By Beth Carney Around Britain, this sound has become familiar: "Da ding ding ding ding da da ding ding bing bing brimbrambram ba ba ba baaa BREEEEEEE!" It's not a snippet of a Top 40 song, but the Crazy Frog ringtone -- a noise originally made by a Swedish teenager trying to imitate a moped starting.
Thanks to its runaway popularity in Europe, the quirky clip has become a standout hit in the growing and increasingly lucrative world of premium ringtones. "Some people think it's annoying, but I think it's nice," says Jasbir Singh, 35, a London textiles salesman who has programmed his phone to play the ringtone whenever his 11-year-old son calls. A fan, Singh has also downloaded a video onto his phone of the animated Crazy Frog character peeling off on his motorbike. And Singh bought T-shirts featuring the cartoon for each of his four children. "The kids all like it," he says.
BEVERLY HILLS COUP. They're not alone. Jamba, the Berlin-based VeriSign (VRSN) division that sells the ringtone, won't say exactly how many people have downloaded one of several ringtones featuring the Crazy Frog sound, each of which costs about $5.25 in Britain (if bought individually). But the company, which is the market leader for mobile-entertainment content in the region, claims the Crazy Frog in its various forms is the best-selling ringtone ever sold in Europe.
"Given our size in this market and knowledge of market, we do know it's the best-selling ringtone," says Martin Ott, vice-president for marketing at Jamba, which goes by the name of Jamster in Britain and the U.S.
Crazy Frog has broken new ground. Berlin music producer Wolfgang Boss liked the sound so much that he decided to dub it into Axel F (otherwise known as The Beverly Hills Cop theme) and release it as a record, making it the first ringtone to migrate into a popular song, rather than the reverse. The Crazy Frog version of Axel F debuted in the top spot in Britain's charts, beating rock band Coldplay's highly anticipated single Speed of Sound.
After four weeks at No. 1, the ringtone-inspired hit remains among Britain's top 10 songs. It's even more popular in France, where 650,000 copies of the song have sold, and has also been in the charts in most of Western Europe.
Now, Boss has produced an entire album of Crazy Frog remixes, which was released in Britain on July 25 and will come out in Germany in August. The Crazy Frog Axel F ringtone will be available in the U.S. the week of July 25. And British game developer Digital Jesters is making a video game for PlayStation 2 and personal computers called Crazy Frog Racer that will be available in Britain by Christmas.
BIGGER THAN BECKHAM. Jamba has capitalized on the craze by offering variations on the original ringtone, beginning with the Axel F version, which has now sold even more than the original. Fans also can buy Crazy Frog wallpaper for their computers and video clips to show on their phone screens. "It's a huge phenomenon. It has almost 100% brand recognition. In terms of character recognition, it's better known than [soccer player] David Beckham," says Leo Zullo, co-founder of Digital Jesters.
The Crazy Frog's commercial potential wasn't obvious in 1997, when then-17-year-old Daniel Malmedahl first recorded the sound. The noise kicked around the Internet for a few years, being sent in joke e-mails, until it arrived at the inbox of Swedish graphic designer Erik Wernquist, who decided to invent a 3D character to go with it. He created a blue frog with a missing tooth and asymmetrical eyes that wore a crash helmet and goggles.
Wernquist called it The Annoying Thing. "It was supposed to be annoying because most of my friends thought the sound was annoying," says Wernquist, who made the character for fun and put it on his Web site in 2003.
The clip drew the attention of Jamba's content team, which already had been developing character-based ringtones. The company licensed the frog from Wernquist and the sound from Malmedahl -- the two have never met -- and released it as the Crazy Frog ringtone last year, promoting it with commercials starring the animated character.
LEAPING LIZARD. In Britain, where the ringtone was first released and where it has made the biggest impression, it was an instant hit. TV ads -- in which viewers are encouraged to send a premium-rate text message that automatically bills the customer for the ringtone -- were so successful that Jamba found it profitable to run the commercial more often and on more channels.
Instead of the usual cable and satellite stations, the ad started appearing on mainstream TV channels, in primetime spots, and sometimes more than once during a commercial break. According to Nielson Media Research, Jamba spent the equivalent of $53.5 million from January until June showing over 300,000 TV ads -- the fifth-highest number of ads shown by any company. Most of those featured the Crazy Frog.
Why are Brits mad about the ringtone? "It's funny. You'd hear it, and you couldn't help laughing," say Tracey Allen, 20, a London hairdresser who downloaded the ringtone after seeing a commercial. Since then, however, Allen has changed her ringtone to R&B singer Akon's song Lonely, also bought after seeing a Jamster commercial, because she and her boyfriend broke up. Also, she says, the frog was becoming a nuisance. "Everyone looked at you when you were on the bus, and they heard it."
PET PEEVE SOUNDS. Indeed, the backlash against the intentionally irritating amphibian has been intense. The Advertising Standards Agency, an independent, self-regulatory body, received 1,000 complaints about the commercials, high for an ad. Notably, an unprecedented 800 came from people griping simply that they were sick of seeing the commercials so often, which isn't a regulatory offense.
Both ASA and the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services, the watchdog for premium mobile, are also investigating complaints that the marketing did not make clear that by sending a text message to the advertised number, viewers were signing up for a subscription service, which costs $5.25 a week for a set number of ringtones and other content.
Jamba's success with the Crazy Frog has highlighted the strength -- and potential -- of a ringtone industry that, according to research firm Informa Telecoms & Media, is already worth $4.9 billion a year globally. "You've got a ringtone that made a single more popular than arguably the most popular band in the industry," says Patrick Parodi, chairman of the London-based industry group the Mobile Entertainment Forum and head of mobile video and music at Alcatel. He predicts more synergies between the ringtone and the music industry in the future. "This is the tip of the iceberg," he says.
Whether Jamba will be able to come up with other hits remains to be seen. Though none of its other characters -- such as Sweetie the Chick or Nessie the Dragon -- have had the impact of the Crazy Frog, Jamba has been canny in its marketing and astute in sensing the public's tastes. In Britain, it's now even selling a mobile-phone sound effect aimed at its critics: "Crazy Frog Gets Shot." Carney is a correspondent for BusinessWeek Online in the London bureau