No, she’s not a supermodel, nor is she a soap opera star or a porn queen. In fact, she’s not even a real person. She is the animated (literally) star of VivianLives.com; an addictive online adventure designed to promote brands and girlhood simultaneously. Sherrie Krantz, founder and CEO of Forever (After), Inc., had the vision to put her money behind her imagination, developing the site into a viable community-meets-commerce scenario that has grown from a modest online presence to an impending offline sensation; a win-win scenario if ever there was one. With visits amounting to over 6 million per month, our interest was piqued.
What sparked the concept of Vivian Lives? Krantz was initially inspired by a very different idea – accessories. A former publicist for DKNY, Krantz initially began an accessories line and conceived Vivian while working out the angle to create demand for the product. “It occurred to me that if I came up with a character representing a real woman, that would be it. Not with features that were so profound that she would be an illustration of a real person. I wanted her to have this generic reality, kind of like an everywoman.”
As the light bulbs flashed in her head, Krantz caught a glimpse into the potential of her spokeswoman. “I thought when if you have a successful brand, what can you do? I thought about TV, books, beauty – she can endorse. She can make boring products interesting and she could tell you how to make things interesting. All these things that girls really don’t care about – she could talk to it. A Microsoft program – she could take you through it. Not like a robot, but one on one. And then I started to think about areas where we could build revenue and save money because we didn’t have to advertise.”
And thus, VivianLives.com was born and grew rapidly. “I could see [the impact] if we were allowed into her real life – so we made it a real life, not a pretend life,” says Krantz. “We wanted to give her the cache and the atmosphere of New York City, and knew people would care about what she was wearing and what she was using, even if she didn’t make it [in the city].”
“Then we got to thinking about product placement. I thought if I gave her this world and I market her as this cool person, she’d be every advertiser’s customer and every customer’s friend. This way she can kind of play both ends,” Krantz explains. “If you look at a normal person, not a celebrity or a socialite, we are all going to use a lot of the same products, we’re all going to look at a lot of the same things, and we’re all going to want some of the same things. It really felt like she could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a good wolf.”
Created as a voyeuristic experience, a visit to VivianLives.com greets you with an excerpt from her diary and a glimpse into her day through the “Viv-cam” with a real time ticker below. As you weave through the site, you are invited to see her at work, nose through her apartment and hang at the bar with her friends. Viv is sort of like a grown-up, interactive Barbie with a helluva lot more chutzpah, except you don’t dress her – she dresses you. Various products and logos are casually placed throughout the site and are endorsed via casual girl talk, the idea being that if Viv wants it, the audience will too. Says Krantz, “We are supposed to be this stamp of approval of coolness, chicness, what’s going on about town. Vivian’s supposed to be that rock that you want to measure anything by – whatever it is.”
Vivian Livingston’s life is loosely based on Krantz’s. Both are in marketing, both love clothes, both deal with issues pertaining to most women in their twenties. “I wanted her to be mischievous, yet confident. Cool girls would think she was cool, girls who were aspiring upward would want to know her and trust her. I’m watching Sex and the City and I’m too young for that. I wanted this everywoman to be someone that young women could feel embodied something of them.”
When first devising ways to create a buzz, Krantz was confident about Vivian’s potential. “I knew that the smaller brands would get it first. They could use Vivian as an add-on to a seasonal promotion, or if someone was pushing a certain product, for a certain price we could have Vivian mention it in her journal, do a contest and it works.”
Vivian could be called brand bait; users are meant to view the character as a contemporary and a friend who gives advice while steering them toward certain brands or products. Bourjois cosmetics, Yahoo Shopping and Net-A-Porter all have their presence woven into the content. Certain books on Vivian’s bookshelf link to Amazon. The Shop section features an illustrated storefront containing “Viv’s picks,” with clickable products and endorsement logos that lead users straight to purchasing options. For example, a section called “Sweater Weather” commands up a pop-up window where Viv gives fashion advice while recommending legions of sweaters by brands like J.Crew, Old Navy and Language.com. Then, when you click on the sweater, you end up on the product page of the brand in question – plug in a credit card number and it’s yours.
In the Entertainment section, one can find amusement by rating celebrity fashion faux pas or playing a game of solitaire. Having spawned a hard-core community, the Talk section is quite robust. “Viv-heads” can join a chat room, or post questions and share accomplishments on the bulletin board. At last check, one section had over (gulp) 39,000 postings. There are sections called Learning, Entertainment, Careers, Travel, Wellness (fashion concerns fall into this category), as well as autobiographical information about Vivian and opportunities for users to share information about themselves.
It’s the fun little nuggets aimed at the older teens and early twentysomethings that provide innovative ways to attach the world of Vivian to various brands. “The coveting doesn’t stop,” says Krantz. “I learned that about labels – women always strive toward the same things. There are different measures and types [of women] and that’s what I wanted to make sure people would be feeling on the site. Vivian would get dumped; Vivian would want [to buy] something; Vivian would hate her boss; Vivian wouldn’t live in a perfect world with a publicist that would blanket her life – Vivian’s life would be real. And what’s ironic is that Vivian isn’t real.”