The Conga line forms here

The other day I was struck by a strange display for a style of music that I had never heard of. Being a curious sort, I put on the headphones and instantly became a fan of the musical artistry of Sam Mangwana and a musical genre from Zaire known as Congolese Soukous. As I listened, I couldn't help but feel like a gold prospector who found something big and shiny in his pan of silt. There is something special about things that you discover for yourself, be they musical artists, hole-in-the-wall eateries or even brands. It seems that there is an adoptive mother inside all of us who wants to take these orphaned things home and raise them as our own.

The other day I was struck by a strange display for a style of music that I had never heard of. Being a curious sort, I put on the headphones and instantly became a fan of the musical artistry of Sam Mangwana and a musical genre from Zaire known as Congolese Soukous. As I listened, I couldn’t help but feel like a gold prospector who found something big and shiny in his pan of silt. There is something special about things that you discover for yourself, be they musical artists, hole-in-the-wall eateries or even brands. It seems that there is an adoptive mother inside all of us who wants to take these orphaned things home and raise them as our own.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he cites certain trends, like the Hush Puppies revival, as products of a few influential people (re)discovering an obscure brand. For the most part, these discoveries are not something that can be slotted into a marketing plan. In the case of Hush Puppies, it may have been a stroke of luck, like a propping decision from a fashion magazine stylist; for a brand like Mentos, it may have been a rock video from a hot band (Foo Fighters) parodying their so-bad-they’re-good advertisements. That being said, there are ways of putting the word ‘discovery’ in front of your brand but they take a very committed and patient marketer, and they run against the grain of nearly every chest-thumping tenet in the 21st-century marketer’s handbook. Basically, they involve planting seeds and waiting for them to grow.

Imagine, for a moment, that my initial sampling of Congolese Soukous had been prompted by giant billboards with letters three stories high, or the mynah-bird voices of radio DJs telling me three times an hour that Congolese Soukous music would make me 20% more ‘jiggy’ than the next guy. Sure, I might eventually relent to the hypnotic and never-ending media assault (like those people who finally resign themselves to watching the last few episodes of Survivor each season), but there is no way that my ‘discovery’ of this music would be nearly as special.

If you have experience feeding a toddler, you might believe that resistance to the hard-sell is built into our DNA. My favourite restaurants in New York City are the ones I discovered while completely lost there. My favourite movies are usually ones where I held no preconceived notion going in. (How many films has hype killed for you?) And my favourite brands are ones that I discovered and made my own. These are brands I proudly consume, share with good friends and keep secret from everyone else, so as not to taint their pure goodness.

Ask a hundred people the name of their favourite store and I’ll bet you a Krispy Kreme that Leons, The Brick and every other shout-it-from-the-rooftops retailer out there will score donuts. Not because these stores aren’t a good shopping experience, but because our relationship with them feels more like an arranged marriage than a blossoming romance.

It’s interesting to note that young beer drinkers have told the folks at Labatt that the brand of fun that comes from ‘out of the Blue’ is the best kind of fun there is. Well, at its essence, isn’t that ‘discovery’ fun? The trick is, as Blue is learning, you have to keep the approach fresh to deliver discovery. I hate to use the baby analogy again, but nobody over the age of one likes formula, so sprinkle a few drops of Tabasco in the mix. Even megabrands can become discovery brands by using the right approach. Introduce limited edition products or limit distribution of certain products or SKUs. Seed some samples onto e-bay. Market one of your regional brands elsewhere with an entirely different media mix.

Sometimes it just means taking your foot off the media/PR gas pedal. In Brazil, for example, Sprite affixed all the labels on their glass bottles upside-down in support of their ‘image is nothing’ positioning. What’s more, they did it without the aid of a single press release, letting consumers discover the switcheroo and make the connection themselves. Like I said before, patient and committed, not to mention cool as a cucumber.

In this future-is-now business climate, I’m not so naive as to think that this less-aggressive discovery brand marketing is right for everyone. There are many brands thriving with the popular in-your-face style, and many categories that demand that approach. However, while much has been made of ever-expanding deluge of media and advertising saturation (as you may have read in this publication, there’s a company out there selling space on urinal cakes, for Pete’s sake), there are very few marketers/agencies acknowledging the need for a more low-key or surreptitious approach.

If you are marketing a cool brand to a cool-conscious consumer, there is something to be said for the slow burn of a discovery marketing model, and the passion and affinity consumers feel towards brands they discover for themselves.

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Jeff Spriet is founder of Wiretap, a guerrilla marketing agency based in Toronto. Reach him at (416) 535-9038 or jeff@wiretap.ca – before Barney turns his parental analogies to mush.