Chewbacca Mom: Marketing Anomaly or a Sign of Things to Come?

Zach Brooke
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways

What? A piece of Kohl’s-related user generated content called “Chewbacca mom” garnered more than 140 million views over the first few days of its release.

So what? These eye-popping numbers suggest the future of viral video and content marketing lies in creating the conditions necessary to hand off a certain amount of brand messaging to users. 

Now what? Marketers need to learn how to insert themselves into real-time conversations that have equity alignment with their brand value proposition.

May 31, 2016

User generated content is the future of media, according to agency CEO and former New York Times marketing manager Joseph Anthony

Last week, Kohl’s won the viral content lottery when a video racked up an astounding 140 million views on social media in just a view days. It was recorded by a woman laughing hysterically at the sounds emitted from a mask of the Star Wars character Chewbacca, which she purchased at the retailer.

Marketing News Weekly caught up with Joseph Anthony , social anthropologist and CEO of Hero Group , a full-service marketing agency geared toward engaging with millennials, to discuss the massive popularity of the video and the future of user-generated content marketing.

Q: You describe yourself as a social anthropologist? What is that, and how is it relevant to what you do?

A: I like to consider myself a student of human behavior. Something that’s really undervalued in marketing is the connection between branding, marketing, message, emotion and psychology. We try to examine the social dynamics that impact human behavior. In any kind of classic philosophy, like Freud or Locke, there’s this debate of whether nature or nurture defines who we are. We subscribe to this theory that if you take everything we’re taught by our parents off the table—work hard, be good people, be honest, pursue your dreams based upon putting happiness first, religious values and things like that—[what’s left is] how we behave is through applied learning. It’s through our experiences with media, with pop culture, with trends, with any kind of external influence that shapes us. So if we start to look at those dynamics … and then find some way of indexing them based upon priority of influence, we can start to create archetypes that help us predict human behaviors. At our agency we do deep dives into human analytics and look at external data points that drive human behavior to predict how consumers adopt new products into their lifestyles, which messages will resonate and what’s the best way for [brands] to intersect with those consumers in order to create a lasting impression.

Q: Let’s talk about Chewbacca mom. How do you quantify the value of something like that?

A: You can’t. I think those things are lightning in a bottle, and I think that’s what all marketers are trying to figure out, how to mass replicate or replicate at scale. You used to see a lot more viral activity like that happen when social media was still in its infancy and before the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world figured out a way to replicate virality in order to charge for it. It’s almost impossible for brands now to create viral campaigns because of the way he has implemented algorithms to control distribution of message without having to amplify it at cost.  So when you see things like Chewbacca mom, it still gives you a level of hope that there’s a level of humanity in what can drive trends and communications when it comes from a real honest place. That kind of stuff is the stuff that consumers pay attention to and are willing to share, like and comment on. It takes those types of pure interactions and contributions from people to ignite consumers who are becoming so overloaded with options to react to [they aren’t] able to cut through the clutter and find something that really resonates.

For the uninitiated:​


Q: Let’s just talk focus numbers: 140 million views in just a few days. Can you think of scripted or planned campaigns that have come close to that?

A: You have things that are extremely disruptive, like Puppy Monkey Baby. Things like that, that obviously have a level of conversational value that exists online, draft off of big moments like the Super Bowl. But when you’re distributing something from a brand fan page, there are ways of controlling the virality of that, so you have to equal that through a paid process. When you see something like a regular person do this, it’s really unprecedented in terms of what we experience and see today. It really requires millions of dollars of investment to try to achieve something comparable.

Q: Should user-generated content be included in overall marketing strategy? If so, how do you account for something that’s generated outside a marketer’s control?

A: [User-generated content], UGC, is the future of media. Period. The reality is, especially with young people and millennials, if there’s no control of your message, if there’s no ability to contribute and feel ownership of your campaign and take that message and make it malleable so that it works within their social sphere, it’s less attractive. The more and more a brand can figure out how to embrace the power of UGC to empower consumers to carry and evangelize [its] message, the more efficient [its] campaign is going to be. Case in point: We all saw the success of the Straight Out of Compton meme campaign. If you give someone a vehicle to magnify their voice or their ability to express themselves and communicate something unique about themselves and at the same time do it in a way that fits your brand, your product, you’re going to see a lot more success. 

That’s consistent with media trends are right now. Premium content is starting to mean a lot less. It’s difficult for media companies to justify scaling their business using just an advertising model, especially when companies like Facebook have developed such an efficient way of targeting people that they are bringing [cost per thousand impressions] down considerably. They’re forced to find a way to delineate the difference between premium content and user-generated content so that they can figure out a way to create subscription value to their content. But given how personal opinions are replacing curated press and media on a lot of levels, it’s becoming more and more difficult for brands and publishers to ignore the power of UGC and where it sits in the landscape.

Q: What are the risks of relying on user-generated content?

A: Obviously, there’s always a risk that somebody is going to bastardize your message or take one thing and turn it into another. Whether you like it or not, there’s a constituency online that’s living every day to try to take something and turn it into a form of personalized communication—whether it’s the myriad of Donald Trump memes that exist online or the thing that happened to Birdman when he went up to Power 105.1 [WWPR-FM] and was like, ‘Put some respect on my name,’ and that turns into a kazillion different interpretations online. To some degree, you have to be willing to relinquish power and take the Phil Knight philosophy that any press is good press and any interpretation of your message or remixing of your message is a good thing because we live in a world and a society of consumers wanting to magnify or amplify there personal perspective on things. That is the new normal. Controlled communications don’t exist anymore. That’s partly because of the ability to create customized editing tools and editing content on your phone in real time, and adding filters to change things is almost modus operandi for every 16-to-24-year-old in America. There is almost an expectation with how Snapchat and Instagram are creating a level of autonomy in what people do with content and how they publish it, that any content that gets published online is fair game for them.

Q: Can you think of examples of brands that tried delving into UGC only to be affected negatively?

A.: It’s a category that’s still very much in its infancy. Any brand that makes an attempt needs to be given an “A” for effort because there are no consistent benchmarks that people can follow right now as best practices to determine what to do or what not to do. We come from a train of thought where it’s hard to really predict what will work and what won’t work because it’s such a malleable industry; you’re literally sending something out to millions of people who have a million different viewpoints on a specific subject matter, and they can take it and run with it. There are certain people out there whose jobs are to just take a certain piece of UGC call to action and bastardize it. Call them UGC haters or viral haters. I think that it’s too premature to basically give somebody an “F” because of where we are in the medium. 

Q: What if, somewhere down the line, a piece of UGC blows up, and it comes out that the person in the video has an unsavory past, or they are an amateur pitchman for hire? Is that a legitimate concern?

A: That’s a real risk. We dive into people’s lives sometimes knowing very little about them. There is such a starvation from brands that want to catch that lightning in a bottle and capitalize on viral success that sometimes they leap without looking. As we start seeing more social media icons being created through these types of scenarios, we’re going to run into occasions where the messenger is not necessarily the right person to deliver this amazing message. But the pros of that will far outweigh the cons that don’t necessarily give brands pause when trying to create those campaigns. Most brands are so great at crisis management that there’s equally as much risk of signing to an endorsement deal a celebrity who lives a volatile lifestyle and may wind up having a sex tape a week later. Ask McDonald’s about how they feel about putting Johnny Manziel in a commercial with LeBron James .

Q: You’ve described what’s happened with Chewbacca mom as lightning in a bottle. Is there anything marketers can do to create the conditions that increase the probability of something like this happening, without getting their fingerprints on the content so much that the public has a negative reaction?

A: It’s tapping into real-time moments and conversations that are important to people and figuring out how to amplify them. This is a bad analogy, but if we know that there’s a significant amount of dialogue that is going on right now around the presidential election, how can a brand get in to give consumers, or voters, a larger platform to communicate their viewpoints? Could Taco Bell give Mexican-Americans a platform to dispel the stereotypes that Donald Trump outlined? Could they go through a process of providing a meme that shows the various jobs and the ways that Mexican-Americans support our economy on a daily basis by providing them with some kind immersive technology or some kind of Facebook application that allows them to highlight an aspect of themselves that they can share?

I think it’s understanding how to insert yourself into real-time conversations and real-time moments that have some kind of equity alignment with what your brand value proposition and having the fluidity and the adaptability to be able to put those things out there very quickly, so you can take advantage of that momentum. Those things will help encourage or increase the probability of getting that lightning in a bottle. 

Kohl’s had no idea the Chewbacca mask would be that relevant. Someone just stumbled upon something that was really cool and interesting, and there’s not even really a product aside from the Chewbacca mask itself to benefit from this. If the Star Wars movie was out this summer, and [Chewbacca mom] simultaneously aligned with it, then that would be awesome. It would almost feel like that was concocted. But the fact that this was just a woman stumbling upon something that just blew her away in terms of its cleverness is that natural wonder that brands don’t necessarily plan against because all of their initiatives surround a promotion or a launch, or something that could potentially diminish the natural aspect of what viral campaigns are all about.  

Author Bio:
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff reporter for the American Marketing Association. He can be reached at
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