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Making a splash: how Ocean Spray and Chess.com surfed cultural waves to marketing success

Chess.com and Ocean Spray have had cultural waves break right in their back yards in the last year, in the form of a hit Netflix show and a viral TikTok. Their success in activating around these moments contains lessons for marketers looking to repeat the trick.

What connects Stevie Nicks and Anya Taylor-Joy? At first glance, not a lot beyond distinctive haircuts. But the Fleetwood Mac singer, and the star of Netflix’s autumn smash The Queen’s Gambit, both inspired bolt-from-the-blue marketing activations in recent months.

Since the chess-themed series’ release, Taylor-Joy has been credited with sparking a renaissance in the game, particularly among female players. Many of those new converts have been welcomed by Chess.com, the most popular chess website and app in the world. Meanwhile Fleetwood Mac’s song Dreams graced the soundtrack of a viral TikTok featuring a suave longboard rider and a carton of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry, in turn inspiring a rush of demand for its fruit juices.

So how did they capitalise on their moments in the spotlight?

Ocean Spray waited for the fever surrounding the video (shot by labourer Nathan Apodaca as he skated to work, his car battery having failed that morning) to peak, before delivering to him a shiny cranberry-red pickup filled to the gills with Cran-Raspberry.

Chief executive officer Tom Hayes ended up adding his own tribute to the hundreds of thousands of TikToks imitating the ride, while enjoying a surge in demand that dovetailed happily with the run-up to Thanksgiving, already gangbusters season for the 90-year-old brand.

According to Trace Rutland, digital hub director at Ocean Spray, the truck activation was a ”no-brainer” given the video’s back story. Getting the tone of its response right was crucial, she says: ”Our team here at Ocean Spray, from marketing to digital to PR, was focused on how to respond, how to engage authentically, and to also bring the same level of good vibes Nathan’s original video had started.”

While the immediate PR-led response was ”more art than science”, Rutland notes that it has led to long-term benefits. She says: ”We knew consumers loved our juice, but the love that existed for our brand was incredible to see come to life in our comments and DMs. It also helped us uncover the next generation of Ocean Spray consumers, including a surprising contingent of men 18-24.”

The entire sport of chess has benefitted from the hero effect of The Queen’s Gambit – Etsy reported an increase of 364% in users searching for chess paraphernalia, while eBay saw a rise of 215% of chess set sales – and according to SEO agency Return, Google searches for chess surged following the show’s release and in the run-up to Christmas, displacing family favourite Monopoly as the board game of choice.

Chess.com has been a particular beneficiary, though. The platform, founded back in 2007, has been the market leader among chess apps for years. But 2020 dealt it a kind hand.

Nick Barton, vice-president of business development at Chess.com, says that of the 53 million users now using the company’s sites and mobile apps, 40% joined in the last year. ”We’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of attention we’ve gotten,” he says.

Furthermore, new users have widened the audience demographic using the platform, with the proportion of female users and outright beginners increasing significantly. While Barton declined to share sales figures, he told The Drum that conversion rates have held steady over the year, representing a significant income boost in B2C revenue. Chess.com also draws revenue from its programmatic inventory, which serves ads to users at the close of games.

In fact, the brand has surfed not one, but two rogue waves in the last year. It saw a major upswing in new monthly users from the beginning of the pandemic in the US through to autumn. Barton says: ”In January of 2020, about 670,000 new members joined Chess.com. By March that number was 1.13 million, and by April it was 1.4 million. By the time we got to September, things had kind of levelled off, I think life was starting to return to normal in quite a few places – but even then our number of onboarded users was still elevated by about 60%.”

For Chelsea St Clair, a cultural strategist at consultancy Sparks & Honey, it’s no surprise. ”In the past 10 months we’ve seen people pick up hobby after hobby – breadmaking, puzzles, mixology – but for most people they don’t provide much challenge. Chess has always been there, but it’s always seemed a bit inaccessible [to consumers]. The Queen’s Gambit flipped that; they made chess look sexy, they made it look really accessible and took out a lot of the stigma around it.”

Overnight success years in the making

It hasn’t all been about being in the right place at the right time, however. Barton explains that Chess.com’s sudden growth was the result of years of preparatory work to make the game easier and more comprehensible to beginners, and a large influencer programme.

”We’ve been expanding out into the influencer marketing space for a number of years,” Barton says, describing the company’s efforts as ”the largest influencer streamers program on Twitch.” Its partnered streamers program now includes over 300 streamers and has helped the platform court users outside its traditional audience base – in particular, gamers and fans of strategy titles such as Hearthstone or League of Legends.

The platform broadcasts over 2,000 hours of live content a year on its owned OTT channels, and devotes time and effort to making the game more accessible, such as adding on-screen graphics to broadcast content that explain the state of play. Barton explains: ”Chess has a big issue with retention. And it’s no secret. The reason why is because the learning curve is so unbelievably steep. So we basically have like two mantras. First is make to chess fun. And the second is to make chess easy.”

Making the game ’easy’ means has meant ensuring the platform had adequate server support and an up-to-date UX to welcome the flood of new users. Making it ’fun’ has seen Chess.com develop personalisation efforts, culminating in an AI opponent named Jimmy.

Rather than playing at a set difficulty level, the bot is an ”adaptive personality” that adjusts its style to the user’s level of play, while chatting with them. And to make sure new users get the sense they’re improving at the game, Jimmy meets them at their level. ”Users get the sense if they’re playing against a bot and losing consistently, and then they beat the bot and must have improved. The perception of improvement is what’s most important,” says Barton. ”People don’t just want to improve at chess, they want to believe that they have improved their decision making, their cognition.”

In September, it unveiled a range of personality-led AI opponents based on the playing styles and abilities of famous players. Exhibiting the range of the platform’s playing demographic, the line-up includes both Canadian streamer xQc and Paul Morphy, a player who died in 1884. When The Queen’s Gambit came out, these AI players directly inspired its response.

Chess.com released multiple AI opponents based on Beth Harmon, the character played by Taylor-Joy, a month after the show premiered. Users can face off against ’Beth bots’ matched to difficulty levels that simulate her competence at different points in the storyline, from a medium-difficulty version based on her abilities at age nine, to a formidable bot based on her abilities at the show’s climax, which Barton claims has already beaten several grandmasters.

”The ability to inextricably link that playing experience, with the fantasy of playing against Beth Harmon in a fun way... was really appealing,” he says. He says that 2.08 million players have played against the Beth Harmon bots in total, with nearly 20 million games staged.

Sporting events and media properties have often led to unexpected boosts for chosen brands in the past – but riffing on cultural moments has become harder with social media. ”Consumers are way more knowledgeable. They’re more savvy, more willing to call out brands. And since anyone can go viral [on TikTok], brands are no longer prioritized in this environment. It makes it a lot harder to push through all of the noise,” says St Clair.

Choosing whether to activate adjacent to a cultural moment like The Queen’s Gambit is not as simple as it might seem. St Clair points out that timing and relevancy need to be taken into account by marketers tempted to react.

”Act too slowly and it will just seem like you’re trying to appropriate [the moment]. But act too quickly and it can seem thoughtless. There’s definitely a sweet spot in the middle,” she advises.

”You need to be thoughtful. Can this fit into your long-term strategy? If it does, and if you can find a way to make it work creatively, in a way that no one else is able to do, then you should do it. But every day there’s a new story, a new meme, a new viral trend and you don’t have to activate on it. Sometimes it’s better to take a backseat.”

Fortunes fade, however, and brands that find themselves buoyed by a happy accident of publicity must eventually level out. Barton notes that, by September, Chess.com’s lockdown boost was beginning to flatten. Similarly, he expects the glow of The Queen’s Gambit to dim in coming weeks: ”Truth be told, I kind of thought that the tail-off would have already happened by now. But it hasn’t – in fact, there’s still about 130-135,000 new members joining every day – it’s staggering.

”Good things can’t last forever, or at least great things can’t last forever, but you can learn how to provide sustainable messaging and an, attractive model.”

At Ocean Spray, Rutland makes a similar point: ”We recognize that viral moments, and awesome people like Nathan, are once in a lifetime. But we have a passionate, creative team that can move fast when needed, and we have already been reshaping the strategy around our social channels based on our new followers. Bottom line, we’re always ready to make the next set of ’Dreams’ come true.”

Going forward, Barton hopes Chess.com and the sport as a whole will be able to leverage its real-life protagonists as effectively as its fictional ones.

”In order for chess to stay relevant, what really needs to happen is for all the leaders within to come together and have a unified message about the benefits of the game,” he concludes. ”I think that’s going to be a significant driver moving forward as The Queen’s Gambit’s allure and stylized appeal dies out.”