After the fantasical video about a boy with million-watt teeth who teaches the glum imaginary island how to smile again via his friendship with a magical fish was filmed in August, the Columbia marketing team began the hard part: figuring out how to build a detailed digital world that would amp the singer's followers up for the big reveal. "When you have a video and a piece of art at such a level, it's an incredible challenge for the rest of the team to build a campaign at that same level of artistry and creativity," says Xanthogeorgis.
Luckily, Styles and Meyers had created a rich world with dozens of locations and characters that Xanthogeorgis and his team spent hours studying, looking for clues they could use in the stealth campaign by putting themselves in the shoes of Harries (who see clues everywhere). There was a firm, detailed plan in place before the effort officially went live on Nov. 18 with the reveal of the innocuous-looking Eroda homepage, but, as always, Harries had their own ideas.
As much time as the marketing team put into sprinkling crumbs across the internet, Columbia director of Digital Marketing John Salcedo says they spent almost as many hours watching and listening to how fans were reacting and revealing tidbits, working in real time and pivoting the treasure hunt based on what the amateur detectives dug up. "When they found [something] we adjusted and/or leaned on it to make sure that they could further go down the rabbit hole," says Salcedo.
The "real-time marketing" meant that the plan shifted every day, with the team working around-the-clock to read comments, dig into chat rooms, Reddit and elaborate Twitter threads filled with clues they'd planted and some they hadn't in order to see where the audience was going so they could toss seeds in the right places. "This whole campaign was around mystery and sometimes mystery is more powerful than knowldege," says Xanthogeorgis, noting that digital native fans are so used to finding any information they want very quickly online, that creating a world where answers are hard to come by was a delicious twist.
What was even more fun was seeing all the other niche groups that dove into the maw, including ARG heads, who were certain that it was a stealth campaign for some new killer digital game, or Black Mirror fans, who were convinced that Eroda was part of a new season of the hit Netflix future shock show. Even Dungeons & Dragons diehards thought Eroda might be a new fantasy world. The beauty was that Eroda was so vague that all those theories could potentially be true, which is why Xanthogeorgis and Salcedo purposely didn't do anything to dissuade rogue theories.
At one point Xanthogeorgis, who is Greek, says that even he questioned if Eroda was real after a theory posited that it was at the center of the world and definitely connected to Greek mythology. "It freaked me out how well they knew Greek mythology... it was super amusing and cool sitting on reddit and reading all these theories," he says, adding that other theories suggested Eroda was somehow stuck in time like the island in Lost.
"We wanted to keep the tone cryptic [like] we don't really know how to use social," says Salcedo of mimicking the kind of small town/island travel agency that might not necessarily know how to best answer your question, down to a purposely busted merch link. Some bunk clues included the 2004 copyright footing on the Eroda home page, meant to throw off the scent of deep-diggers who posted X-Files-like videos breaking down all the clues they'd found. And if they're being honest, Harry's fans are so dedicated that Salcedo says they somehow found the hidden first test tweet in the campaign sent in October, weeks before the official launch on Nov. 18. "This fan base is brilliant," he says. "They literally already had a hunch and figured it out 36 hours in! They had every answer ready to go."
"The most difficult part was to keep it on-brand, the mystery and the tone very, very specific," says Xanthogeorgis, who noted that real-time marketing can sometimes lead to the kind of impulsive decision-making that might have tipped the team's hand if they weren't careful. "Everything we tweeted had its purpose and there was a lot of thought behind it."
Keeping in mind, of course, that some of the clues made no sense at all in an effort to encourage superfans to poke around every corner. "Beautiful pictures and beautiful narration of nothing," Xanthogeorgis laughed about the pretty, but intentionally vapid Eroda Instagram feed and trying-to-look official travel ad. Salcedo's proudest moment was creating and planting real-life Eroda travel brochures around New York and in Barnes & Nobles bookstores that made the whole project "larger than life."
The results speak for themselves. In the lead-up to Friday's reveal of the "Adore You" video, there were dozens of bootleg merch items available, from t-shirts and posters to rugs, stickers and shower curtains, as well as the ultimate tribute: an Urban Dictionary entry. For Xanthogeorgis, that kind of spontaneous activity showcases the power of a fictional brand that didn't exist two weeks ago, but has suddenly spawned its own virtual world of spin-off items and activity.
With "everyone" on the Columbia marketing team on deck for the campaign -- as well as Styles and his management heavily involved -- Xanthogeorgis says the hard work paid off with more than four million impressions on Twitter when the effort launched the weekend before Thanksgiving -- and "hundreds of millions" to date -- as well as a No. 1 world trending hashtag almost all day on Thursday (Dec. 5) in the lead-up to the song and video's debut.
Thursday also brought a Facebook post encouraging fans to pack their bags for the long-awaited voyage to Eroda. "They're incredibly smart, they're brilliant the way they pieced it all together," says Xanthogeorgis, who hoped fans would have their OMG moment when they finally got confirmation that it was indeed a Harry subterfuge on Friday morning once all those clues that made no sense finally came into view.
"In this day and age when there is so much out there getting people to pay attention to one thing is really satifsying," says Xanthogeorgis.
Watch the "Adore You" video below.