December 7, 2006

The MySpace Offensive

In an energy-drink market populated by the likes of Nelly, Steven Seagal, and heavyweight Red Bull, an upstart company marshals its fans to generate positive buzz online.

Adam Rosen

Cocaine, Rockstar, and hundreds of other energy beverages promise an injection of whoop-ass with every sip. So when Dowon Gaudiano launched a competitor called Liquid Blow Power Pop in May, he recognized his marketing needed every attainable edge. Gaudiano marshaled a very modern self-differentiation tactic: Asking Liquid Blow's fans and sponsored athletes to post positive feedback online, for free.

Liquid Blow and BMX
Courtesy Liquid Blow
Liquid Blow, which has designs on "rocking harder than a quarry," has sponsored BMX bikers.
Whereas soft drinks are sold mainly by a handful of mega corporations, the energy-drink business—which is not regulated by the FDA—is open to anyone with the time and inclination to bootleg a batch of beverage and make it palatable. Over 500 new products were introduced last year alone, according to a recent article in the Associated Press, igniting a branding arms race based unapologetically upon references to sex, drugs, and not only rock 'n' roll (see rapper Nelly's Pimp Juice).

(Naturally, it's also spawned some seriously ill-advised schemes. In one disturbing example, the website for Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt Energy Drink declares, "It's time for the Steven Seagal Experience! There is no telling what will happen once you get his juices inside you!" Indeed.)

It is within this milieu of Nelly and Seagal that Liquid Blow was seeking an edge. On October 29, an opportunity presented itself: Power Pop was evaluated on what is claimed to be the web's largest index of energy drink reviews. As is typical on commentary websites, viewers are able to post their own remarks below the writer's. The site's owner, Dan Mayer, has attempted to appraise as many (legal) stimulants as he can stomach, and most reviews—industry titans like Red Bull and Rockstar aside—display only a handful, if any, user comments, a function of most drinks' obscurity in a supersaturated market.

Yet days after Mayer posted his Liquid Blow review, it had amassed over 50 viewer comments, nearly all of them favorable. Considering the drink's recent launch date and its status as the pet project of one man, the torrent of endorsements was seemingly incongruous with the conventional product review cycle on Mayer's site. Add in the curious affiliation of so many Liquid Blow commentators with the niche sport of BMX, and the puzzle starts to come together.

After Mayer's review went live, Liquid Blow posted a bulletin on its MySpace page asking all of its admirers to leave a comment on the energy-drink site. The announcement reads:

Hi everyone,

This really HUGE Energy Drink review site finally reviewed my Liquid Blow.

To all those that have tasted Liquid Blow Power Pop, please post an honest review on this site when you all have a free moment.

Please click on "Comment" after the Liquid Blow review.

Thank you for your support.


Dowon Gaudiano
Courtesy Dowon Gaudiano
Liquid Blow proprietor Dowon Gaudiano says he's "a one-man show on a one-man budget."
BMX fits in well with Liquid Blow's self-positioning as "rocking harder than a quarry." Mayer site visitor Ryan Okuda—who left his MySpace address in lieu of an email contact—is sponsored by Liquid Blow in the sport. He commented,
This drink is awesome!! I love the taste of it compared to other energy drinks that taste like chemicals. I always drink it before I ride (motocross practice and races) and it never fails to deliver the boost of energy I need. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to a simple MySpace post, Liquid Blow now has a few dozen folks vouching for it on an industry-leading forum. In the world of marketing, exposure doesn't get much better than that. And it's free. Of course, many of the comments for Liquid Blow on Mayer's site have not been left by totally independent parties. While not all the commenters are sponsored by the company, they've still been solicited. Nonetheless, to the casual viewer perusing reviews and comments on energy drinks, none of this is readily apparent. The bottom line remains: Liquid Blow Power Pop has over 50 comments, almost all positive, whereas most other drinks have a handful or less. The only other energy drinks to generate this kind of, well, buzz are nationally known brands.

Liquid Blow proprietor Gaudiano, who tells Gelf he's "a one-man show on a one-man budget," doesn't think his MySpace plea was at all deceptive. "I didn't pay a single cent to anyone that posted their review on Mr. Mayer's site," Gaudiano, of Irvine, California, adds. "The reviews…on Mr. Mayer's site, those are all fans of the product."

There is a name for this type of promotional phenomenon: "astroturfing." In the antediluvian era before the internet, generating a groundswell of support for a product or policy almost always required significant time investment to properly allow for growth to occur. So-called "grassroots" organizing alludes to this organic linear model: you tell a friend, then she tells a friend, and he tells a friend, and so on. But astroturfing, according to Wikipedia, "describes formal public relations (PR) campaigns which seek to create the impression of being a spontaneous, grassroots behavior. Hence the reference to the 'AstroTurf' (artificial grass) is a metaphor to indicate 'fake grassroots' support."

Asked for his thoughts on the AstroTurfing on his site, Mayer, told Gelf, "[Liquid Blow] is newer and I would say most of the comments were from fans, but having that many fans willing to make comments at least says something about [its] following." He added that other energy drinks are often given positive comments by distributors trying to cash in on their beverages' recent exposure.

What becomes most clear from this story is the power of the internet in harnessing support—be it contrived, authentic, or a combination thereof—particularly within a well-defined niche. Perhaps it won't be too long before you can go to a bar and order a Liquid Blow and vodka. Until then, there’s always Cocaine.

Related on the Web

The Daily Show's Jason Jones interviews Cocaine Energy Drink founder James Kirby.
Trying to parry claims that he is aiming for inner city youth with the name of his product, Kirby says, "If that was the community I was targeting, I would have called the drink crack."

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