The impossible dreamer: Honda's former marketing head on the birth of viral content and metrics

The Impossible Dream from 2005

Chris Brown, Honda’s marketing director throughout the brand’s ‘Dream Factory’ decade of the 00s, left his company of 23 years not to jump ship to another carmaker, or spend the rest of his days consulting in a suit, but to compose a symphony.

“I took two years out to write it,” he said, ahead of Double Concentrate’s first Digital Dojo event, at which he was speaking. “It’s probably absolutely terrible but I’ve always wanted to do it, so I took the time to do it.”

Now out of the client-side game since 2011, Brown is eager to delve into stories about his musical prowess and farm before mentioning his extraordinary career at Honda. He began at the company as an area sales manager and jumped into marketing ten years later. Then came the hits: The Cog, Hate Something Change Something, The Impossible Dream.

But before that, Brown prides himself on leading the first-ever viral marketing campaign – well, probably. It was the turn of the millennium and he was tasked with creating a campaign for the HR-V Joy Machine with “an amount of money that wasn’t enough to launch a car." So his team devised a piece of creative that could be shared on an email.

“We wrote the ad purely to be viral,” Brown recalled. “It wasn’t a TV ad, it was 15 seconds, and we knew we had to compress [the files to] under 1MB to get around the firewalls. I remember we forecast on the basis that if one person had five friends, and if we entertained enough – if we made people laugh enough, cry or fall in love – they’d send it on.”

And they did. Brown’s team started the chain with their own networks of friends, agency contacts and journalists — and when they woke up the next day, the ad had reached Sydney. It also reached Canada — where the president of Honda’s division in the North American nation was so flummoxed by the spot’s unprecedented reach that he called for Brown to be fired on the grounds of advertising outside his territory.

“Looking back – the key point is [that] we started entertaining,” he said. “When I saw the scripts they just made me laugh so much. We specifically targeted an agency that was able to do that – they didn’t come to us. I always went after the agency I wanted.”

The agency that created the Joy Machine spot (which ironically hasn’t been preserved by the internet) was Leith. But afterwards, Brown went after another agency – Wieden+Kennedy. He secured a partnership in 2002 that endures to this day — and the two recently unveiled a love letter to filmmaking with the Honda Dream Makers spot for Films on 4.

“I stalked Dan Wieden from 1998 to 2000 and won,” said Brown. “I had a head office in Tokyo and I went to an agency where their head office was in Portland. How stupid can you be? But there was a time when I don’t think Honda and Wieden+Kennedy could do anything wrong to be honest with you. It was a fabulous time and you would not believe how we laughed throughout the years together.

"Honda is a philosophy-based company, and we founded kindred spirits in Wieden+Kennedy.”

The work the two produced together really needs no introduction – although, there’s no harm in rewatching it.

The films were underlined with ‘The Power of Dreams’ strap (Brown categorically stated he had nothing to do with its copywriting). It’s one of the bolder lines of our generation – did Brown ever worry the Honda brand wasn’t strong enough to carry it?

“I never thought the idea of dreams was too big for the brand because it was centred on our philosophy,” said Brown. “It was centred more on how the engineers think than how the business people had up to that point. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr Honda but I have read a considerable amount about [the brand] and that man was a dreamer. So when the global strapline, The Power of Dreams, was decided, it was a gift, a gift that we grew into.”

The campaigns that were made are often revered, in retrospect, as examples of pure creative advertising. But they were not immune to the metrics every marketing director today now faces; in fact, they were key to their invention.

When Brown sent out those first Joy Machine emails he was “absolutely flummoxed” as he sat at his desk and saw “the numbers go up as people opened the attachment."

“Up until then, we had to wait three months to get research to find out whether the TV ad worked or not,” he said. “It was just an absolutely fabulous new world.”

As the Wieden+Kennedy work starting rolling out, Brown wanted to move the debate away from “whether or not someone liked the ad”.

He explained: “We put a clear brand measurement system in place where we would be judged on our numbers. We had weekly figures and we spent a fortune because we needed to know if [the creative] was really working or not.

“Our argument became so strong that we managed to increase our budget quite extraordinarily over the Dream Factory years. We were achieving the same amount of awareness and consideration as Volkswagen, a company that was three times larger than us. That was the power of the business argument – give us more money and we’ll give you even bigger results.”

However good the results and the creative, Brown is clear about one thing: he didn’t do it alone. “People say that success has a thousand parents,” he said. “The marketing team did a wonderful job – it wasn’t all about me. I may have been the original brand architect, I may have seen it all the way through but if look at what happened to the other people at Honda … they became thought leaders at Jaguar, Sony, Virgin Media.”

Brown himself now runs a business called Second Opinion, which offers the C-suite said second opinion on their business problems. Despite all he achieved at Honda and beyond though, composing that symphony is up there on his list of biggest accomplishments.

“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “Dealing with clients and talking about marketing is a darn sight easier.”

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