Interview with Ken Block: The Hoonigan Fights Back


This time last year we spent time getting to know Ken Block, the ‘accidental hero’, best known for the world famous Gymkhana Videos.

At the time, Block was formulating his plans for Gymkhana FIVE, planning another season of his Gymkhana World Tour and launching Gymkhana Grid in Europe. He was also preparing for a shortened campaign in the World Rally Championship (WRC) to make time in his schedule for Global X Games, Rally America Championship and Global RallyCross. Busy guy eh?

Ken-Block-Hoonigan-livery_G1Chief Hoon, Ken Block

We focused mainly on the marketing that pays for all this hooning around, because underneath all the wild driving is actually a responsible and astute businessman.

MORE: Read ‘The Accidental Hero – An interview with Ken Block’ to find out more about the founder and Chief Brand Officer of DC Shoes.

The agenda for this year’s discussion was pretty straightforward; Did GYM5 meet DC’s objectives?  Was there anything new that they’d learned?  And was Gymkhana continuing to generate the expected commercial returns for DC Shoes?

There’s a reason why we discussed these points, which I’ll cover in more depth below, but in essence Gymkhana’s success (as a viral campaign) has changed, moving from being content which is discovered to content that is anticipated, viewed and discussed. We wanted to understand how Block felt about this and whether it continued to work for the brand.

Some of the reasons for this stem from greater awareness of Gymkhana – where people’s expectations are now fixed in advance and they want to have a view on whether the latest Gymkhana is better than the last one. There’s also a growing ‘tribalism’ around fans and non-fans, which inevitably makes sharing more clustered around specific interest groups.

Finally, the very nature of social media sometimes works against the sharing of good content.

The more people who connect with Block, the less they need to share it, because everyone they’d want to share it with already knows. This is the main challenge for viral series such as Gymkhana, popularity inevitably leads to a dilution in the value to an individual (in terms of what its discovery says about them).

Despite how it might look from the outside, Gymkhana is not a vanity project – it’s designed to promote the DC Shoes brand and sell more clothing and apparel and Block has an enviable talent for promoting his brands, while making everyone watching feel like they’re part of the fun.

Performance Data

During the past four years, the entire Gymkhana series has clocked up around 189 million views on YouTube and 10.7 million social shares across Facebook, Twitter and forums/blogs. That’s a phenomenon that deserves respect and one which DC’s competitors such as Nike and Burton Snowboards would pay good money to achieve.

However, it hasn’t cost DC Shoes anywhere near what’s been spent by the big names in trying to match them. With the creative leadership of Block and his close-knit team, much of the Gymkhana content has been created in-house – he won’t tell me how much it’s cost, apart from hinting it’s a fraction of that spent by the other brands.

Gymkhana Ads Views Shares Yield
(% Shares/Views)
  DC Shoes: Ken Block Gymkhana Practice 13,567,104 173,808 1.28%
  DC Shoes: Ken Block Gymkhana Two The Infomercial 39,112,175 1,417,680 3.62%
  DC Shoes: Gymkhana 2.1, Block vs Dyrdek 12,810,560 295,954 2.31%
  DC SHOES: Ken Block’s Gymkhana THREE, Part 1; The Music Video Infomercial 5,531,074 130,893 2.37%
  DC SHOES: Ken Block’s Gymkhana THREE, Part 2; Ultimate Playground 49,270,533 3,041,771 6.17%
  DC SHOES: Ken Block’s Gymkhana FOUR, The Hollywood Megamercial 22,752,463 2,806,155 12.33%
  DC SHOES: Ken Block’s Gymkhana FOUR, Bonus Edit 5,654,461 103,773 1.8%
  DC SHOES: Ken Block’s Gymkhana FIVE, Ultimate Urban Playground – SF 40,366,397 2,677,275 6.63%
  DC SHOES: Ken Block’s Gymkhana FIVE, The Making Of 648,564 23,233 3.58%
# Social shares data provided courtesy of Unruly Media’s Viral Video Chart. Data accurate as of 6th February, 2013.

To illustrate the relative yield of the Gymkhana videos, we’ve chosen a few of the latest campaigns from last weekend’s Super Bowl 47 to provide some context. While the marketing hype of Super Bowl will have added an additional boost to each video’s performance, we’ve noticed the threshold for ‘virality’ is rising.

Ad Brand Views Shares %Shares/Views
  Fast & Furious 6 – Big Game Spot Universal Pictures 6,361,023 1,273,535 20.02%
  Super Bowl Commercial “Farmer” Ram Trucks 9,165,709 1,605,957 17.5%
  “Whole Again” Super Bowl Commercial Jeep 1,800,239 214,108 11.89%
  The Clydesdales: “Brotherhood” Budweiser 10,540,376 2,057,145 19.5%
# Data accurate as of 6th February, 2013.

Apart from Gymkhana FOUR, a video with broader appeal because it was filmed in the Hollywood back-lot of Universal Studios, the Gymkhana videos seem to have peaked at around 6% shares/views. This is still high compared to norm (for automotive themed videos) and around three-times higher than the leading Super Bowl car videos from last weekend such as those from Volkswagen and Mercedes.

However the threshold of virality has increased, with the best videos in other sectors delivering three-times the yield of Gymkhana FIVE.

Each of these Super Bowl videos stands as a separate campaign, apart from ‘Fast & Furious 6’ which is backed by a multi-million dollar film promotion – it’s also the only one which offers a similar kind of spectacle to Gymkhana.

There are reasons for this, which we can see from other celebrity-led viral campaigns (although Block would never view himself as a celebrity).

As a person gains in popularity their followers separate into groups, the groups gather in social tribes which provide a more efficient way of showing their support and identifying with other fans. Consequently fans and advocates become less inclined to acquire new ‘followers’ (since their social world is already pre-selected) and the yield from the campaign declines.

A further sign of this phenomenon is the rate at which people view each video when released. Gymkhana THREE broke previous records when it received more than 1 million views in the first 24 hours. Gymkhana FOUR went on to repeat the feat, while Gymkhana FIVE became the most viral automotive ad ever when it clocked up 14.3 million views, 1.2 million social shares, 25,000 YouTube comments, 154,000 likes and 2,800 dislikes – all in just four days.

So what we’re seeing is a faster adoption rate but lower levels of sharing, illustrating the engagement power of Block’s social media followers (3 million fans on Facebook and 220,000 on Twitter), but a less productive fan base. With more and more bright shiny things (online content) being released each day, there’s also a shorter shelf-life in which to encourage virality before people assume everyone has already seen it (and it’s no longer cool to talk about).

Toyota’s Super Bowl ad featuring Kaley Cuoco has clocked up just under 19 million views in a week, but only 30,000 people have shared it. That’s a shares/views performance of just 0.15%, which might seem irrelevant given the brand has been exposed to almost 20 million people, but (as I explain below) not all views are equal and it depends if the intended response is more tactical (i.e. buying goods at the checkout).


I spoke with Ken during his visit to the Chicago Auto Show where he was promoting the new Ford Focus TrackSTer together with fifteen52projectST and Ford Racing. The TrackSTer is a Ford Focus fitted with a turbocharged 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6 engine developed with Mountune. It’s designed to show what a future Focus RS could look like and you can check it out on their Facebook page.


SD:  Did Gymkhana FIVE meet your objectives?

KB: “Yes, absolutely – it was actually more popular than we anticipated. The viral video phenomenon constantly changes as more and more people try and fill that space, using content to attract people’s attention so you really have to stand out more, and be more dramatic than we had to be several years ago. Luckily with San Francisco we were able to make something that really caught the attention of a lot of viewers.”

SD:  One of the things we’ve noticed is that your level of engagement has declined, in terms of sharing, even though you’re obviously aware that GYM5 was the most viral in terms of how quickly people started to watch it. And that really is a sign of the fact you’ve got a very strong fan base who clearly know about Gymkhana. You also seeded it well, and when it was released they wanted to see it straight away. So it’s good to have a very strong following, but what they’re not doing any more is finding as many new followers and sharing with them.

KB: “Yeah we have noticed a little bit, but like I say the viral landscape has changed and because they don’t share one way, sometimes they’re sharing in a completely different way. Although we’ve noticed less shares, the growth in views (of the video) has been unlike any other video before. So somehow it’s being seen and shared some other way.”

SD:  Did you learn anything new?

KB: “Yeah, well content really is king and we’ve seen different view patterns based on what we do with the videos and I think there really is a clear link between what we do in the video and how much we hype it.”

SD:  And you pre-hyped it more with Gymkhana FIVE, than in previous years, even with Gymkhana FOUR, didn’t you?

KB: “Yes.”

SD:  And that clearly worked. Did you welcome the user-generated videos shot while you filmed in San Francisco, or did that hinder your efforts in building the drama?

KB: “I didn’t really see it as too much of a problem, and when most people asked what we were doing, we didn’t tell them we were shooting a Gymkhana video, we told them we were shooting a commercial. It was good to have a bit of leakage out there, because it built a little more hype for us but we didn’t want them knowing exactly what we were doing.”

SD:  Does Gymkhana still generate the commercial value you expect?

KB: “DC doesn’t buy traditional advertising, so Gymkhana is one of the its biggest exposures of the year – our only other source of promotion (apart from the heaps of earned media coverage) are the ads in print magazines. This being the size that it is, with the views, it’s a huge amount of exposure for the brand. Whether or not we sell more Ken Block shirts isn’t the only measure we use (to define success), it’s really about creating global exposure for the brand and in that way it’s hugely successful for us.”

SD:  So, what can we expect with Gymkhana SIX?

KB: “We have lots of ideas and different plans and it takes us a long time to go through the process and figure out what we’ll do, but we’re taking a very different approach to it for this year. We’re always trying to make things better and it’s a fun process for me, both creatively and because I get to drive all this stuff – so I’m a really lucky guy.”


Viral success in the automotive sector

The reasons behind a winning automotive campaign will be different from those in the soft drinks, personal technology or travel sectors. Unsurprisingly, since response is directly related to emotion, the expectations of consumers will dictate whether a piece of content moves them to action and the threshold is already high in a sector which is defined by dynamic and exciting products.

Most car videos, such as Gymkhana, make use of a car’s natural dynamic appeal, but in most regulated markets brands are restricted in the way they depict a car’s performance and therefore must resort to other means. The three most effective triggers are; producing a spectacle or something outrageous, tugging at a consumer’s heart-strings with something sentimental or poignant or making them laugh.

Mixing in kids or pets is a good way of triggering all three, as is building them into a memorable story. It’s also worth remembering; everyone hates advertising – so don’t advertise ‘at’ them, customer’s aren’t your fans – they engage with you for selfish reasons and will leave just as quickly if those reasons aren’t met and focus on the influencers (not the size of your fan base) – most content is shared by only a small percentage of your followers, who are then able to command responses from their own followers.

Once a sector reaches saturation – where there’s lots of great content that consumers could make an emotional connection with if they had the time – brands need to start thinking about interactivity. While most campaigns have pursued interactivity as a means of making a memorable connection (based on the notion that remembering a brand and its products correlates directly with engagement), interactivity can actually be used as a way of mimicking the customer-supplier relationship.

The buying relationship is built up from many layers which reinforce a pattern of trust – where the customer receives what they expect. Simulating this through a two-way interaction online can make it easier to follow through, either by encouraging more social shares or in acting on that relationship offline (as a customer of the brand).

Typically, when such interactive approaches are applied to video they follow one of the following; pre-involvement (to shape the story), hi-jacking the navigation (going left or right depending on a user’s preference), choosing the ending, or extending the story off-screen towards a more personalised conclusion.

Winning in social video marketing, as Block has found, involves recognising that one-size doesn’t fit all and depending on the maturity of the sector, expectations of viewers and the saturation of content, you’ll have to be agile enough to optimise a campaign before, during and afterwards.

Each Gymkhana video has been very different from the last, and with Gymkhana SIX due in the next six to eight months, we’ll soon discover how this particular phase of the story plays out.

Disclosure: SkiddMark has worked with Unruly Media during the past few years helping identify the triggers behind social sharing in the automotive sector.