The risks and rewards of publicity stunts

PR stunts. The somewhat notorious activity that captures the imagination. Over the past few decades, there have been many memorable stunts – while there have been many fails, there have been many more huge hits that have catapulted brands into the forefront of the public arena.

Recent successful stunts hitting the headlines have included Menulog’s ‘Pay By Smell’ promotion for those seeking out hot chips, a KFC owner’s mission to get a Michelin star for his restaurant, Booking.com appointing a canine travel expert to promote its pet-friendly holiday experiences, UK supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s opening the country’s first ‘meat-free butcher’ as part of a high street pop-up experience and board game, Trivial Pursuit, opening a hotel which accepts ‘knowledge’ as payment. The list goes on but they have all captured attention in their own right.

Meanwhile, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s stunt involved opening the country’s first “meat-free butcher” as part of a high street pop-up experience and board game, Trivial Pursuit, “opened” a hotel which accepts “knowledge” as payment. The list goes on, but they have all captured attention in their own right.

A PR stunt is a bold activity with an element of risk in its creation, designed to deliberately create mass awareness through content, coverage and conversation.

So how can your brand take advantage of one of the biggest fame-building marketing exercises you can get? And how can you make sure you don’t fall victim to the PR stunt “graveyard”?

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Here are a few tips to consider to ensure you can deliver a stunt that works – or if it is the right approach for your brand at all.

1. Consider the objective of running a stunt. Stunts used to be about hijacking consumer interests, but in the age of a culture where there are so many competing interests, activities and talking points, the smarter goal is to become what consumers are interested in as a result of your actions. Generating intrigue and showcasing your brand’s personality is a good place to start from an emotional perspective before you get into the nitty gritty functional business objectives. 

     PR stunts are designed to generate attention in the earned space. To “own” the earned, you need to be savvy about what will get on to the news agenda and what you are saying that is “new news” to a mass audience, sparking a new conversation or reigniting an old one.

2. Be willing to be bold. Be open to being ambitious and make a statement. It’s all about creating a meaningful experience that consumers will want to engage with and talk about with their friends, family and loved ones. 

     There are several ingredients for this, and a few key ones to consider include: 

  • Your stunt must be entertaining enough to hook people in and generate content that will live on beyond the stunt – the hallmark of a great stunt is the ability to generate laughs, smiles, shocks or some form of reaction. You’d be amazed how many stunts fall flat as they are too focused on delivering every single brand attribute without thinking about the end-consumer experience and takeaway; and
  • It needs to be unexpected. It’s highly likely you have research that gives you a good level of customer insights about brand or category perceptions. To help cut through, think about how you can challenge these findings. It could be with a striking visual display, it could be using a celebrity or it could be bringing your brand to life through an innovative piece of technology. 

The idea is to make people stop and question everything they knew about the brand, to make it top-of-mind next time they plan to make a purchase. If your brand is conservative and risk-averse, a stunt may not be the best course of action and you may be wiser to focus elsewhere.

3. Demonstrate scale. This is the hallmark of a good stunt, but it doesn’t have to rely just on size if your budget won’t stretch too far. Running activities in multiple places through multiple channels at the same time that gets people talking at a given moment can be classed as a stunt, as long as it is telling some form of story or making a statement. On the other hand, demonstrating a range of innovations or quirky inventions can also have the same effect of delivering scale, just in a different way.

4. Timing is everything. It isn’t just a cliché, it’s absolutely true when it comes to stunts and this is often the trap brands fall into with stunts. This relates to the time of year, cultural relevance, time of day and what is happening in your own brand world as multiple factors that affect time. 

     As a rule of thumb, mornings are infinitely better to attract attention from media and consumers alike, and avoiding the first and last weeks of the year and trying to compete in preceding days of major events (particularly sport events) are the key considerations here. If you want to do a stunt associated with an event (which many brands often do), consider going five to seven days before to jump on its newsworthiness without clashing with it. A stunt should complement your brand’s life cycle, whether you are just starting out or perhaps celebrating a milestone.

5. Be single-minded. How well known is your brand or product? Are you launching a new product to market? Whatever you do, make sure you stick to landing one hero message that fits your brand image. Sure, you will have supporting pieces of information that consumers need to know – ie, its availability and pricing – but the human brain tends to focus on one thing that stands out. So whether it’s a functional benefit of your brand, an emotional statement you want to make or something that talks to your brand heritage, think about your desired consumer takeaway. In all likelihood, that is also likely to inspire the headlines that media may write about and it will likely help you craft a stronger story that could generate wider media pickup. 

     It’s also the most likely point that will end up on consumers’ social media feeds from what they have seen or engaged with. Trying to do or say too much will water down what you are doing. If you really need to deliver multiple layers of messages, a stunt may not be the best activity for you to invest in.

6. Be relevant. This is the golden rule of PR stunts. Resist the urge to do something you may have thought was clever but is not appropriate for your brand and resist jumping on a trendy bandwagon that worked for one brand or category but will leave your consumers baffled if you apply it to your brand or products.

Step outside of your brand world and think of yourself as the average consumer. Would YOU talk about the activity you are planning? In case you are biased, it’s often worth asking a partner or best friend who may be give you a more honest response – and it may help you on your road to a winner – or to a avoid a fail.

Adam Freedman is head of consumer at Red Agency and has consulted numerous brands and retailers across Australia and the UK on their marketing and communications strategies.

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