In search of the most elusive force in all of marketing

If you're somebody with something to sell and no deep pockets for million-bucks-a-minute advertising blitzes, buzz is for you. Buzz is busy talk, the CNN of the street. It's hugely influential. Buzz is not merely onomatopoeic; it's a big-time, no-nonsense force. Once it's on the move, buzz is potent and widespread and lawless, which of course makes it irresistible. Brisk and a little unstable, buzz is a weather system that whirls into, and eventually out of, your life. Buzz is the Tornado Alley of communication.

Buzz needs an igniter--a circumstance, a surprise, a shortage, an inside scoop, a juicy tidbit, the right timing, a giveaway, even some ambiguity. The most celebrated igniter in our midst is Oprah, as both Texas cattle ranchers and booksellers can attest.

Buzz travels on the thrum of conversation; it's what large numbers of people can't stop talking about. More than anything else, word of mouth stokes buzz and keeps it alive. Like a faraway radio station, buzz can be faint and fuzzy and tricky to tune in. Ironically, that limitation only adds to its persuasive allure: the just-out-of-reach quality that characterizes buzz--especially incipient buzz, which requires that you chase the story--holds people in thrall. The key question for owners of growing companies is whether you can produce buzz by scheming and planning and plotting and contriving, or if you just have to wait to get lucky. I'd argue that cleverness and ingenuity catalyze buzz better than good fortune does, though the combo of all three is a humdinger. So let's turn our attention to the real-world rules that govern buzz and to how you can go about cultivating it and putting it to work.

For me, one of the best examples of the art and science of this whole process is the story of how southwestern cuisine took hold, as described by Patricia Sharpe in the February 1996 Texas Monthly. The beginnings of the southwestern buzz date back to the mid-1980s, when a handful of ambitious young chefs in Texas and California were experimenting with the local cuisine.

In Dallas, a group of seven chefs started meeting for dinner--potluck, of course--at which they cooked for one another and concocted ways to get noticed. One of them, Anne Greer, had an innate understanding of public relations, and it was she who made sure that Dallas Times Herald writer Michael Bauer was invited to one of those showcase meals. The first time the phrase "new southwestern cuisine" is believed to have appeared in print was on August 7, 1983, in an article by Bauer. Now the group had a bona fide brand name for their imaginative fare, and that, too, was a big help. Naming anything assigns it an identity and supplies an easy conversational handle.

Over the next several years, the chefs cooked for anybody who'd do a story. But while a handle and some smartly planned publicity can be the foundation for buzz, in this case the final igniter was very good timing.

The '80s, you may remember, saw a boom in the popularity of exotic food from Asia, Mexico, and Europe. Southwestern dishes, with their anchos, habaneros, and cilantro, were ideally suited to the gastronomic zeitgeist. Plus, people were just in the mood for new tastes. Thus the new southwestern cuisine became international fare.

Heather Howitt credits timing with helping to create buzz around her product, Oregon Chai, as well. Chai is a spicy, milky, intensely sweet tea that's been made for aeons in India and Russia and the Middle East. Chai first appeared stateside during the 1960s at ashrams and communes; by the 1980s it was featured on some restaurant menus and at some western coffee carts. In 1994, Howitt founded Oregon Chai Inc., in Portland, Oreg.

Although Howitt made use of traditional marketing and the time-tested handing out of free samples to create buzz around Oregon Chai, she also thinks its popularity was aided by the latte wave. Oregon Chai's revenues have rocketed from around $200,000 in 1995 to $2.8 million in 1997.

If anyone knows the formula for igniting megabuzz, one would expect it to be moviemakers. Hollywood and buzz have always been thick as thieves. Good buzz--a brew of rumor, hype, and enthusiastic reviews--opens movies with a bang. Bad buzz shuts them down faster than a vice cop on a raid, which is why studio suits and horn-rimmed statisticians spend so much time scrutinizing early audience reactions to a rough cut, to see where people tripped on the story line or find out if they noticed the costumes or liked the star. Of course, the studios pump heavenly sums into promoting their newest screen gems. (The advertising largesse for show biz puts it in a class by itself, except maybe for cars and Coke.) But independent, grassroots buzz does a better, more persuasive job for a song. It's all in the allure of the inside scoop.

Here's an example of how well it works: Last summer the biggest theater in my hometown got rid of a huge Titanic pop-up display in the lobby that you had to walk around to get to the popcorn. So that was a bad omen. There goes Titanic, we said, a real flopperoo, another Waterworld. But last summer I hadn't heard about Harry Jay Knowles, a self-described geeky guy in Austin, Tex., who runs a Web site called the Ain't It Cool Network, which, he says, covers "all stages of development of the films that you and I look forward to."

Knowles's Web site collects and publishes daily primo insider movie buzz: "Gossip/Rumor that'll make ya slobber!!!" "Star Wars Prequel Spoilers!!! Stay away if ya don't wanna know!!!" No "studio line" to salute or to "cloud our judgment," as Knowles puts it, just good old unleavened buzz, still warm from the oven. (Check it out for yourself at Punctuation purists, beware: everything there is festooned with multitudes of exclamation points. That Harry, he's always so up!

Make no mistake, for all his punctuational excess, Knowles has really got the goods--and it sends movie moguls around the bend because they'd just as soon keep things extremely hush-hush until they're good and ready. But no such luck. A battalion of loyal undercover snoops (who file reports under goofy fake names like "the Swede") leak the cinematic scuttlebutt straight from soundstages and obscure film festivals and rough-cut test screenings and early script run-throughs, and Knowles tells all.

So around the time that 3-D model vanished from my West Coast moviehouse, raves--raves!!!--started to roll in from 23 of Knowles's spies who had just wangled their way into a rough-cut screening of Titanic outside Minneapolis. Those unauthorized reviews produced authoritative Internet buzz ("This movie's not the dog you heard it was") that attracted more and more attention as it spread, accelerando. People noticed. By autumn, you could sense the shift was nearly complete: before it had even opened, Titanic had gone from washout to once-in-a-couple-of-decades classic, on a par with Gone with the Wind, if you believe the review that ultimately ran in the New York Times. Thanks to Knowles's gang, underground buzz triggered the one thing all the studio money in the world couldn't--big momentum--and Titanic began its amazing rise. (Interestingly, the Web site Students Online has a section called StreetSpeak, which tracks language used by mostly teens and preteens. One of the new words on its list is titanical, meaning something really good.)

Now I should mention that if Titanic had been a real turkey, raves wouldn't have amounted to much (and surely would have compromised the reviewers' credibility), because buzz does not lie. It is its duty to be honest, a stalwart in a crowd of hucksters. Pseudobuzz, on the other hand, bites off more than it can chew and is easy to spot because it creates dissonance. Something's off somewhere: think of any gushy over-the-top PR, a customers-come-first campaign in the commercial-airline business, a line like "I didn't inhale." Real buzz has that familiar ring of truth. It clicks.

Every would-be buzzmeister has to learn when to let buzz grow by itself and when to step in and give it a nudge. Consider the Dancing Baby, a weird, surreal-looking animated infant that cha-chaed its way into TV-land last January by showing up in two episodes of Fox's hit series Ally McBeal. The boogying baby was one of 12 characters introduced two years ago by Kinetix, located in San Francisco, a multimedia division of Autodesk Inc., which is headquartered in San Rafael, Calif. (With revenues of $617 million, Autodesk is the fifth-largest software company in the world.) "It was a simple tutorial for our customers," says Kinetix general manager Jim Guerard, who tapped bargain-priced freelance talent from a three-person company called Unreal Pictures, in Palo Alto, Calif., to imagine and design the characters.

About six months later Kinetix got wind of E-mail floating around with the Dancing Baby clip attached. "Users modified the files," Guerard says, "and shipped them around the Web to their friends," and that's how David E. Kelley, the creator, producer, and writer of Ally McBeal, got onto it. It was perfect for an episode in which lawyer McBeal (played by Calista Flockhart) worries about her biological clock.

Baby buzz has been a godsend for Kinetix, which has sought to raise its profile, especially in the entertainment community. Guerard says the bopping bambino has built brand awareness and visibility with minimal cash. Hits to the Kinetix Web site have surged, as has traffic to the best unofficial Dancing Baby site, run by Seattle high school student Rob Sheridan. Merchandising is likely (you can already get a Dancing Baby screen saver), with more clips to follow this year.

Kinetix was quick to realize that customers created their own kind of baby love, and the company wisely capitalized on that. To do otherwise--to attempt to build buzz by force--would have killed it. Instead, Kinetix made it easy as pie to copy the digital baby file, modify it, and pass it on. Only when the baby bombination was clearly audible did the company start to put together some PR, in case the craze continued and people wanted to know more.

There's another commonsense principle at work here. If you give stuff away as fast as you can, you whip up interest, which is the down payment buzz requires. It always surprises me how businesspeople devote so much time to building barriers to entry when they'd be so much smarter to let it rip!

Creative giveaways are practically a credo for Little Earth Productions, a $3-million Pittsburgh-based company that recycles license plates, bottle caps, and street signs and turns them into belts, bags, and datebooks. With an assist from an agent or two, Little Earth's just plain cool products have made guest appearances on TV shows like Home Improvement, prime-time exposure that didn't hurt the company's sales. But some of Little Earth's other marketing maneuvers to create buzz are more backyard.

When a Pittsburgh woman was crowned Miss Pennsylvania this year, Little Earth sent her a fleet of their "Cyclone" purses, shoulder bags made from old license plates. Miss Pennsylvania kept the one made from Pennsylvania plates, and she gave those made from other states' plates to her sister contestants in the Miss USA pageant. Little Earth was betting on those Cyclones to see plenty of shutter action in the media frenzy that preceded the March pageant.

Little Earth cofounder Ava DeMarco says that "donating products is great because it gets your company's name out, and"--here's the voice of a with-it business owner--"it can be expensed."

A big honking wave of positive buzz can't be beat, but bad buzz can breed incredible operational problems. When that happens, company owners have to switch from an igniter mind-set to an extinguisher mind-set. America Online teetered (but didn't fall) when it promised a service it couldn't deliver. Intel's flawed Pentium chip had every tech expert going for a while there, but it recovered nicely--so well, in fact, that CEO Andy Grove landed gracefully on the cover of Time last December as Man of the Year. And Johnson & Johnson's superb response to its Tylenol crisis virtually defines corporate responsibility.

For some, though, bad buzz can mean wipe-out city, or pretty close to it. In October 1996 the worst kind of crisis erupted at Odwalla, the California fresh-juice company. Outbreaks of E. coli infection were linked to its unpasteurized apple-based drinks, and the overwhelming buzz was that the company was gone for good. There was no way this West Coast favorite could win back the public's trust, or that's how the buzz was running.

To its credit, Odwalla acted quickly and with compassion, skill, and honesty: it voluntarily recalled products, fixed the problem, and made hefty investments in safety. It also covered all medical expenses for people who had become ill from drinking an Odwalla product. Through an 800 number, a new Web site, and daily in-store updates, Odwalla kept information flowing. Sales plummeted by 90% after the recall, but today, at $53 million, they're just about back to where they were before the crisis.

The way to love anything, the English journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once said, is to realize that it might be lost. A keen anxiety about fading youth has sent people of a certain age clamoring for newfangled life-extending nutrients like melatonin (cures jet lag), saw palmetto extract (shrinks an enlarged prostate), bilberry extract (regenerates the retina), and SAMe (combats aging and depression). The fear of being on the verge of extinction can be very good for buzz.

Scarcity even helps to explain the mania for Beanie Babies, those pint-sized understuffed avatars of buzz. If you've ever once been the object of that squinchy stare of Squealer the Pig or Patti the Platypus, you know all too well how loopy it makes you feel, especially if there happens to be a kid collector nearby. Yet Ty Inc., the suburban Chicago company that produces Beanies, does no advertising. All the same, from 1996 to 1997, Ty's sales were out of this world, growing more than 2,000%. They've climbed higher since, and the company's growth is projected to be even more dramatic this year.

Ty has an ingenious custom of "retiring" a number of its plushy critters every year. As any collector will tell you, the rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes. Super-hard-to-find retirees can fetch more than $1,000 each; few things can get Beanie devotees off their butts faster than, say, the breaking news that Bumble the Bee is about to buzz off (and it did, in 1996). The company keeps such a snug lid on which special Beanie is about to be yanked that grown-up fanciers have built their own complexly structured networks aimed at tapping into early Beanie Baby buzz. Ty's own Web site averages more than 20,000 hits every day. That's smart marketing--is it ever!--but it's also basic psychology. People go nutso for what they cannot have: Brownies. Butter. Beanie Babies.

Certain controversial situations are a kiln for buzz: agitated debates (abortion, flag burning, medical marijuana); touchy subjects (adultery, ethics). The collision of strongly held points of view is talk radio's stock in trade: Dr. Laura stands for moral character, and the devil take the hindmost.

Great teachers have always used the collision of strongly held points of view to full advantage; so have great preachers. Josh Hunt is a Baptist missionary's kid who grew up to be a pastor himself. In his line of work, he knew that more people gave up on traditional church services than flocked to them. The problem, Hunt figured, was profound boredom. "Too many churches make people yawn," he says. There had to be a better way to do church.

There was. Hunt, as associate pastor, wanted what he now calls a Wow! church, and he thought one way to get it was to "leave people dangling a little bit," to leave something to the imagination, "the way Jesus did." So Hunt advocated sermons that intentionally left things open to interpretation, a clever and engaging tactic that's old as the hills, and it worked: it ignited buzz because it gave people something to talk about, a reason to come back the next Sunday and renew the debate. If every question is answered, what's to discuss? "The teachings of Jesus beg explanation," Hunt says. "Whatever else he was, Jesus was a master of buzz." Even as other churches withered, the congregation at Hunt's church in Las Cruces, N. Mex., tripled over 11 years.

Knowing that style is as important as substance, Hunt reinterpreted the look and feel of church. He started a popular Saturday-evening service. To accompany certain services, Hunt chose jazzed-up music that had been written within the past 10 years--music that people liked and remembered, hummed and talked about. He treated guests respectfully and never embarrassed newcomers the way so many other churches did (albeit inadvertently) by making them stand and introduce themselves to the assembled throng. The choicest parking was reserved for visitors.

Last year Hunt (who has published three books about growing churches and Sunday-school classes) moved to Lubbock to launch 2020 Vision, his own consulting practice. His goal is to help southern Baptists create enough buzz to boost Sunday-school attendance to 20 million by the year 2020.

Whether it's jet-propelled or delicately pollinated, buzz is a business owner's best friend, provided you can keep up. Me, I'm high on recliners at the moment. Only certain recliners, not like the yucky gaff-taped model you see every week on Frasier, or the kind that looks like a puffy parka on steroids. I believe I speak for women everywhere when I say, "So what if it's cushy, it's ug-lee!"

Of course, I used to think Hush Puppies were dorky, and now they're just the coolest shoes around. (I have four pairs, bush league compared with real fanatics.) But recliners. Action Lane makes a leather club-chair style that I swear would fool anybody into thinking it couldn't recline to save its soul. Not only does it recline (in a fraction of the space the old models required), but it's so sleek, it actually won a design award, and you know what that can do for buzz. So now women like me are buzzing that these aren't our dads' recliners. Plus the ubiquity of home theaters and the relentless march of baby boomers toward old age is also pushing demand. Action Lane, located in Tupelo, Miss., reported record sales last year.

I've picked up some other current buzz bits while doing this story, and I'll pass them on now: Women and fly-fishing. Celebs (Richard Gere, Diane Keaton, Kelly Klein) who assemble photographs into gorgeous coffee-table books. London. Bilbao. Sydney. Anything from Levenger, the paper-and-pen company for people who love to write and read. El NiÑo. On-line grocery shopping. The smoothie--that yogurty concoction of decades past--is making a comeback, so I hear. Vitaceuticals. Uncommon pets, like sugar gliders and flying squirrels and hedgehogs. Clever packaging that makes you go "Wow!" (The company that makes Teton Glacier Potato Vodka promoted the product by sending out Idaho potatoes wrapped in gold foil with Teton Glacier labels affixed to them.) Brand names. Tofu. Ostrich fillets. Tequilas sold like single-malt scotches and beers made like champagnes. Bilingualism. Anything that's simple and beautifully designed: OXO vegetable peelers and can openers, Braun coffee makers, Odwalla's delivery vans. Shoulder pads for women, thankfully, are still way, way out.

The main thing to understand is that buzz is always going somewhere. If you try to stop it, buzz grows stronger. You can launch it from nothing, by giving stuff away and by using a spokesperson to seed conversational clouds. If your ear is good enough, you can pick up on the prevailing buzz and build on it. When it moves on--and it will--something new takes its place: a hot movie, a favorite food, a new buzzword. Sometimes big-time buzz even comes roaring back again, after a couple of dormant decades: miniskirts, fondue, that hideous lime-green color that just screams '70s, Saturday Night Live (when it was funny), minimalism.

One thing I can say with total confidence is that buzz is way, way more fun than any other act of communication. It's rebellious and contagious. You're in for a heck of a ride.

Nancy K. Austin is the coauthor, with Tom Peters, of A Passion for Excellence.

Research assistance for this piece was provided by Mike Hofman.

Read the companion piece " The Buzz Factory" by Nancy K. Austin in the May 1998 Inc.

How The Dancing Baby Got its Buzz

Step 1
In 1996, Unreal Pictures works with Kinetix to develop an animation-software package, Character Studio. Staffers design a demo character, a baby who dances.

Step 2
Animator and 3-D artist Ron Lussier refines the baby and shows it to coworkers in fall 1996. Someone sends the baby to a friend as an E-mail attachment.

Step 3
Like a chain letter, the baby E-mail is continually forwarded, through the end of 1996 and early 1997. Music has been added to the image.

Step 4
Web sites devoted to the Dancing Baby proliferate. In summer 1997, the New York Times's on-line CyberTimes runs a story on it.

Step 5
The baby appears in a January 1998 episode of TV comedy Ally McBeal. When McBeal wins two Golden Globes, the baby clip is shown. Kinetix garners a slew of press.

Buzz Through The Decades


VW Beetles
Timothy Leary
troll dolls
love beads


Rubik's Cubes
electronic calculators
sensitivity training
Volvo station wagons
mood rings
platform shoes


Cabbage Patch dolls
total quality management
The One Minute Manager
premium ice cream
Trivial Pursuit


Beanie Babies
bottled water
VW Beetles
Martha Stewart

Published on: May 1, 1998