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Company: Cisco Systems
Contact: Marie Hattar, Vice-President of Marketing, Network Systems and Security Solutions
Location: San Jose, CA
Industry: Computer hardware and software
Annual revenue: $39,500,000,000
Number of employees: 66558

Quick Read

Forget the norms. For Cisco Systems, reinvigorating its security line and authenticating its leadership position meant taking risks, challenging the usual conventions of its marketing programs, and finding novel ways to engage its target market where they work and play.

So Marie Hattar, VP of marketing for the company's Network Systems and Security Solutions unit, tried turning the whole 80/20 promotion/creative-spend equation upside down. Rather than investing 80% of the company's campaign budget in media buys, she put it toward crafting a unique and entertaining user experience that played heavily into user hobbies and interests. She then leveraged social media to supplement her modest media buys and help users spread the word for free.

The campaign, which featured superheroes characterizing the company's product strengths, became a paranormal phenomenon all its own, achieving high levels of engagement and a die-hard enthusiasm among fans that has even led to new merchandising opportunities for the company.


Cisco Systems is a global provider of Internet networking and security solutions for businesses big and small. Its suite of IT security systems includes hardware appliances, software, security as a service, and risk-assessment services. It is designed to help companies minimize security and compliance risk, prevent data loss, and quickly respond to emerging security threats.

Early in 2009, the company sought to both reinvigorate interest in its line of security systems among its target market of IT professionals and validate its position as category leader.

The blueprint for success, it felt, would come through developing fresh digital content that would serve to not only educate but also engross target users to the point that they would spend more time interacting with the brand and feel inclined to share the experience with peers.

"We aspired to create a new campaign that could be more viral [than our previous campaigns]," said Hattar, "something that would allow us to leverage social media, engage visitors, and get people to click more and stay longer because we had created such interesting content."


The company's market research highlighted two consistent areas of interest among this group—comic books and gaming. Since crafting a game cool enough to grab this audience's interest looked to be a sizable feat, Hattar instead decided to leverage comic-book characters as the means for capturing market attention and engagement.

In cooperation with its agency, Ogilvy West, Cisco contracted the well-known graphics illustrator Mike Mayhew (known for his work with Marvel Comics and involvement in films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Fantastic Four, and Superman Returns) to create a series of four motion comic webisodes starring four superheroes, each an embodiment of a Cisco security solution.

The superhero leader Jux, for example, personifies the company's MARS (Monitoring, Analysis and Response System) "central intelligence" product, while another defender, Trace, represents the company's email and Web security appliances, content-filtering services, and spam and virus blockers.

The series takes place in "The Realm," a Gotham City-esque place meant to represent the "Digital Era on Earth," where a "new class of criminals" exists: i.e., security threats such as spybots, viruses, malware, hackers, and a thick sludge called spam. Together, the superheroes battle those threats to ensure "the safety and security of every citizen on the human network" (a play on Cisco's "Welcome to the Human Network" slogan).

The episodes appeared on "The Realm" microsite and were released in two-week intervals during the lead-up to the annual RSA Conference (the world's largest annual information-security event).

To encourage repeat visits and further engagement on the site, yet-to-be-released episodes were announced next to those already playing; users could sign up to receive text messages or Facebook alerts whenever a new episode came out.

The microsite also includes the following:

  • Profiles explaining each character's origins, powers, and effects, which tied back to real-life solutions offered by the related products
  • Descriptions for the Cisco products with which each character is aligned, which then links to the appropriate product page on Cisco's website
  • Introductions to the Cisco engineers behind each solution
  • Current deals and special offers, which link to the appropriate product landing pages on Cisco's website
  • Downloadable wallpapers, ringtones, and instant-messaging avatars designed to help expand awareness outside the microsite

To promote "The Realm," Cisco used a combination of paid banner advertising on tech-focused sites (such as IDG sites Network World and Computerworld) and social-media marketing, including a Facebook page, Twitter posts by the company's CTO and other staff, and video uploads to the Cisco Videos YouTube channel. The microsite was also advertised with banners on the company home page.

In all, this effort included a much smaller investment in paid media, compared with previous Cisco campaigns, and relied heavily on free promotion.


Some 88,000 people visited the microsite during the first eight weeks, including more than 8,000 on the first day. Of all visitors, 56% were new to

Although the banners generated a healthy 0.61% response rate, due in part to effective targeted placement, a whopping 63% of traffic was produced organically through unpaid social media and fan word-of-mouth. "This [result] changes our media model going forward," said Hattar.

Once on the microsite, visitors continued to demonstrate strong engagement levels. For example, the average visit lasted 23 minutes, compared with the industry average of 6-7 minutes. In addition, approximately 15,000 people signed up to receive the text alerts for upcoming episodes, and 4% of visits resulted in click-throughs to the company website to learn more about Cisco security products.

Lessons Learned

  • Do your due-diligence. This case underscores the importance of adhering to the age-old marketing commandment: Know Thy Audience. By researching the marketplace, figuring out what specifically appealed to its target audience, and understanding where that audience spent its time online, Cisco was able to develop a spot-on campaign that resulted in high levels of user interest and engagement.
  • Speak their language. Think about your audience's frame of reference. For some, it may be simple and straightforward, but for others, fables, religious stories, or popular culture become the denominator by which friends communicate and relate.

    Cisco's audience might be considered one such group. If you've ever heard someone converse in Klingon or allude to a Star Wars scene while describing a real-world situation, you likely understand this point.

    By using classic comic-book scenarios (e.g., pitting good against evil) and personifying its products through the use of superheroes, Cisco was able to drive home the strengths of its products in a way that its market could understand, relate to, and enjoy.
  • Feed their interests. Sure, Mary Poppins may have understood more about child rearing than marketing, but one shouldn't ignore the pertinence of her observation that "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down."

    As Cisco found, consumers are generally more receptive to product education when the approach taken also entertains and caters to their interests.

    For Cisco, that included not only the use of comics but also the incorporation of curvaceous crime fighters (in the form of Vixa, the sexy female defender) and sly innuendos; the use of social media; and the availability of popular downloads such as wallpapers, ringtones, and avatars.

    As a result, users got thoroughly involved (Hattar noted that some even started their own websites and Facebook groups in connection with "The Realm"), spent more time on the site, and chose to learn more about Cisco's products on their own.
  • Go all out. Real entertainment—and viral fodder—isn't vanilla. It's novel and distinct, and, in many cases, risky. But it often takes a gamble to score a home run. For Cisco, its Realm campaign was quite a departure from its tried-and-true media model, but the outcome has been a bit of a phenomenon.

    The campaign's organic spread is one sign; the mobs of RSA Conference attendees who swarmed the Cisco booth every time the Realm characters appeared (Cisco hired two people to dress as Trace and Vixa) are another.

    Now, the company is set to release Realm trading cards and other themed merchandise. The question for you is this: What will you do to take your brand to the next level, to become the next Realm or sock puppet? It's possible if you're willing to pull out all the stops.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via