Perrier wants to tell you where to go out tonight
By James Ledbetter
The views expressed are his own.
Last year on a drizzly Seattle morning I visited the corporate headquarters of Starbucks to talk about social media. At the time, Starbucks had about 2 million of what were then called “fans” on its Facebook page. That audience was both large and engaged enough, a company representative said, that Starbucks had recently been approached by another firm that wanted to advertise specifically on the Starbucks Facebook page. Starbucks declined the offer, but only after serious consideration. “We had to decide if we really wanted to be on that side of the publishing business,” the representative told me.
It’s a striking reminder that in the Twitter-and-tablet age, not only can anyone become a publisher, but for big consumer-facing companies, the real question is: how much of a publisher do you want to be? The question carries an added weight when you consider how many traditional publishers these days are trying to exit that business.
Non-publishers becoming publishers is not new. For twenty years, the Italian clothing retailer Benetton has put out a magazine called Colors. Richard Branson had a buzzy launch for his “Project” magazine/app last year. One of the more ambitious and technologically sophisticated efforts of recent years has been American Express’s Open Forum which — in addition to aggregating (usually small-business-related) content published elsewhere — has commissioned videos from traditional media outlets and then distributed them through a Web ad platform. (I made a few such videos at a previous job.) The advantages are obvious: unlike an ad placed in a magazine or on TV, the company gets to control how much or little integration with the content it wants to have, or even control the content altogether.
Yet even with such precedents, it’s rare to see something as sweeping as the Web site Société Perrier, which describes itself as “a global source for everything interesting in art, music, fashion, travel, nightlife and cocktail culture.” If you want to know who’s playing this weekend in Dubai, or how to get into a “secret bar” in Moscow, you can find out from this site, which is 100% produced by the company that’s sold fizzy water for more than a century (and in 1992 became part of Nestlé). At least half a dozen staff editors run the site from New York, L.A. and London, and dozens of others contribute on a freelance basis.
To hear the company tell it, Société Perrier is an urgently needed solution to an image problem. Perrier has to “recover its iconic status,” Jorge Torres, marketing group manager for premium brands at Nestle Waters, told me. “It’s a little bit old, and a little bit dusty.” The answer to that problem is usually the same — engage the younger consumer — but if everyone knew how to quench that thirst, Perrier wouldn’t be in this position today. Within the United States, the challenge is even larger, because our tastes are increasingly domestic. While the U.S. continues to be the world’s biggest market by volume for bottled water — and Nestlé the biggest player in it — U.S. sales of imported water are down 44% from their peak in 2004, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.
Perrier, then, needed to find a way to be both global — where Perrier is still growing — and local. Torres says the site actually grew out of a realization that Perrier was contributing to a number of interesting cultural events and institutions all across the world, and there was no central place to promote them all. Using the marketing budget from the bigger markets to create a platform that could highlight what was happening in places like Sao Paolo or Toronto with fewer resources just made sense. Michael Blatter, whose Mirrorball agency helped strategize the site, says: “Société Perrier has global presence with local activation.” The target, Torres says, is the “social hedonist,” whom Perrier wants to reach at every decision point, including what-should-I-do-tonight?
Perrier won’t divulge what it’s spending on Société Perrier, but it’s impossible to believe a site of this scope can be built and maintained for less than a few million dollars. Torres did allow that the company was spending 15% of its overall marketing budget, and boasts that it is “very efficient, compared to TV or print.”
That may be, but the venture nonetheless presents several potential pitfalls. For starters, marketing budgets are notoriously fickle — what sounds fabulous in a bubbly economy can be the first thing to disappear when things go flat. Another is the conflicts that come with switching from advertising to publishing. For example, for years Perrier was a major sponsor of Time Out‘s annual London Eating & Drinking Guide; now, at least in theory, Perrier competes with Time Out. Torres is very clear on this point: “We needed to get into the entertainment business, but I don’t think we’ll ever replace traditional media.” Instead, he envisions entering into partnerships with the likes of Time Out.
Still, as anyone who’s worked in media for the last 20 years or so can attest, publishing is a tricky business. Even if you’ve got tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, it’s hard to reliably predict what audiences will respond to. “I can see what Perrier is trying to do,” says Rob Walker, author of Buying In, a sharp and often skeptical book about modern marketing techniques. “The effectiveness of these things usually comes down to whether it seems like you’re proactive, or like you’re piggybacking. Is it plausible to believe that Perrier knows more about the hottest clubs in Sao Paolo than, say, Cool Hunter?” That’s a tough hurdle, though Torres cites Cool Hunter, a seven-year old trendspotting site, as an inspiration.
And what about my Starbucks litmus test — will Société Perrier accept advertising from companies besides Perrier? “We’ve not made a decision on that,” Torres says. “Maybe if we found the right brand.”
PHOTO: Bottles of Perrier are sold in a market in New York June 14, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer