This article originally appeared on ycn.org
The PR stunt has long been a staple of the marketing mix; a great way to gain coverage in the media and weave a brand's name into watercooler conversations. Perhaps one of the most lucrative PR stunts of all time comes courtesy of the film, The Blair Witch Project. Despite operating on a low budget, the promotion of the film started a year before it hit screens, slowly releasing trailers and teasing collateral that caused much debate as to whether the film was actually a true story. The level of intrigue and mystery surrounding it reached fever pitch shortly before the film's release in 1999, leading to box office takings of over $248m. And all this at a time when YouTube was still six years away from being founded.
Naturally, stories like this are few and far between, but in the increasingly social and shareable world we now live in — thanks in large part to the continuing prevalence of social networks — stunts are easier to seed than ever. The definition of a stunt has also become far broader thanks to an increasing number of platforms to play with. Whilst big budget ones such as Red Bull's Stratos in 2012 would have made waves in any era, 'going viral' doesn't mean you need to spend millions on sending people to space. With thousands of newspapers, magazines, blogs and online publishers keen to report on the latest fascinating story — and millions more readers ready to share that story with their social networks — all that's needed for a brand to catapult itself into the collective consciousness is a good idea that makes for a great tale. With stunts inherently possessing the narrative quality needed to resonate far and wide, it's unquestionable that they generate conversation around a brand...but does that conversation actually deliver results?
We look back at a selection of stunts from the last year that made a splash, finding out how effective they were from the people who made them, and what the secret is to a good PR stunt.
POLAR BEAR ROAMS LONDON — SKY ATLANTIC
Created to build excitement around the launch of Sky Atlantic's hotly anticipated arctic crime drama entitled 'Fortitude’, 'Polar Bear Roams London' was the work of the highly awarded PR agency, Taylor Herring. Just 48 hours before the show was set to launch, an 8ft long polar bear was unleashed onto the streets, parks and transport hubs of London. After two months in planning, which included a six week 'build period', the bear was created in an extremely tight timeframe. The two operatives inside it, who spent three years working together as ‘Joey’ in the West End production of War Horse, studied footage of real polar bears before spending five days rehearsing in order to get the gait and other movements right.
"A brilliant stunt which captures the imagination of the public and media alike will deliver a return on investment, fame and brand engagement that is way beyond anything conventional marketing can deliver within the same budget bracket," declares Peter Mountstevens, Managing Partner at Taylor Herring. "An imaginative and newsworthy piece of creative will also help to build a brand’s personality in a way that feels organic and fresh. The public love to be surprised, delighted and shocked." And surprised they were, with over 47million impressions on Twitter, 30million of which were from the UK. But it wasn't just Twitter buzz that it created: the show pulled in 722,000 viewers — the four-year-old channel’s biggest audience to date for a UK originated drama — which equated to a 3.5% audience share from 9pm, nearly 20 times the normal ratings for that Sky Atlantic slot.
According to Peter, the secret to a good stunt lies in its ability to work across all platforms. "Simply delivering a great news picture is no longer enough, ensuring the idea works on an experiential level is increasingly important. The more tactile you are, the more social engagement you will get, and of course, video is the single most important media asset. The best stunts provide an incredible picture and social experience which create a shop window to the video content where you can really drive brand messaging in 90 seconds or less." Being topical also helps, as Peter explains. "We were going through the coldest weather spell of the year in the UK when we unleashed the polar bear, so we hit the news agenda head on and tweaked our media materials to reflect this."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's the weather that often throws a spanner into the works for many UK—based stunts, as Taylor Herring's Managing Partner highlights. "The history of PR stunts is littered with ideas that have backfired. We always try to insure ourselves by having a plan B and C. One of our biggest bugbears is the weather which is always unpredictable, yet most stunts take place outside and require good weather to ensure footfall. We once created a giant inflatable Spiderpig for the Simpsons movie with the aim of replicating the Pink Floyd 'Animals' cover by launching it at Battersea Power station. It took us four days to get airborne due to unseasonably high winds and wet conditions. We ended up having to tweak the campaign to incorporate a ‘will he fly or won't he' element on social media. Being nimble and fleet of foot is essential when it comes to stunts."
SHAVE THE RAINFOREST — PADDY POWER
The brainchild of the young and often irreverent ad agency Lucky Generals, 'Shave The Rainforest' was arguably the most controversial PR stunt of 2014.Created to capitalise on the hype surrounding the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Lucky Generals faked a set of photos, which suggested that the bookmaker had chopped down some of the Amazon rainforest to send a patriotic message to the England team. On Friday the 6th of June, three images were 'leaked' and swiftly made their way onto social media, causing an understandable uproar. "Mischief defines and differentiates the Paddy Power brand," Paddy Power's 'Mischief Champion', Harry Dromey explains, "and we know punters love it. Much of the incredible growth the business has seen in the 26 years since it was established has been because of the brand we created."
A huge amount of speculation ensued on social media and news sites as to whether the images were real or not. As the attention reached its apex, Paddy Power released another image which looked remarkably similar but this time stated 'We didn't give the Amazon a Brazilian' — accompanied by a bit of background to the stunt and the hashtag #SaveTheRainforest. At the time of the reveal, both Paddy Power and #SaveTheRainforest were trending on Twitter and sentiment went from almost entirely negative to predominantly positive. "You need to be at the heart of the action or join conversations that the media and punters are already having," says Harry, referencing what makes for an effective stunt. "You need to be innovative, audacious and say something that people understand and find interesting. It also needs to make a good picture."
Thanks to the 'Shave The Rainforest' stunt, Paddy Power were the most talked about brand in the UK and Ireland the weekend before the World Cup. Over 35,000 people engaged with the story on Twitter, with over 18,000 mentions of Paddy Power, and 1.8million people saw it on Facebook. It was also the most read story on Reddit, receiving over 836,000 views. Almost every major UK newspaper reported on it and Paddy Power's own blog post on the stunt received over 183,000 views within two days of going live — in comparison, the average Paddy Power blog post receives 8,000.
LIFE IS BETTER WITH CAKE EDIBLE BILLBOARD — MR KIPLING
Following on from the launch of the 'Life Is Better With Cake' campaign for Mr Kipling a couple of weeks before, JWT London created the world’s first edible billboard — made entirely out of cake. Constructed outside Westfield in Shepherd's Bush, the billboard was made from 13,360 cakes, which the public were freely allowed to eat. "It took ten months from first sight of the idea to realising it," says Jonathan Terry, Head of JWT Live — the agency's in-house event activation arm. "It was incredibly complicated to think through how to execute it in an outdoor environment, and how to make it look tantalizing to eat, but also make it look like a billboard. We prototyped five different versions of the structure before we settled on the final one."
As for why a stunt was chosen as the medium of the message, the answer is quite simple. "The idea chose itself," Jonathan explains. "The campaign idea was Life Is Better With Cake, and this execution was one example of an idea that was enhanced by cake. Cake is good, but how exciting is a giant billboard made of it?" It wasn't just a nice idea, however: Mr Kipling was the subject of a 10% increase in online conversation — a direct result of the edible billboard. The stunt received more than 40 pieces of editorial coverage, with an estimated reach of 213,997,500, and positive sentiment for the brand increased by 25%. Most impressively — according to the Ebiquity Marketing Effectiveness Interim Review published earlier this month — the event resulted in two million incremental cakes sold, of which slices accounted for 70% of those sales, with the majority of the impact taking place within the week of the activity.
As Jonathan summarises, "ideas that are shareable, are powerful. They naturally spread themselves across the internet, and journalists are happy to write about them. But, real things, real stories, are perhaps the most powerful. World-first real ideas are the best of all. The most watched televised moment in history was, and remains, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Real, world-first ideas are inherently viral."
STAN SMITH POP-UP SHOEBOX — ADIDAS
To mark the return of the classic Stan Smith OG shoe at the beginning of 2014, adidas chose to build hype both online and offline by dropping a giant shoebox, which doubled up as a pop-up store, into the heart of East London's Brick Lane. The box offered an interactive floor entrance, a wall of Stan Smith shoes, 3D printers churning out miniature Trefoil lace locks and a ‘Stan Yourself’ app where visitors were able to swap Stan’s face for their own on the classic Stan Smith logo graphic. "We've produced giant shoeboxes in the past," notes Donna Bellamy, the Senior Brand Communications Manager at adidas who was behind the idea. "The difference was that the Stan version was a habitable, interactive exhibition space and a natural evolution of the previous versions that were more like advertising installations.“
In total, the giant shoebox spent eight weeks in planning and took four days to build. As Donna explains, "it had to be big and ballsy, and in the right place that would appeal to an influencer audience. We knew a pop-up of this size would gain traction through PR and social, and provide great content for digital channels. It allowed us to connect on social media and engage with our consumers, influencers and media through a ‘real time’ event. This always generates buzz and excitement, adds weight to a campaign, and ultimately drives awareness at a given moment in time.“
The results? 3,500 people went through the pop-up shoebox and the stunt received wide coverage in key media outlets. The shoes sold out of its core sizes within a few hours of going live on the adidas website, with the replenished stock lasting just three days before it sold out again. As for Donna's view on the secrets of a good PR stunt, "it's about originality, a social media engagement mechanic, asset endorsement — we had the endorsement of Stan Smith himself and a number of celebrities who acted as adidas advocates — and a great product or proposition at the heart of the message."
NESSIE SAYS WE'RE BETTER TOGETHER - AUTOGRAPHER
With the aim of reaching a wider market than the consumer tech audience that it had become so closely affiliated with, Autographer — the world's first wearable camera — used a stunt to garner attention from the more mainstream consumer. Working with PR agency, Hope&Glory, a new positioning for the brand was created which centred around the idea of being able to 'capture an unexpected perspective', a broader proposition which would allow Autographer the license to involve itself in the issues of the day. At the time, the big topic was the Scottish Referendum, leading Hope&Glory to come up with the idea that an Autographer had been set up on the banks of Lake Windermere on a time lapse and had managed to capture an image that looked distinctly like the infamous Loch Ness Monster.
"Generally speaking the best ideas are the ones that just happen," says James Gordon-MacIntosh, Hope&Glory's Managing Partner on the two weeks it took to turn around the stunt. "You have the idea, everyone knows in their gut that it’s right and everyone cracks on with it. All too often, too much time means that people start to unpick ideas — or complicate them. That’s the case as much with set-piece stunts as stunts that play off news events."
The story was released with no mention of it being a stunt, gently hinting at the notion that Nessie had moved south in protest at Scotland going independent. The impact was impressive. There were more than 110 pieces of editorial coverage in all, with the story becoming the third most-read article on the Daily Mail that week. It received more shares and comments than any other story. It was also the most-read article on the Daily Star and the fourth most-read on the Daily Mirror. In all, the story reached over 38.6million UK adults and perhaps most importantly, 89% of the coverage mentioned the Autographer brand.
"Don’t ask too much of a stunt," James points out, "they only deliver so many messages, so try to deliver one well. Don’t over-brand it either. If it’s a good one then the editorial copy will do the job for you. And don’t get too internally-focused when putting stunts together — think about the media and the consumer agenda first and then work out how your story fits into those things, not the other way around.“ The simplicity behind the idea certainly paid off. Brand tracking research showed that awareness of Autographer rose by 57% following the Nessie stunt, with searches for the brand rising by 100%, site visits rising by 27% and a 17% rise in sales.
According to James Gordon-MacIntosh, the art of a good stunt lies in six places. "Newsworthiness: what’s the agenda that the stunt is playing off? Timeliness: why should the media cover this amongst all the other things they could cover today? Humour or surprise: what’s going to make a reader, viewer or listener smile about your stunt? Some friction: what’s the tension in the story? Impact: what’s the great picture or video moment that delivers the content required? And finally, a sense of originality: 3D chalk drawings, parkour runners and crop circles are 'done', so what’s your new take’?