Year of the Stunt: 1993
The Stunt: Whether we're talking art or not, D.C. Comics is--yes--a business, generating approximately $40 billion in revenue each year. So it's not surprising that many people felt that releasing a comic book called The Death of Superman was a marketing stunt, given that nobody with half a brain really, truly thought this company was going to stop producing its most popular title, a hit since the Superman character was born in 1938. (According to a recent estimate published in Entertainment Weekly, since that time, Superman has generated some $4 billion in revenue.)
What Happened Next: The news media covered this development extensively, not quite as if a head of state had passed away, but seriously enough, and the comic book featuring his death sold out on the first day. As more issues were published, they kept selling out. In fact, millions of readers purchased not just The Death of Superman issue but numerous others that followed, including Funeral for a Friend and eventually--who would have guessed?--The Return of Superman.
Lesson Learned: If you have a popular product but feel that sales are stagnant or your customers' excitement toward the brand is weaning, it may not be a bad idea to tinker with it. "Well, not so fast," you're probably thinking. "Jump into a time machine and see how people felt about New Coke in 1985." But that wasn't a marketing stunt--it was a colossal business mistake that offered numerous marketing challenges, which Coke eventually conquered, by reverting back to its original formula. Businesses revamp their products all the time, whether it's coming out with a "new and improved" formula that truly is new and improved (unlike Coca-Cola's 1985 misfire). But more often than not, instead of replacing the product, companies now just add new varieties to their line. What Superman and other beloved brands can teach us is that if you can create some drama around your product--and tug at your consumers' emotions--you may just find that your potential for bringing in a profit is, well, super.
Year of the Stunt: 2005
The Stunt: Because Maui Beverages isn't very well known, their PR department suggested something splashy to let people know how fun this company was. First, they changed the founding executive titles--from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Entertainment Officer--and the Chief Technology Officer to Chief Tasting Officer--giving their company a more lighthearted appeal. Then they set out to prove that they really were fun. Maui Beverages' PR company sent the founders, Mark Mahoney and Al Williams, to be hosts at an annual conference of food and beverage trade writers. They threw a huge party with a Jimmy Buffett-type "Caribbean island" theme and gave out lots of free sunglasses--as well as free samples of their product.
What Happened Next: Sure enough, after the title changes and the party, the company started getting a lot of positive press, which is directly affecting their bottom line: Their annual sales have gone from $6 million in 2004 to a projected $10 million by the end of this year.
Lesson Learned: A marketing stunt doesn't have to be something that nobody's ever done before, but you should "keep it fresh and exciting," says founder Mahoney. Maui Beverages wasn't the first company to throw a party--or to throw it for a group of people who could help get the word out about them. But what they did was creative and a much better strategy than hoping your company's silent and under-the-radar personality will somehow get people to notice you anyway.
Del Monte Foods
Year of the Stunt: 2006
The Stunt: This ongoing stunt is part of a larger trend called advertainment--pure entertainment wrapped around a product with hopes of convincing consumers to purchase said product. Del Monte is currently airing a reality show for cats on Animal Planet. They've put up a Meow Mix House with webcams for people to look in and watch these cats in one room--from 10 shelters around the country--where they hang out and have various visitors (think Big Brother, but for felines). Every Friday, on Animal Planet, Meow Mix announces which cat has been "voted out," but in this case, that means being put up for adoption and receiving a year's supply of Meow Mix.
What Happened Next: So far, so good. Meow Mix's marketing director has been doing tons of interviews, and the brand is being associated with a worthy cause: cat adoption.
The Lesson: If you're going to look for inspiration for a marketing idea, why not borrow from popular culture?
Year of the Stunt: 1999
The Stunt: Half.com, a retail website known for having sharply discounted items, paid Halfway, Oregon, to adopt the name Half.com for their town for a year. In exchange, Halfway received $100,000, 20 new computers for the local school and other financial subsidies.
What Happened Next: The media picked up on it, Half.com became very well known, and in 2000, five months after the IPO, eBay bought the company for $300 million. Halfway, Oregon, was a little less fortunate. According to Halfway, Oregon's official website, "Half.com made many promises. Some of which were honored and others not."
The Lesson: Creativity works, and you can apparently talk anyone into anything, if you show them the money. It also helped that Halfway, Oregon, felt it was a winning situation for them, too, beyond the monetary reward: They were the first dotcom town in the nation--though not the first community to change their name to a brand name. That distinction goes to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which changed its name from Hot Springs in 1950, when radio personality Ralph Edwards was hosting a popular radio show called "Truth or Consequences." He'd said he wished a town loved the show enough to rename itself after the program--and if one would, he'd air a live program from the community. Hot Springs, anxious to shed its name, anyway, since people confused it with the town in Arkansas, jumped at the chance.
The Stunt: Another casino, unable to advertise in traditional media; another amazing marketing stunt. Over Memorial Day weekend this year, with gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon, PokerShare.com and its newly launched CasinoShare.com gave away more than 8,000 gallons of gasoline to hundreds of New Yorkers. In a long, snaking line of traffic, New Yorkers lined up to receive $40 of free gas while free food was distributed and music blared.
What Happened Next: Before the morning rush hour had ended, the New York City Police Department shut down the stunt because the lines were wrecking havoc with traffic flow. Many people--including off-duty police officers and government officials--left empty-handed. But PokerShare.com and CasinoShare.com could hardly call their efforts a failure. The free gas stunt, conceived by Popular Culture PR, was popular enough to be held again in Los Angeles several weeks later.
Lesson Learned: Generosity is a selling point in a marketing stunt, but you have to tap into human nature and, if possible, current events. If the same company had given away $40 in PokerShare.com gift certificates, it's likely the media wouldn't even have noticed since coupon giveaways aren't exactly a breaking news item. And if PokerShare had handed out $40 in cash to just anybody on the street, they might have warranted a story from some local media outlet but, save a mugging or mobs, probably not generated a mention on the national evening news. But free gas when the headlines these days are all about the rising price of gas? This marketing gimmick wasn't just covered by the evening news, but also by Fox News, The New York Times, the Washington Post and other media outlets, reaching more than 9 million people.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.