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Friday, September 11, 2009

Mohawk's Michael Cheek: Flooring It Differently With Ricko The Rhino

Michael CheekMichael Cheek from Mohawk is definitely Flooring It Differently! He came up with the concept behind the Ricko the Rhino SmartStrand Challenge, an ultimate test in carpet durability [i.e., think rhinoceros on carpet for 2 weeks].

What's particularly fascinating about this campaign is that it includes elements of social media. More specifically, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook - a first in the flooring industry.

Some details.

The challenge took place at the Birmingham, AL Zoo this past August 2009. It involved a very rare 2800 pound Eastern Black Rhinoceros who lived for two weeks on Mohawk SmartStrand carpet. [Note: I'm told that Rhinos are extremely messy...] At the end of the challenge, the carpet is removed, cleaned and compared to new carpet...

I caught up with Michael on Twitter [@MichaelCheek] and he graciously agreed to answer many questions about this challenge here on Flooring The Consumer. He shares with us an insider's perspective on the overall program and on integrating new social tools with traditional ones.

C.B.: Michael, please tell me about yourself and your role with Mohawk.

MC: I’m the “web guy” for Mohawk’s Residential Division, meaning I’m primarily responsible for the websites our consumers and retailers access for product information. Most consumers would probably recognize MohawkFlooring.com.

C.B.: What is Mohawk?

MC: Mohawk is the world’s largest manufacturer of flooring including carpeting, hardwood, laminate, ceramic tile and area rugs.

C.B.: So, what is the Ricko the Rhino challenge all about?

MC: For the last few years, Mohawk manufactured a carpet with the name SmartStrand. It’s a remarkable carpet since the molecular make-up of the carpeting fiber prevents staining. It’s so incredible that you can pour bleach on it and the carpet won’t even discolor. Moreover, this carpeting uses corn sugar to replace some of the petroleum-based ingredients so it saves energy. It’s incredibly durable and amazingly soft. So we wanted to show the consumer just how extraordinary this carpet can be with the most extreme test we could conceive.

Let’s be honest that the economic conditions make for a challenge unto itself. While we were working through the details of this ultimate test, Mohawk saw more opportunities. Along with SmartStrand’s inherent sustainability message, we could call attention to the plight of an endangered species, like the Eastern Black Rhinoceros. Less than 500 of these majestic (but very messy) pachyderms remain in the wild. Additionally, we felt this entire effort belonged on the web, so we incorporated the live web cams and a strategy to embark into social media.

C.B.: Why did you decide to include social media?

MC: There’s a saying: “Fish where the fish are.” Many corporations are venturing into the social media space because that’s where millions of consumers virtually congregate. That’s enough justification for some. In my professional opinion, that’s just a small portion. You can’t go fishing without the right equipment and the right bait.

For the flooring industry in particular, ask any retailer and he or she will tell you the most powerful advertising tool available is word of mouth. Today’s “word of mouth” advertising is beginning to shift toward the online realm, in particular the “social media” services like Facebook.

Additionally, corporations and social media speak two different languages. By the very nature of the word “social,” it requires a level of personality and agility that many corporations do not quite know how to utilize. Having a celebrity like Ricko the Rhino allowed Mohawk to speak with consumers in a meaningful and fun way.

C.B.: What are the social media elements you’ve incorporated?

MC: We focused on three primary outlets: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Each has a so-called official Mohawk element and a fun Ricko the Rhino persona. The official Mohawk version began a dialog with retailers and other industry professionals. Ricko focused on chatting with consumers, particularly those with kids.

C.B.: Why did you select them?

MC: We did survey visitors to our websites during the summer to determine what best matched both consumers and retailers. Generally, the results were about the same. Facebook proved to be the most pervasive, as I expected. YouTube and Twitter were a bit more specialized. Since this was a compelling story told best through video, YouTube was a natural fit. Twitter is the unknown and experimental piece of the puzzle. But Twitter has a very loyal and dedicated following, so the people involved with Twitter could bring fierce loyalty to Mohawk as a brand.

C.B.: What did success look like at the beginning?

MC: Success in social media isn’t the same as with a website, which looks at the number of visitors, time spent on a site and a few thousand more numbers. To be honest, I don’t know if anyone has quite figured out the right way to measure success in social media. Certainly, the firm numbers always look good — so many followers or fans or viewers.

What I wanted to see more was the level of engagement. How many people posted questions or responses? What kind of postings? Was there commentary, opinions or just a repeated posting?

C.B.: What did you decide to measure?

MC: I tend to be very observant of the overall activity. Of course, everyone loves the exact numbers. Right now, Ricko can post almost anything and get an average of eight responses on his Facebook page. Additionally, when the challenge came to a close, many people just begged for it not to end.

So many anecdotes emerged from this event. For example, a first grade class that watched Ricko each and every day. While that’s a little heartwarming to me, I can be a crass businessman and say each one of those 20-plus kids in that class has a parent or two who heard about the rhino living on carpet. If just one of those parents — and I bet there were more — investigated, we will have a consumer thinking about how SmartStrand might fit into their home.

What it finally boils down to is those fiercely loyal fans that will generate the “word of mouth” advertising and become natural Mohawk advocates. It’s a long-term success strategy that will pay off as the economic doldrums subside and more consumers go flooring shopping. They will ask for SmartStrand or “that carpet the rhino lived on.” And that’s carpeting you can only get from Mohawk authorized retailers. There’s no measuring that directly but an indirect response is a boost in sales over time, increased recognition of SmartStrand and improved acceptance for SmartStrand as an alternative to the other fibers that have been available in carpeting for decades.

C.B.: What did success look like at the end?

MC: It doesn’t end. While the SmartStrand Challenge time did conclude, we still have videos to post, tweets to write and Facebook fun to generate. The campaign will wind down and transition.

I might add that Mohawk did not plan this event as a one-off. There’s a larger strategy going into the annual fall sale and beyond. To me, some of the activities coming down the pike are bigger than a 2,800-pound rhino.

C.B.: What were the biggest surprises you encountered?

MC: I came into this effort without many preconceptions, including on the social media portion. I don’t think anything surprised me or anything unexpected occurred. We have a very good organization, worked with a terrific agency and had full cooperation from the Birmingham Zoo. All that went into a good plan that seemingly went well.

If I had to point at one thing, I did expect more inappropriate postings. I’ve spoken with several other large corporations like Mohawk who have been in the social media space much longer. Many have to put a significant effort behind assuring the postings are family friendly.

SmartStrand ChallengeC.B.: What are you most proud of with this campaign?

MC: When the marketing organization began revealing the details of the SmartStrand Rhino Challenge to the Mohawk sales force, we received an e-mail from a long-time employee. At a company like Mohawk steeped in tradition more than a century old, you don’t often expect for your sales force to gush with excitement. This gentleman did. He wrote a very kind note that will stick with me.

C.B.: How have the social media elements helped the traditional elements of the campaign?

MC: At this point in time, any social media is an enhancement and rarely required. Corporations need to experiment and figure out what works best in these mediums. I do know that we probably exposed more people to SmartStrand and we did so at greater speed. In a traditional campaign with the same dollars, I doubt we could have pulled sufficient attention to SmartStrand, especially with Mohawk’s target audience.

C.B.: What about the black rhino message? What should people know?

MC: First, I’ve got to tell you about Ricko. I met him back in early March. While I can tell you about the personalities of my own dogs and cats, I never thought of zoo animals having personalities as well. Ricko does. He’s like a puppy, but a lot messier. He can be stubborn and shy. Getting to know this beast helped us get to know — and care — a lot more about his species. Ricko, more than anything else, turned out to be the best ambassador for Black Rhinos everywhere.

Despite the fierce appearance and the defensive characteristics, rhinos are remarkably gentle and kind. With so few left in the wild, it became important for me personally to help Ricko and his extended family. So we were able to add the preservation portion of the campaign, asking people to purchase a special t-shirt and stuffed animal. Any proceeds would go to the Birmingham Zoo and the International Rhino Foundation.

C.B.: You now have many Ricko the Rhino Facebook fans [2210 as of 9/9/09], Twitter followers [234 as of 9/9/09] and others. What will you do with them?

MC: Ricko will hang around for a while. We’re hoping there’s a natural transition toward joining Mohawk’s social networks and participating there.

C.B.: How do your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other audiences differ? Are they consumers? Retailers? Other?

MC: We can make a few educated guesses but nothing is exact. Facebook is the most varied audience with kids, teenagers and adults — including a huge portion of our target consumer (female, 35 to 65, married with kids). Twitter tends to be more retailers and sales people mixed with a few cutting-edge consumers — probably a little young for our target, but still good to influence. YouTube is a huge mixture but it gives such a more compelling story that viewers are more likely to become loyal fans.

The social media space could make you strive to be everything to everyone, but if you provide that compelling story along with rich interactions, you can be assured of finding — and keeping — those with the most interest.

C.B.: In a FloorDaily interview, David Duncan and Bart Rich explained to Kemp Harr how Ricko the Rhino will be incorporated into retailer newspaper, TV ads and POP kits. What about the social media elements? How do you integrate those?

MC: In this particular case, I think it’s the opposite question. How will these more traditional means of advertising complement the social media elements? While ads and POP kits were discussed and planned for at the beginning of this project, the demand that surfaced from our retailers cemented the need for more traditional support.

C.B.: How are you seeing the retail marketplace getting involved with social media? Both in terms of retailers and consumers.

MC: Consumers — most especially those 40 and younger — have embraced social media with great favor and speed. But overall, it’s still a young medium. I think we’re seeing more and more people use it. Some of our retailers are using the online space effectively. Still others are just getting comfortable. But since social media is merging into the mainstream, I think you will see more and more step into the space easily.

And my recommendation doesn’t require anyone to be aggressive. They should just be there as a way for consumers to connect. Over time, it will happen more and more.

C.B.: Do you anticipate doing more with social media going forward? What makes the most sense for Mohawk?

MC: Absolutely. We’ve just started to tell the story about Mohawk and our products.

C.B.: How do you use social media on a personal level and for your role at Mohawk?

MC: Being that I’m pretty much a geek and admit it freely, I have something like 20 different e-mail addresses, six of which I use on a regular basis. It’s the same in social media. But I think the distinction between what’s personal and what’s professional has blurred with Facebook and Google overall. You can see my entire career in a Google search!

I’ve had to be careful about my sense of humor — which is very dry and sarcastic — and letting it come out in my personal Facebook posts since I have several “professional” colleagues as “friends.”

Still, I feel more connected with people via Facebook. I learn what they’re like as people — not just workplace familiarities. It actually brings a dimensionality to people that breaks down the walls between work and home, who you were in high school and who you’ve become now. I know it sounds a little strange to those who resist social media thinking that it’s impersonal. I find things more personal and much more connected.

C.B.: Michael, how best to connect with you?

MC: Personally, you can find me here…

My site: http://michaelcheek.com
On Facebook: http://facebook.com/michael.cheek
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/michaelcheek
On LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/michaelcheek

Of course, all of the Mohawk fun can be found here…Mohawk Flooring, on Mohawk on Facebook, Mohawk on Twitter @MohawkFlooring, and on the Mohawk YouTube channel.

And, look for Ricko the Rhino on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, too.

Thank you, Michael, for sharing your insights with us!

Comments, questions, reactions?

How would you apply Michael's observations to what you do? How might you integrate social elements into your overall marketing strategy?

For more perspective on the SmartStrand Ricko the Rhino Challenge, view TalkFloor TV's series of interviews.

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