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The Folk Hero Franchise: Marketing the Chilean Miner Brand

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As a jubilant world watched the Chilean miners emerge into the sunlight after nearly 69 days underground, two thoughts undoubtedly flashed through a lot of minds:

Put the hardhat back on! Your wife knows about the mistress!

Quickly followed by... Ooh. Cool shades!

We'll let the marriage counselors ponder the handful of men whose romantic double lives came to light before they did. But those donated Oakley Radar sunglasses the 33 miners wore to protect their sensitized eyes from UV exposure are intriguing in their own right, because they marked the miners' debut in what instantly became a very high-stakes game.

We call it the folk hero franchise.

And those miners just hit the majors when it comes to global marketing. Right now, a Chilean miner has as much branding and endorsement potential as LeBron James. World events shape pop culture, and when you add that magic combination of hope and heroism to a riveting human drama, you have the advertising world's equivalent of the Triple Crown.

You could almost hear the telepathic message beaming forth from Coca-Cola headquarters whenever a freed miner fell to his knees in grateful prayer: OK, now pleasepleaseplease, just ASK FOR A COKE!!!

Such yearning would be understandable: There's no way to even begin counting how many millions of eyeballs watched this drama unfold on television, computer screens and PDAs. Short of a Mars landing or a dream match in the World Cup finals, it's increasingly rare in our time-shifted, fragmented and customized world for the planet to share an amazing moment in real time. Social media gives us the opportunity to revisit and savor the experience to our hearts' content. Missed that powerful scene of the tearful seven-year-old boy hugging his rescued daddy? We'll retweet it for you. Can't get enough of the Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le! chant? There's no doubt a way by now to make it your ringtone.

So what does this all mean for the miners and their future? They had a lawyer send down a contract to sign while they were still in the hole, pledging to profit equally from any opportunities that come their way. Aside from lucrative book and movie deals, the men will have myriad endorsement offers rolling in.

The folk hero franchise is what made U.S. Airways pilot Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger a millionaire, and would have done the same for flight attendant Steven Slater if his take-this-job-and-shove-it story had held up under scrutiny. (Beware the Three Deadliest Deal-Killers in folk hero bankability: Bad temper, bad habits and bad hair.) It's what makes us wonder whether OnStar would have courted Amelia Earhart, and has us wishing that Pop-Tarts had been around to cash in on Sir Edmund Hillary's trek up Everest, since you can toast one of those little suckers at base camp and a Pop-Tart will still be too hot to eat by the time you reach the summit.

True grit has such universal appeal that no logical connection even needs to exist between a product and the event or incident that catapulted the folk hero to instant fame. That's why Miller Lite's campaign years ago called Men of the Square Table featured, among others, Aron Ralston issuing witty pronouncements on topics such as whether it's OK to date a buddy's ex-girlfriend. In case you're scratching your head, Aron Ralston was the hiker who amputated his own hand with a penknife when he got pinned by a giant boulder in the mountains of Utah.

The miners will generate instant goodwill for any brand they choose to grace. That leads us then to the real question, which isn't so much what products - if any - will win over the miners, but rather how the victors will then harness that considerable marketing power. Simply riding the coattails of fame might yield a change in fortune for a struggling or tired-and-dusty brand in the short-run, but charming consumers isn't the same as captivating them. A recent benchmark study of cause marketing by Cone showed that consumers are shopping with a social conscience more than ever before. A full 83 percent said they want more of the products, services and retailers they use to benefit causes such as alleviating world hunger or protecting the environment. So no matter what dotted line the world's 33 newest folk heroes ultimately sign their names on, the challenge of marketing them to their fullest potential comes with the same imperative their rescuers had:

Dig deep.