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Publicity stunts: a cheap trick for startups

Written by Adam Pescod on Monday, 02 June 2014. Posted in PR, Sales & Marketing

Publicity stunts sometimes backfire but with sufficient thought, preparation and not much investment, they can propel a startup to new heights

Publicity stunts: a cheap trick for startups

It was hard not to be mesmerised by Felix Baumgartner’s jump of a lifetime last year. The Austrian skydiver’s leap from space was watched live by a record-breaking 8 million people on YouTube and was the headline story on major news networks across the globe. However, whilst many tuned in for the purpose of seeing one man’s fulfilment of a lifelong dream, the event could also reasonably be labelled ‘the greatest publicity stunt of all time’. After all, its official title was Red Bull Stratos, signifying the identity of the stunt’s sponsor; the international energy drinks giant. 

Granted, a stunt of this magnitude is way beyond the reach – and budget – of your humble start-up. It’s an extreme example that doesn’t help ease the mindset of brands that are looking to grab their first little slice of market share at a comparatively low expense. “If you’re a start-up, you’re obviously counting the pennies so you want something that raises your profile but doesn’t cost the earth,” says Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA).

Fortunately though, there are many ways that a publicity stunt can be kind to the company coffers and at the same time propel a brand to the next level. James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, the brewer and pub operator, can relate to this better than most. Although the quality of its produce has gone a long way to ensuring the company’s commercial success thus far, BrewDog has won plaudits (and attracted controversy) for its mission to shake up an age-old industry; a mission in which publicity stunts have played a prominent part.

“People assume you need massive budgets to make a big impact but it isn’t true,” says Watt. “With the right idea and execution, small can be epic. For example we hosted the world’s smallest protest with a single dwarf and a placard to campaign against an alcohol law banning two-thirds of a pint measures. The cost was minimal but the execution was brilliant and we ended up changing a 300-year-old alcohol law. It’s always going to be tough being a start-up but you shouldn’t let your size constrain your ideas.”

Sending in the tanks

James Watt sheds light on one of BrewDog’s most commercially successful stunts to-date: the launch of Equity for Punks III, its innovative crowdfunding scheme


When we launched Equity for Punks III in June 2013 we drove a tank to the Bank of England with an army of super fans in tow. We wanted to do a big launch that demonstrated our alternative approach to business and financing; that we were leading a revolution by taking the control from the banks and putting it back in the hands of the people. 

On the day of launch we had thousands of people tweet and share images of the tank and we raised £1m in the first 24 hours; the scheme went on to raise £4.25m. We could have just announced that we were running the crowdfunding scheme again, but where is the fun in that? I doubt we would have had such an epic response if we hadn’t launched with a bang.


Brand central

If there’s another lesson that BrewDog’s approach can teach other start-ups when it comes to publicity stunts, it’s that the brand must be at their core. BrewDog’s stunts succeed because they speak volumes about what the brand stands for: disrupting an industry and challenging the norm. Eyebrows would likely be raised if an ethical skincare product were to engage in similar stunt activity to the brash Scottish brewer. 

“People think that publicity stunts are done for publicity stunts’ sake but really the successful publicity stunts aren’t the ones that generate coverage;  they’re the ones that generate business growth and are born from a brand identity rather than from one bold idea,” says Alex Myers, director of Manifest London, the marketing and communications agency. “The question a start-up needs to ask itself is ‘can any other brand do this?’ If the answer is yes, don’t do it. It has to be a stunt that amplifies and magnifies what the brand does rather than what the category does.” 

And a large part of what defines a brand is the very people it is trying to target. The same rules therefore apply for publicity stunts as they do for a traditional advertising campaign. “You have got to keep mindful of your audience,” Chloe Buchanan, head of PR at Adams Creative, the PR and marketing agency. “It’s great doing stunts but you need to ask yourself if it will actually influence the right people and the right demographic.” She adds that acquiring the services of a good photographer is essential. “It’s all about having someone who has that creative eye.”
 

Shock tactics

Alex Myers, director at Manifest London, reveals how a single stunt threw Morphsuits into the public consciousness

Morphsuits hasn’t always had huge marketing budgets but what it does have is a community of fans that automatically generates content. Last year at Halloween we ran something with them called Fright Mob. We created the scariest Morphsuits ever and to promote it, we asked people on Twitter and Facebook to tell us who they felt we should go and frighten. We turned up with a gang of Morphsuits and cameras to wherever that friend was and basically scared the hell out of them.

The reason it worked was that we used the activity to generate video content, which we posted online, and we knew that within the community that Morphsuits has – it has 1.2 million fans on Facebook – we’d be able to turn this into a viral story. Sky News invited the founders of Morphsuits on to talk about how they’d created this global phenomenon and the Met Police even issued a warning against conducting Fright Mobs in busy areas. I think that’s where a stunt can become cyclical and have a snowball effect – as long as you have got the colonel of the idea right and it’s something no other brand can do.


When it goes wrong

The amount of planning that a publicity stunt requires cannot be overlooked. If it’s not treated as a means to an end and fails to attract the attention of the press and public alike, it could take a brand backwards instead of forwards. Ingham cites Advantage SA, a media company in Australia, as an example of how publicity stunts can have the opposite effect to what was intended. The firm sent 55 goldfish in bowls to media agencies, along with the words ‘Be the big fish in a small pond and come test the water’, in a bid to promote South Australia as a good place to advertise. Whilst they were also supplied with six months’ worth of food for the fish, most didn’t survive the delivery process, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of recipients and numerous other parties. “They got terrible publicity on the back of it and were criticised, quite correctly, by lots of animal welfare charities,” says Ingham. “It backfired on them.” 

In an age where social is everything, stunts that can be shared on all platforms will also benefit the brand and make life easier for a publisher as well. “Giving journalists something that they don’t have to research or analyse, but that still provides them with content, can work for both them and the startup,” adds Ingham. He reserves particular praise for confused.com in this regard. The car insurance company celebrated the 50th anniversary of bubble wrap by covering a whole street in the material and renaming in Accident Avenue. “It worked because it played to their message about safety on the road and it provided compelling content and photographs,” he says. “But they did get permission from the people on the road and local authority before they did it.” 

Striking up a strong relationship with authorities and the general public where they actively engage with a stunt can bring significant rewards. Indeed, part of the reason that guerrilla activity and flash mobs are now less common is the risk of fines and potentially damaging legal action. “Flash mobs started illegally and a lot of train stations cottoned on to the fact that they could actually make a bit of money out of it,” says Buchanan. “The investment isn’t worth it for SMEs. They are better off doing smaller stunt activity that can be quite cheap, doesn’t require too much man power, is really well thought-through and brings a good return on investment.”

Contrary to popular belief, not all publicity is good publicity – a lesson that start-ups would be foolish to ignore.

Publicity stunts: what not to do 

  1. Break the law – it’s easily done, especially with health and safety aspects

  2. Be gratuitously offensive – it might gain you coverage but it won’t gain you customers

  3. Ignore your own staff – they need to be kept in the loop

  4. Forget what the end goal is – the headline and the article are just a means to an end, not the end in itself

  5. Do something that’s contrary to how you want your business to be seen – if you want to be a high-end purveyor of fine goods, a tacky stunt that gets covered in the Daily Star won’t help

    Courtesy of Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA)  

About the Author

Adam Pescod

Adam Pescod

EB's former editor, Pescod was tasked with ensuring these hallowed pages are rich with excellent, engaging and error-free stories, all written with the entrepreneur in mind. Pescod previously plied his trade penning pieces about pubs and pints. He is also a sucker for alliteration. 

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