Not that long ago, in 2006 when ‘viral’ only described disease and ‘social’ was just another name for a party; OfficeMax was challenged with a monumental Holiday marketing task. We had no money. And nobody connected the OMX brand with Christmas. Yet, when the season was over, we were hailed as one of the most innovative holiday marketers. What were the secrets to this success?

I call them secrets because very few companies use them all, even though they’re very easy to do.

1. Be Scared

Taking risk is scary. But then creating anything is scary if you really think about. I like to push to the edge, maybe even feel uncomfortable with an idea. When we created Elf Yourself we really had little to lose, though. Nobody connected us with Christmas. We had to shake things up. With virtually no money (total budget for everything was less than it would cost to just produce one TV spot).

My orders to our agency Toy, were “Come back and scare us”. They said, “Okay. Put your entire budget into viral marketing. We think you should create 20 websites.” It was new. It was scary and we took the risk. They say “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I say “Poverty is the mother of all mothers!” If we’d had a big budget we probably would have fall into the “tried and true trap” of predictable media.

The Elf Effect

You can’t predict “virality” (if that even is a word). But you can aim at connecting on an emotional level. When we took all our money and banked it on 20 websites we didn’t know that Elf Yourself (a simple site where you plug your faces onto the image of dancing elves and let ‘er rip), would take off. But because we created 20 sites, we were able to see what could happen. That was key, not one idea, lots of ideas.

Some of the 20 did extremely well with millions of visits, but Elf Yourself stole the show. With 474 million elves created and total time spent on the site added up to more than 6,600 years! became the most successful viral site of all time. More importantly people began connecting OfficeMax as a “Christmas kind of place” Looking back on it, it’s easy to understand why people love it. It’s simple, had several catchy dances and was easy to interface with.


2. Create Holiday Tradition launched six years ago and it’s still alive and kicking. Why? It’s become a holiday tradition. Think of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. He was created for the now long-gone Montgomery Ward more than 60 years ago. The company abandoned it and gave it back to the author. He in turn, went on to become fabulously wealthy. They come back every year and people look forward to seeing them again. Like old friends. is sort of like the family Christmas tree. You bring it out with the old familiar ornaments and then you add new ones. If you can create a holiday tradition you may have an evergreen idea. Bad pun, but true.

3. Remember You’re a Party Crasher

I’ve often said, “Advertising is a party crasher.” Advertising butts into people’s lives and often makes them uncomfortable. Think of this, if somebody came to your door uninvited and bursts into your party and then began belting “Look at ME! I’m hot! Buy me! “you’d slam the door, wouldn’t you? Yet that’s what most advertising does.

Bring a Bottle of Wine

I’ve always said, “If you’re going to crash the party, bring a bottle of wine.” Create advertising that respects your consumer. Entertain them. Enlighten them. Inspire them. Let them learn to love you, but on their terms, not yours. And if you do that I think people will revere you and over time even give you credit for your and forgive your missteps.

Shhh! Don’t tell anyone

Keep these secrets safe. Use them to challenge yourself and others. And if you’re uncomfortable, or a little afraid, trust me, take the leap, and just make sure you bring a good bottle of Cabernet.


Bob Thacker, Advisor

Currently the executive director of Adopt-A-Classroom, a non-profit organization devoted to helping teachers, Bob formerly served in multiple marketing senior executive roles at OfficeMax, Sears Roebuck & Co. and Target as well as ad agency BBDO.

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