Blogs & Comment

Publicity stunts are a high-risk, high-reward gamble for brands

When “event marketing” works, the payback can be spectacular. Or it can be a reputational disaster

Felix Baumgartner preparing to jump from the Red Bull Stratos capsule at the edge of space

Red Bull has created an adrenalin-charged parallel universe of marketing, including stunts such as the Red Bull Stratos project, in which Felix Baumgartner executed a record-breaking 39 km jump.

If the marketing team at Toyota Motor Corp. has a dartboard, it probably has Felix Baumgartner’s face on it. You could hardly blame them. There they were, ready to show off the herculean talents of their Tundra pickup truck by pulling a 292,000-pound space shuttle, and some guy picked the same news cycle to parachute 39 kilometres to Earth from the edge of space. Advantage: Red Bull. That was several years ago, but I bet it still smarts, because we all know which stunt people remember. It’s the chance you take when you decide you’re going to earn attention instead of buying it with advertising. Your enemy becomes anything that’s more interesting instead of just anyone with more money.

To be fair, Toyota unwittingly brought a knife to a gunfight that day. Red Bull is great at this sort of thing. It has evolved beyond pursuing the media to creating an adrenalin-charged parallel universe all its own. As founder Dietrich Mateschitz once put it, “We don’t bring the people to the product. We make it available, and those who love our style come to us.” And so it is with their marketing. Still, Baumgartner’s stunt is a perfect metaphor for the difficult bargain of event marketing: months of preparation for a single moment; infinite risk for the small but irresistible possibility of blazing glory.

Publicity stunts, as we used to call them aren’t new, of course. The dream of turning brands into news goes back at least as far as Edward Bernays paying women to smoke Lucky Strikes as “torches of freedom” in the streets of 1920s New York. But the rise of content marketing has elevated events to a status even Bernays could never have imagined. Now, instead of competing with the world for the attention of a few news directors, the world is covered in smartphone-wielding civilians who are waiting, eager and able to rebroadcast that awesome thing you did, as long as doing so makes them look awesome too. Event marketing isn’t quite the all-in bet it once was, and it may just be coming of age. In one recent study, in fact, chief marketing officers ranked it the most effective form of paid promotion. But it also remains the most perilous.

The primary risk in event marketing is the intrusion of real news, of course, but that’s a wild card. Close behind is a risk marketers can control: having a stupid idea. I still cringe at the memory of ING Direct’s flash mob of synchronized swimmers gyrating awkwardly in a public fountain to launch a new payment account. Last year’s FIFA World Cup was a festival of misguided stunts, from a pro-England slogan carved into a rainforest tree (faked to make a point, it turned out) to the free branded rain ponchos that looked just like Klan robes when deployed. You have to do your homework and have a clue about popular culture. No other form of marketing is quite as capable of rendering your brand worse off than had you done nothing at all.

Or as unforgiving about originality. WestJet’s charming 2013 stunt, in which it made holiday wishes come true for a shocked planeload of passengers, drew weepy social media praise the world over. A year later, with airlines like KLM and Air Canada jumping on the seasonal tear-jerker bandwagon, even WestJet’s own sequel—in which the airline delivered gifts to a needy community in the Dominican Republic—felt a bit too predictable for the cool kids to pass around. Novelty is the very heart of this kind of marketing. The event has to hit a nerve, but it also has to be something nobody has seen before or else sharing the story becomes a social liability.

For all that, events remain one of marketing’s brighter spots. No tactic so forcefully demands that you understand your own brand. And when it works, the payback can be spectacular. You just have to realize you’re trying to beat the game when you put a brand in the headlines. Fans of the ’70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati will recall Mr. Carlson’s plaintive defence in the aftermath of avian carnage in a mall parking lot: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” The lesson? Not all news is necessarily good news.