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What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing shocks, entertains or delights customers to the point where they become the vehicle for marketing. Here’s how it works.

While we all identify with the experience of being grumpy when we’re hungry or thirsty, none of us knew we were ‘hungry thirsty’, until OAK put a name to it.

In 2010, milk drink makers OAK released an ad that featured a rough and threatening character named Sergeant John Henry (yes, he had a name – who knew?) who aggressively explains what ‘hungry thirsty’ is and that OAK will cure it. You may recall the tagline: “OAK won’t just hit the spot; it will kill the spot and dress inappropriately at its funeral”.

So enamoured with the witty, aggressive diatribe, customers began sharing the video and it soon went viral.

Ten years later, the Kill Hungry Thirsty campaign went viral for a second time, when Sergeant John Henry was replaced by a fairground teddy bear who was experiencing ‘hungry thirsty’ to such a point that he flips the bird at the camera.

Viral marketing shocks, entertains or delights customers to the point where they become the vehicle for marketing, sharing the campaign online – and it can happen to any brand, regardless of its size or marketing budget.

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing is a technique used to turn consumers into marketers, whereby they share your brand or information about your product, usually online (and primarily on social media).

It’s a lofty aspiration, mainly because it can be rapid, widely spread, and costs nothing except what is spent on creating the initial campaign.

Viral marketing campaigns spark the imaginations of the consumer, whether it be shock, awe, or humour. It ignites conversations and resonates to the point where people want to share the experience.

How does viral marketing work?

Viral marketing works when people share a post or video on social media, or via other online platforms. Look at the success of memes, which are shared widely, because they nail a home truth and make people laugh.

Viral marketing is successful when customers make the decision that the content is worthy of becoming a trend. It’s often not a decision made intentionally, but rather a spur-of-the-moment decision based on an emotional reaction.

Viral campaigns all have some things in common, though:

  • They’re organic: It’s impossible to know for sure whether content will become viral because only your audience decides whether to share it. Having said that, having a sharp eye on social trends can increase your chances.
  • They’re timely: Trends reflect the feelings of the time and viral marketing taps into that. It’s not easy though, as trends come and go in the blink of an eye.
  • They’re bold: Viral marketing is risk taking. You want your campaign to stand out, capture the imagination of the consumer, and encourage them to share.

What are the pros and cons of viral marketing?


  • Viral marketing is shared so extensively it exposes your brand and products to audiences you may not traditionally reach.
  • Viral marketing is cheap, because consumers share your marketing campaign at no cost to your business.
  • Viral marketing can spread quickly.


  • Customers share content, whether it be good or bad, and should your marketing campaign hit the wrong note, your marketing can suddenly become a liability.
  • It’s difficult to measure the success of a viral campaign. You might be able to see how often a video was viewed, for example, but it’s harder to assess why it was successful.
  • It’s impossible to know if a campaign will go viral, and while it can be planned, it can’t be guaranteed.

Examples of viral marketing

Old Spice had a reputation for being an old person’s cologne – until the brand launched its campaign called ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’, which rapidly went viral.

The campaign featured an overly sexy man, doing overly sexy things, like riding a horse on the beach, and saying ridiculously romantic things, totally making fun at the ways women’s perfume was traditionally marketed. It used humour to connect with a younger, more modern demographic, who were happy to share it.

Some charity organisations have used viral campaigns to raise awareness and funds. The ALS Association recently saw this with its Ice Bucket Challenge, where people were encouraged to pour ice-cold water over their head before nominating someone else to do the same. Everyone likes a challenge and many people took this up. Even if they didn’t, a whole lot of people shared video of others doing it.

Speak to the marketing experts

Assemblo is a full-service marketing agency based in Melbourne, which has a keen eye on viral trends and the expertise and experience to create ads that are truly memorable and shareable.

To find out how we can help your business, give us a call on (03) 9079 2555 or send us a note via the contact form below.

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