Walk down a street in Singapore and you may see the local version of the new globally connected generation. Young people plugged into their smart phones, sending tweets and text messages, accessing Facebook or even finding a way to tell the rest of the world their exact location.
American Tod Gimbel says it is hard to miss how this generation is constantly connected to their virtual lives. So it seemed only natural to Gimbel, a senior director of corporate affairs, and to his colleagues at American jean-maker Levi Strauss & Company that if young people were living their lives online, that is where their company needed to go too.
"We wanted to try to do something that is very real and unfiltered," he says.
This past August, Levi Strauss unveiled its new Denizen line of clothing for Asia with a rollout event in Singapore.
Only executives chose not to go the traditional route by using stunningly beautiful models to show off the clothes. Instead, they chose 10 twenty-somethings from Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and India whose primary expertise is not in fashion, but in knowing how to live online through social media.
In short, Todd Gimbel says executives were looking for the right people to create "buzz."
"A lot of young people are much more likely to become fans of a brand if they hear about it from their peers as opposed to being told that it's something they should like," he says.
One of those twenty-somethings was Bright, a writer, salsa dancer and blogger from Bangalore, India who goes by just one name.
"They picked me up," she says. "I mean, I'm a person who is gloriously perfect with my imperfections."
Bright's selection as a Denizen evangelist means she now spends a part of her 12 hours online each day answering questions and talking about Denizen clothes.
"People are getting to know about the product," Bright says. "My friends, they are asking me more about the details, more about the product, where they can pick it up."
One reason Bright says she has been getting so many questions is that her friends trust her judgment.
"I think they respect my opinion about things and products. And they would also want to check out the products because of the curiosity factor," she said.
That is exactly why Tod Gimbel and other Levi Strauss executives want to hear.
Risk versus Reward
To compensate its bloggers for publishing one post a day, Levi Straus gives them free clothes and occasional travel expenses.
And the company has not forsaken traditional advertising tools, like TV and magazine advertisements.
Compared to the budget for traditional advertising, the company spends relatively little on the social marketing campaign. But experts say those modest investments could have a big payoff.
"We do see a significant shift in people's media consumption patterns," says David Michael, the lead author of a study on Internet use in emerging economies. "Less TV. Less trusting of traditional advertisements. More reliance on endorsements, blog opinions, virtual word of mouth over the Internet."
Social media use is skyrocketing. In China, there are more than 100 million people using social media, while Facebook and similar Websites are catching on in Indonesia and even India.
"We're only at the beginning of a revolution in terms of people adopting smart phones, phones that are more and more capable of using the capability of the fixed line Internet," says Michael, pointing out that the growth of mobile technology is poised to explode.
Signs of Success
The social media advertising revolution has already found traction in the United States, where consumer products giant Proctor and Gamble scored a critically acclaimed viral hit with an online ad campaign for its Old Spice brand.
The company says the U.S.-targeted ads have even sparked interest in Britain, Australia and the Middle East. Proctor and Gamble's Mike Norton says, more importantly, the ad campaign fundamentally changed the way consumers thought about the brand.
"We looked at engaging our consumers in a way that is not only entertaining, but it's relevant, humorous and really keeps their attention," he says.
Unlike traditional media campaigns in which companies create advertisements and consumers view them, the latest Old Spice campaign was fully interactive. The company asked consumers to send in questions to the Old Spice spokesman Isaiah Mustafa, and then had Mustafa answer the questions on YouTube.
Proctor and Gamble say the results speak for themselves. The company says 1.5 billion people have now seen the ads on TV or online, and that sales have soared, making Old Spice the number one brand of body wash in the United States.
Tapping into Passion
Will social media advertising catch-on around the world? Syracuse University Advertising Professor Brian Sheehan says maybe.
"If you can find a community that shares a passion and your product or service fits with that passion, you can pretty much go after any age group online because they are going to be there," Sheehan says.
But Sheehan is also cautious. The former advertising executive in Asia and the Middle East, says while the internet makes it easier for companies to broadcast their message, they still have to understand the differences from country to country.
"Culture is becoming more and more important," he says. "Even though people are connected to ideas from around the world, people tend to absorb those ideas specifically to their culture."
Jeans-maker Levis Strauss hopes the Denizen social media campaign can bridge those country to country differences through the help of its 10 twenty-something bloggers, including China's Yinou Wang.
"This thing is not like those big stars and models," she says. "It's just made me feel that 'Wow!, this brand is really close to our lives.'"
Yinou, who is studying film in Singapore, says she had never heard of anything like the Denizen social media campaign before she got involved. She says she likes the casual but fashionable clothes, as do her friends back in China.
"They were all wondering," she says. "[They] saw my posts, said it is pretty cool because I'm a friend."
Yinou's friends in China do not have access to social media applications like Facebook or Twitter. She says she gets around the controls by posting about Denizen on other approved sites. Despite her government's strict internet controls, Yinou says online access has already become a way of life among her peers.
Advertisers hope they are cracking the social media marketing formula to turn that online enthusiasm into sales.