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Big Marketing Stunts, Small-Business Style

Creating buzz around your business is tough, but it's nothing compared to keeping that momentum going.

So you want to create some excitement. You want that video you made to go viral. You want the evening news talking you up. You want, in other words, to pull off a successful marketing stunt. That's all well and good, but if you want a marketing stunt to be a success, you should be looking at the long run. You're looking for a stint, not a stunt.

That's why we're taking a look at 10 marketing stunts--five that worked and five that didn't, because we can arguably learn more from a business's mistakes than its triumphs. Plus, it's just fun to laugh at--er, with--other people's mistakes.

The Giddy Gander Company
Creator of the Wumblers, a line of educational children's characters. The company is based in Ridgewood, N.J., and Laura Wellington, 43, is the CEO and creator.

The stunt: Since the Wumblers are born out of watermelons (think eggs hatching and then picture a watermelon hatching), last summer the Giddy Gander Company held a watermelon seed spitting contest at Six Flags Great Adventure.

Takeoff: Besides pulling off an entertaining contest (you can see what we mean at this YouTube link ), the two winners got to spit seeds on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (You can view that clip here ; funny stuff.) While that didn't translate into a mention of the Wumblers on the show, sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed that the contest winners were wearing Wumblers T-shirts, and of course Wellington has been able to reference Fallon's show in the company’s marketing.

How they kept the momentum going: Wellington's company partnered with an iPhone app called iSeedSpit! that lets you simulate the experience of spitting watermelon seeds. But what the stunt really did, says Wellington, was put her on the radar of local and national media. "I've been invited numerous times to a variety of news and talk shows," says Wellington, and her blog has been referenced in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.



Three Muses Inspired Clothing

Jacksonville, Fla.--a women's costume boutique owned by Candy Keane, 34

The stunt: Dress up as the characters from Alice in Wonderland and hit the main drag of bars in downtown Jacksonville to pass out fliers and business cards. Unfortunately, says Keane, "I got zero business from that night."

Why the stunt flopped: Keane's friends, dressed as the characters, drank at the bars, and one of them in particular drank very heavily. "My caterpillar became a drunken spectacle and got us kicked out of the first bar," laments Keane. "It was so bad that they called the other bars and we were barred from going in. As we waited for a cab for the caterpillar, I burst into tears."

Moral: "Not to hire friends and expect them to be professional," says Keane.
 



Melt Bar and Grilled
Located in Cleveland, Ohio, owned by Matt Fish, 37

The stunt: They have an ongoing promotion--a 25 percent discount for life for anyone who gets a tattoo of their logo anywhere on their body. You might think, "What the heck? Not even free food, or maybe a 75 percent discount..."

Takeoff: So far, 136 customers have gotten tattooed. Fish suspects part of the appeal is that "customers really like to be recognized as members of an exclusive group." He has also learned to accept the good with the bad: "Even the few who have been negative about the promotion can still be fans of the restaurant. Whether it's positive or negative excitement, it's still excitement about the business."

How they kept the momentum going: Every time a new customer gets inked, Melt Bar posts a photo on its website and Facebook page. And Fish holds special promotions and events for his 136-and-growing tattooed customers "to reward them for their diehard support."



Space Coast Credit Union
(formerly Eastern Financial Credit Union)

The stunt: Handing out barf bags to potential customers. Let us explain: Every year, the Florida-based credit union would sponsor a booth at the Chili Cookoff, a "huge, outdoor, country music concert," says Dan Shube, now the director of marketing for Labor Finders International , who, at the time, worked for the PR firm that handled the credit union account. "Every year, we'd give out thousands of dollars of items but never get any business."

So Shube came up with an idea that harkened back to the history of the credit union, which used to be an airline's credit union. Give out unused barf bags, emblazoned with the question: "Is your bank making you sick?" Inside the bags were coupons totaling $425. Customers were advised to bring in the coupons and the barf bag--unused, they urged.

Why the stunt flopped: "The employees assigned to give out the bags thought the idea was gross, so they didn't pass them out," says Shube, who says he was stuck with an awful lot of unused barf bags--costing him 25 cents a piece.

Moral: If a seemingly clever idea is also somewhat inappropriate, it may leave a bad taste in your customers' and colleagues’ mouths. And if you have to explain the stunt--Barf bags? Really?--it's probably not going to work.



Strategic Guru Inc.

A full-service direct marketing agency in Raleigh, N.C., owned by Carolyn Rhinebarger, CEO, 55

The stunt: In 2009, the company held a "Worst Website Contest" to see who would get the vote for ugliest website in the Raleigh, N.C., area--with the winner getting a free website makeover by Strategic Guru. "People could anonymously nominate websites," says Rhinebarger. "One of the finalists chosen was very surprised to learn he had been nominated and didn't think there was anything wrong with his website."

Takeoff: "We ran the contest on our blog and attracted quite a bit of traffic," says Chelsea Junget, a project manager for Strategic Guru. "The winner won a complete web redesign from us, including copy, SEO and development." Local websites like NCTechNews.com and WakeMyNC.com covered the contest, of course providing the company some welcome attention.

How they kept the momentum going: They held another contest this year at MyWorstWebSite.com and plan to make this an annual promotion.



Turner Broadcasting System

The stunt: The company placed creative advertising throughout Boston. Unfortunately, it was too creative. The ads, packages with flashing lights, resembled bombs and threw the city into a panic. This led to arrests, hefty fines and a resignation--it was a mess.

Why the stunt flopped: Any time you try to do a nontraditional ad or stunt in the public arena and you don't involve city officials, you risk a marketing misfire.

This mistake is more common than you might think. Back in 2001, IBM spray-painted its logo on city buildings in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York. The company called it advertising; the police called it graffiti. Fines--and cleaning crews--commenced.

Moral: Don't become so arrogant that you forget that the world isn't your playground. There are rules to follow. In this case, the PR folks apparently forgot they were living in a post-911 world. Guerrilla marketing is fine as long as it doesn't look like guerrilla warfare.



Jon Charles Salon
Minneapolis, owned by Jon Charles, 45

The stunt: In February, 2009, Charles' salon offered a new promotion. First-time customers who had lost money in their 401(k)s could bring in documented proof of their loss, and whatever the percentage of the loss had been in 2008, that amount would be deducted from their bill, up to 50 percent of the total bill. In his marketing, Charles brilliantly reassured customers that nobody should be embarrassed by their 401(k) plunge. "We've all been in tough spots before," he said at the time, adding that "it's between you and your hair person. That's a relationship that's even more confidential than the attorney-client privilege."

Takeoff: The Associated Press wrote about the promotion, so a gazillion newspapers ran the story. Local TV stations followed suit. Soon, Charles was interviewed by Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News. Business boomed so much that Charles opened a second salon.

How they kept the momentum going: The promotion is still going at the second salon, and it brought Charles 700 new clients in two months. But the real success of his promo lies in the fact that he was able to retain 88 percent of those new clients, smashing the industry average of 33 percent.

"The idea has to be timely, using whatever the news of the day is," advises Charles to any entrepreneur who wants to duplicate his success. "You have to make it funny; people have to get a kick out of it. It's got to be easy to understand. As soon as people heard this idea, they got it."



Charo's Hair Design & Day Spa
Elmwood Park, Ill.

The stunt: In early 2009, Theresa Charo's hair salon made former and recently disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich an interesting offer. He had been mocked in the press for his hair style, so Charo offered to donate $1,000 to charity if Blagojevich would let her shave his head. If that didn't fly, the salon had a counteroffer--to cut the entire family's hair for free through January 2011.

Why the stunt flopped: Blagojevich didn't take the salon up on the offer; he likely didn't see much of an upside to accepting. A smattering of local outlets reported on the gimmick, but the stunt went nowhere. As for the media that did report on it, Charo's PR guy, Matt Baron , speculates that "what attracted the media was the levity that we had at the governor's expense at a time when a lot of people were upset with him."

Of course, maybe Blagojevich would have taken the bait if there hadn't been any snark attached to the offer.

Moral: It's good practice to invent marketing stunts that won't cost you much if they don't go anywhere. Baron doesn't think Charo got a lot of business from the stunt, but she didn't lose any time or money, either. Try to avoid a marketing stunt that, if it fails, could cost you a lot of time and money that you can't afford to lose.
 



Langton Cherubino Group
A communication design firm in New York City, founded by David Langton, 49

The stunt: Web vs. Webb , a vintage TV quiz-show-style online game that asks people to decide if a word or phrase is related to the World Wide Web or was uttered by Jack Webb, the actor who played Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet. Because, you know, that sort of question comes up in life all the time.

They also have MasterpieceYourself , which allows users to upload their photo into famous paintings like the "Mona Lisa" and see how they look.

Creating online games for your firm's website may not sound like a marketing stunt--but when your business does something a little zany and completely removed from its core business in the hopes of drumming up attention, that could be considered an ongoing marketing stunt. It's also a good reminder that if you're going to do a marketing stunt, you don't have to spend millions of dollars or completely embarrass yourself in an attempt to get national attention.

Takeoff: They've had over 100,000 unique visitors, reports Langton. "MasterpieceYourself.com was featured in Redbook magazine, and a country radio station in the Midwest selected us as its site of the day. Italians love MasterpieceYourself--we've received over 65,000 visitors from Italy." But what Langton's really happy about--"visits to our website are up 61 percent."

How they kept the momentum going: Langton and his business partner, Norman Cherubino, 47, have used the online games as examples of what they can do for other businesses. Of course, this all begs the question--has all the additional traffic and exposure brought the firm, which usually works with companies in the business-to-business arena, new clients?

Langton says yes. "It's hard to put a dollar figure on it," he admits, "but [the games have] helped us stay at the forefront with potential clients during a very difficult economic climate."

 


Aspen BrownieWorks
Owned by Jill and Jim Pomeroy, both in their early 40s and, as you'd expect, based out of the famed ski town in Colorado

The stunt: The Pomeroys decided to do a free brownie giveaway and to use the promo to build up their database of potential customers. After posting the offer on their website, 9,000 people signed up for a free brownie.

Why the stunt flopped: They were only expecting 500 people to sign up--maybe 1,000. But the free offer spread virally, and their budget wouldn't let them fulfill the free gift for most of the potential customers. As their PR guy, Steve Skadron , observes, "Once your message is out there, sometimes your ability to control it is limited."

Moral: Put a limit on giveaways, whether that means making the offer time-sensitive or setting a maximum number.

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.

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