations calling the puppet sexist.

Beebe says he doesn’t see the character as sexist, but certainly his attempts to hit on female reporters and Ford executives are inappropriate. “Ford does not condone or support them whatsoever,” he says.

Doug is a character sort of similar to Michael Scott from The Office, Beebe says. He’s funny and lovable, but he makes bad decisions sometimes. “He’s actually kind of pathetic in his attempts to get attention,” he says. “He’s a puppet. He’s not a person.”

In future videos, viewers will have a chance to see more of Doug’s personality, Beebe says.

Speaking of The Office, that hit sitcom, for which Feig is a director, served as the best example of the type of humor Ford wanted to go for, he says. Ford gave Feig and Tompkins “a lot of creative control,” Beebe says.

Even so, Ford is listening to what people are saying on the Web and on Twitter, and the team will keep those comments in mind as the campaign continues making videos through June. “We’re adjusting the campaign as appropriate, and we really are listening to people,” Beebe says.

Topics: PR

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