Century 21’s Breaking Bad: Real time marketing on a low budget

(marketingmagazine.com.my) – Century 21 (C21) is an American real estate company founded in 1971. The brand is one of the market leaders and has the biggest brand awareness in the real estate sector in the US.

So in 2013 seemingly, all was well for C21. However, the real estate business is not a very interesting topic for sparking conversations amongst the broader audience.

The case is quite different for the hit TV series, Breaking Bad. The story of Walter White has won the hearts of both the critics and  regular audiences all over the world. So how can these two be possibly connected?

Even before Oreo’s celebrated Super Bowl’s Blackout Tweet, brands have been trying to ride the real-time social marketing bandwagon. They understand the need to be constantly present in consumers’ lives and to connect with trending cultural phenomena in order to be relevant and engaging.



The 2012 Millward Brown consumer survey revealed, for the 14th year in a row, Century 21 Real Estate LLC is the real estate brand with the highest level of brand awareness as well as the most respected brand in the industry. So at the time of this case they were already a dominant market leader, but it was always a challenge.

Real estate is not something people get particularly excited about or share on Facebook. However, and fortunately for Century 21, the topic is strongly related to keywords like ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘happiness’ – things which people care about.


Breaking Bad premiered in 2008 and lasted for 5 years, the story in ending 2013. It was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike and regarded as one of the greatest TV series of all time…

PLOT SPOILER ALERT: After being diagnosed with incurable cancer, the central character Walter White makes a 360 turn and leaves his career as a chemistry teacher for the one of a drug lord. All this is in order to secure his family’s future. The last episode aired on the 29th of September 2013. For many, this was a bittersweet but nonetheless a dramatic event.


So September 29th was a big day and many people were engaged with the end of the show. Breaking Bad is very dark in its theme, but perhaps one redeeming feature is that the story revolves around a man’s struggle to help his family.

C21 can certainly claim a connection with the family element. Moreover, many of the show’s key scenes take place in Walter’s fictional home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The house is almost a cast member.

Mullen, the ad agency working for Century 21, had a budget of just $400 and less than a week to execute a relevant marketing activity around the TV series’ final.



The agency was already producing culturally relevant social media content for Century 21.

Dave Weist, Executive Creative Director at Mullen, explains, “Century 21 is a very likeable brand in terms of conversation. This piece of creative led to so many other pieces we do now. Once a week, we combine something interesting happening in the culture with the real estate market. It had to be inexpensive to produce and market. If we wouldn’t have a simple idea which we could get out quickly enough then it would lose its meaning. Now C21 is driving cultural conversations. It is much easier to do that than start a fire completely on your own. Sometimes it can just happen but it usually requires a lot more money.”


This idea was undoubtedly a great piece of creative work. They listed Walter White’s house on Craigslist (the popular US website full of small ads) and created a smartly detailed press release to accompany this initiative. The listing also featured insider references that any die-hard Breaking Bad fans would appreciate, like the leaky water heater that Walter had to replace in Season Two or the secret crawl space from Season Four. A Google Voice phone number for “Century 21 agent Carol” was included in the listing for interested buyers to call. Mullen also checked with the actual owners to avoid any potential legal issues.


The team worked on a story for the US ad industry magazine AdAge and identified suitable media targets who were likely to give the stunt some additional push. Facebook posts accompanied the Live airing of the final episode. The listing was tweeted to the show’s stars, influencers and media.

Dave Weist, Executive Creative Director at Mullen, shared, “It needs a bit of a tinder smoke to get the fire burning and that’s the hardest part. If you look at the things that are being talked about each day, you’ll realize that they are relatively unrelated subjects. But it is possible to push yourself into the top 3! The content lives on afterwards. At the end of the day, you are working on several projects at the same time.”


There is never any guarantee whether initiatives like this will actually work. It could have possibly been a ‘fail’ for Century 21. Despite a tiny budget, this stunt was definitely a winner.

Mullen’s Dave Weist urges brands to experiment, “So many of the campaigns today start from ‘how much money do we have?’ It should start from a great idea that uses the money in a smart way. This year, for Thanksgiving, we created a really interesting piece called ‘Tryptophan Slow Jam’. We knew that ‘Tryptophan’ is closely connected to Thanksgiving and people are looking that word up. Tryptophan is an amino-acid that is found in many foods, such as turkey. It makes you fall asleep. We knew our piece would get noticed quickly on Search. It was just a fun video about people falling asleep after they eat. If you can keep it cheap enough, you have the right to try different things! If you try enough things  then once in a while you stumble across something that can have a bigger impact.”

AdWeek called Century 21’s initiative “The Only Worthy Brand Tie-In to the Breaking Bad  Finale”, while Creativity and Ad Age ranked the stunt among the top ten for 2013.

The results are as follows:

• Achieved 80 million+ media impressions
• Secured coverage from 42 top media outlets including AdWeek, Huffington Post, GQ, Creativity, and Salon
• More than 10,590 organic and viral Facebook impressions, with 445 clicks, 94 likes, 26 shares and 12 comments
• Twitter outreach resulted in 1,613 mentions and 4,521,921 (estimated) impressions worldwide



The truth is, most people don’t care about advertising – they just want to be entertained. Brands need to monitor whatever is happening and hot, and if they can, connect it to their marketing activities. In this case, Century 21 made a very good use of social media and tapped into popular culture to make real estat
e a bit more human and entertaining.

“If you’re in a business which isn’t necessarily very interesting for people then you have to find a connection between your brand and the stuff people actually care about. Do it in an interesting and respectful way! It has to have a smart connection to the brand, it can’t be a random thing. If you get it right, you’ll get a huge jump! It goes beyond traditional marketing. Every brand is capable of doing this, it’s the idea that counts,” says Dave Weist from Mullen.


$400 is not much to work with. However, this can act as a spur to great creativity. Dave  suggests that too many campaigns start from the (big) budget when instead, the idea should be the real starting point.


With campaigns of this type (e.g. the Oreo ‘Blackout’ Tweet) timing is exceptionally important. The action has to be prepared in advance. Advertisers have to be flexible and innovative during the Live event, identifying marketing opportunities as they present themselves.

Whatever the channel and content, details and humour play a huge role. Century 21’s listing featured references to key elements from the show, which in turn made it more appealing to fans.


AWARDS: The Andy Awards 2014: Gold for Social Media; One Show Awards 2014: Gold for Social Media; The Webby Awards 2014: Gold for Native Advertising

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