10 Brilliant Marketing Stunts That Put Startups on the Map
A strong marketing stunt can be a valuable tool for any company. Last week, Microsoft employees released a ridiculous "Sexy And I Know It" parody featuring the Surface tablet, and despite the horrible lyrics and dancing, it actually made the Surface look sort of cool.
But Microsoft — and even the Surface — already has a defined image. No matter how the video turned out, Microsoft would still be Microsoft.
A startup has more to potentially gain from a successful marketing stunt than any other kind of company. Without defined brand images in the minds of consumers, some clever PR can easily turn a fledgling startup into a superstar brand in a matter of weeks.
1. Tinder visited sororities and their partnering fraternities on campus and devised a master plan to get tons of signups.
Tinder cofounder Whitney Wolfe ventured to college campuses with a clever plan to onboard thousands of users. According to Bloomberg Businessweek's Nick Summers, Wolfe scheduled meetings with sororities and then their corresponding fraternities on campus. Sororities typically have a favorite fraternity or two on campus that they plan social events with frequently, so Wolfe made sure to hit both chapters back to back.
“We sent her all over the country,” Munoz told me this week. “Her pitch was pretty genius. She would go to chapters of her sorority, do her presentation, and have all the girls at the meetings install the app. Then she’d go to the corresponding brother fraternity — they’d open the app and see all these cute girls they knew.” Tinder had fewer than 5,000 users before Wolfe made her trip, Munoz says; when she returned, there were some 15,000. “At that point, I thought the avalanche had started,” Munoz says.
2. GoldieBlox created a viral video about getting young girls into technology. It got 3 million views in 2 days and caused a lawsuit.
GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling is a Stanford-educated engineer who produced the popular video to the hit Beastie Boys song "Girls."
The lyrics spoke to an issue about too few women being interested in technology from a young age. Here are some of the verses:
Girls to build the spaceship,
Girls to code the new app,
Girls to grow up knowing they can engineer that.
That's all we really need is Girls.
To bring us up to speed it's Girls.
Our opportunity is Girls.
Don't underestimate Girls.
The video was watched more than 8 million times. All the attention attracted a lawsuit between the Beastie Boys and GoldieBlox over rights to the music. It kept GoldieBlox, an interactive game company few people had heard of, in headlines for weeks.
Here's the video:
3. Mailbox was one of the first apps to stir up demand by creating a wait list, which grew to more than 260,000 people.
This is what the waitlist looked like just after the Dropbox acquisition was announced.
Mailbox, an email app that sold to Dropbox for ~ $100 million 37 days after launch, built hype for the product by creating a virtual wait list.
The demand grew to more than 260,000 pre-launch signups by first creating an intriguing teaser video that promised to help people reach a desirable inbox zero.
Then, blogs like TechCrunch went wild. That's when Mailbox announced a brilliant "reservation" scheme to keep the hype going and waited an unnecessarily long time to launch. Here's the video that was used to hype up the app.
4. Fixed, an app that fights parking tickets for you, employs "ticket heroes" who leave Fixed's fee-evading solution on tickets on cars' windshields.
Fixed is an app that helps fight parking tickets for citizens of San Francisco. It has a bunch of volunteers, called "ticket heroes," who trek across the city in search of cars that have been fined. The ticket hero will then leave a Fixed-branded report card on top of the ticket, so when the driver comes back to his or her vehicle, it's clear what service they can use to avoid paying the fine.
Another smart marketing scheme Fixed employs: It uses the Mailbox-famous waitlist for cities in which Fixed hasn't already launched. If you want to jump to the top of the waitlist, Fixed will let you. You just have to share the app with all of your Facebook friends first.
5. Airtime succeeded in getting a lot of early press with a celebrity-filled launch event. It's just too bad the technology failed on stage.
Airtime may have been a $40 million startup failure, but its launch was memorable. Created by Shawn Fanning and billionaire Sean Parker, Airtime invited an army of celebrities including Martha Stewart, Jim Carrey, Jimmy Fallon, and Olivia Munn.
The celebrities put on a good show; unfortunately Fanning and Parker couldn't get their technology to work on stage. The app's traffic tanked soon after.
6. Dollar Shave Club made dirt-cheap razors and butt wipes.
Dollar Shave Club blew up in 2012 with a launch video that both echoed Old Spice's popular ads and defined its own style to be copied by others in the future.
The video, staring CEO Michael Dubin, has over 15 million views and created some much-needed buzz for the subscription shaving service. When the company launched yet another quirky product last year, Dubin took his place in front of the camera once again.
"They're called One-Wipe Charlies," Dubin says, as he catches a package of wipes thrown to him from off screen. "And they're butt wipes for men."
7. Yo got everyone talking because it was "stupid."
Yo's simplicity is easily underestimated. Its developer famously turned down his supervisor's request to build a one-character messaging app for notifying his personal assistant, wife, or anyone else.
"He comes to me and said, 'Can you make this app? It's really annoying me,'" Or Arbel told Business Insider, quoting his boss Moshe Hogeg. "I told him, 'I think it's a silly idea, and I don't have time to do it.' How many people in the world have a personal assistant anyway?" Soon after he saw the appeal when he realized he essentially has conversations with one of his friends using as few as one character per message.
Arbel gave in and built the app. After a quiet April Fool's Day launch, Yo racked up 500,000 users in less than two months. Appearances on TV shows, mentions in blogs, and chatter on Twitter about much money the simple app had raised only served to fuel its popularity. Just recently Hogeg's company used Yo's wild success as a springboard for the new messaging app Mirage.
8. Uber always launches in style. For its launch in the Hamptons it offered up helicopter rides.
Because Uber is constantly fighting a public fight against cities everywhere to allow its service, it makes sense that the cab-calling startup would have to pull some killer PR stunts to maintain appearances. When the service launched in the Hamptons for the Fourth of July in 2013, the company promised flat-rate rides to New York.
It also promised helicopter rides to New York for the oh-so-affordable price of $3,000 for a five-person ride.
The Uberchopper has proved to be popular enough to return to the Hamptons for Independence Day weekend in 2014 and to take festival goers from San Diego to 2014's Coachella music festival.
9. "Angry Birds" took 8 fans on a real flight across the world, but by airplane, not slingshot.
"Angry Birds" is a worldwide brand today, but in 2011 it was little more than a popular mobile game with a handful of expansions. To expand in the huge market that is Asia, Rovio created the Angry Birds Asian Challenge.
The company partnered with Finnair, an airline based in its home country of Finland, and asked fans to apply for eight spots on a specially decked-out "Angry Birds" plane flying from Helsinki to Singapore. The trip doubled as a competition for the bird-flinging iPhone game.
10. Fab floundered as a social network then flourished as a design site, bringing in users with invitation incentives.
Fab had a slow start as a social network and Groupon knockoff for gay men. But when it pivoted to become a design and home decor site, it started to catch on. CEO Jason Goldberg and his team first stirred up excitement with a campaign of Facebook ads aimed at people who blog about design. Next, Fab asked its users to invite their friends and offered incentives to those who got the most to sign up. The more of your friends you coaxed to sign up, the better access you got to the site.
Fab gained hundreds of thousands of users every month after the big switch, and sales skyrocketed, the company reported.
The company ended up having trouble sustaining its growth and has announced layoff after layoff for the past few years. Perhaps almost getting crushed under the weight of its users, Fab is the ultimate example of the power of the marketing stunt.