Don’t make ads, make news

on January 20, 2009

Interview with Bob Thacker, Senior VP of Marketing and Advertising for OfficeMax, about building a new voice with their “Life is beautiful. Work can be too” campaign.

Bob Thacker, SVP of Marketing at OfficeMax


  • Office supplies are not traditionally an exciting and fun space. The category is known for big dull bland spaces that are pretty much all alike.
  • OfficeMax’s “Life is beautiful. Work can be too” campaign is trying to change that viewpoint.
  • ElfYourself was OfficeMax’s attempt to associate its brand with Christmas. It succeeded hugely.
  • ElfYourself was one of twenty applications they tried during the holiday season. It just so happened it was the one that went hugely viral. The Web makes it cost efficient to bet on every horse.
  • Make content people want to pass along.
  • OfficeMax is now trying to associate its brand with fashion. First step, create a comfortable and fashionable work space during Fashion Week.
  • What we want our audience to believe is this is a company that really understands work. We don’t just sell stuff.
  • OfficeMax “made news” by launching “A day made better.” They gave supplies away to teachers. They created and published stories.

Full article:

One doesn’t traditionally think of an office supply store as having an industry voice, but that’s exactly what OfficeMax is trying to do with a category of dullness, grayness, and sameness, said Bob Thacker, Senior VP of Marketing and Advertising for OfficeMax. They succeeded hugely with its holiday viral application, ElfYourself, which had absolutely nothing to do with office products, but sure was fun to play with.

Changing the image of office supplies

Thacker knows that office product retailers are not an exciting group. “Office products,” said Thacker, “Are not seen as fun or exciting or places you go to shop. They’re places you go to buy things and there’s a big difference. Shopping is an experience that engages you in almost every sense and is a form of entertainment obviously created to incite people and encourage people to buy more. Our category is known for big dull bland spaces that are pretty much all alike. In the past there’s been no differentiation between the big three players. Our names are confused. Two of us have similar typefaces for a logo.”

OfficeMax’s “Life is beautiful. Work can be too” campaign is trying to change that viewpoint. The idea behind “Life is beautiful. Work can be too” is that your desk doesn’t just have to be filled with boring black boxes, they can be attractive boxes as well. Here’s the ad for the campaign.

Thacker reminds us of the mocking way the office environment is portrayed in the media. Dilbert, “The Office,” and the movie “Office Space” are our comical views of office life.  “It’s all been dumbed down to this space people view very similar to prison,” said Thacker.

In an effort to change the dullness, OfficeMax hired designers to apply their sensibilities to what are viewed as generic products but without taking away functionality or increasing price, said Thacker.

Create experiences people want to share

As for developing OfficeMax’s voice, the supply store has a lot of stuff in the works. They are planning on producing through all the traditional social media outlets, and helping people with basic office issues, like organization. They’re working with Peter Walsh, a well known organization effort.

OfficeMax is hoping to create more experiences that will go viral like ElfYourself. Thacker claims in the month of December they had more visits to ElfYourself than Facebook did, and it was the number one Web site in Australia. As much as he’d like to easily repeat that success, he knows creating something viral is not something you can build and control. For example, they tried to drum up the same excitement for a free Jonas Brothers poster, and it just didn’t work. My feeling is the lack of success is because the Jonas Brothers aren’t of interest to everyone. They don’t target the right audience. Although they may be targeting the children of the right audience. ElfYourself created something that everyone could personalize and was really fun and silly. It became something people WANTED to pass along. That’s how it became viral.

The first year they tried the ElfYourself idea it was one of twenty ideas that OfficeMax had posted over the holiday season and the Elf was the runaway hit, said Thacker. It was an effort to create some fun pass along content and to think of OfficeMax as a destination for Christmas which was a stretch at the time they knew.

But that’s what Thacker likes about the Web. You can test things out for not much money. And when things don’t work, you just move on, said Thacker. He thought it was very valuable to actually do twenty different ideas and to see which one was most successful. They had other successes of those twenty, but none that was the breakout star of ElfYourself. As Thacker jokes, “One way to win at the track is to bet on every horse.”

Creating an association with your brand and another seemingly unrelated industry

To launch the “Life is beautiful. Work can be too” OfficeMax theme, they created a fashionable work lounge during Fashion Week. OfficeMax tried to create a comfortable and attractive space for people to work, said Thacker. It’s a smart move because they wisely associated their brand with the industry of fashion. It’s also a very bold move to try to link your business with an industry that others wouldn’t even think there was a link. The danger of doing something like this is it could come and slap you in the face. But that will only happen if you don’t have an open and honest dialogue about it. If you just do marketing, and refuse to engage in conversation, then you’re going to have problems. People will question your integrity to associate yourself with fashion.

But like what OfficeMax did in trying to associate its business with Christmas (ElfYourself), they’re taking yet another leap and trying to build an association with fashion. I think there’s an even closer and obvious tie and the connection definitely opens itself up to discussion. I just hope for OfficeMax’s sake that they begin that discussion now as they’ve launched their campaign rather than having it just “in the works” as Thacker said. Right now, Thacker didn’t make it clear what the timeline for “in the works” is.

Don’t make ads, make news

“Don’t make ads, make news. Do something that people talk about, remember you for, and then give them something,” said Thacker, “And however you encounter with them make sure it’s a positive one.”

“What we want our audience to believe is this is a company that really understands work. We don’t just sell stuff,” Thacker said.

One huge promotional event that OfficeMax created that generated a lot of news has been “A day made better.” The event is a single day every year where they storm into schools and classrooms all around the country, and completely surprise teachers by giving away office supplies. The event is huge and it draws lots of interest, press, and conversation about the alarming fact that teachers are paying a significant portion of their crappy salary on office supplies. What’s most important is by creating an event like this, OfficeMax has also created all these fantastic stories that are then published on its site. Heart warming stories that OfficeMax has been responsible for creating and publishing. Plus, this nationwide chain has figured a way to connect with each and every community. Thacker also notes that while “A day made better” is a single day promotion, they do have staff that maintains that communication with the teachers and schools throughout the year.

When I asked Thacker what’s the biggest mistake he’s made in social media or building his voice, he has to admit it was OfficeMax’s attempt to associate itself with the women’s site, iVillage. “It’s already a rich site and what we brought to the table was not much more,” said Thacker trying to piece together why the project with iVillage failed.

I’m interested in seeing how OfficeMax creates its new industry voice in the space of fun and fashion. Right now a lot of it appears it’s “in the works.” Honestly, I don’t think it takes that much to start creating stories and conversing online. They’ve already begun a little bit, let’s see how quickly they get up to speed.

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