Fashion-forward American women are willing to do a lot to get their hands on the season's "it" bag. But how about flocking to the Web to join in a rapid-fire Tweet-off for a slim shot at shattering a glossy black sphere with a handbag locked inside?
Sure, they'll do that, too.
In fact, fashionistas sent 26,000 tweets for Breakthrough, an April 15 event that proved to be (even by Internet standards) one of the more unusual marketing stunts to come along in recent years. It was also a prime example of how guerrilla marketing—head-turning events traditionally set up on the street—can find a bigger audience via social media. A second orb shattering in the U.K. generated more than 12,000 tweets.
Staged by the modish cosmetic brand Nars, Breakthrough aimed to generating buzz about a new color collection from Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane. "We wanted to do something bespoke, something completely different—and we landed on this," said Nars' digital and consumer strategy director Heather Park. "The fact that it was so strange was the terrific aspect of it."
Strange it was. Below, a behind-the-scenes look at how the gig went down.
Assembling the Prize
To promote its spring cosmetics collection, Nars packaged its high-end makeup with a limited-edition Christopher Kane handbag. This reminded consumers that the Scottish designer developed the color collection and provided an incentive to join the contest.
Setting the Stage
The prize package was concealed inside a glossy sphere of black enamel. Positioned to one side were four striker arms, each of which delivered a blow to the orb when someone tweeted the hashtag #NARSChristopherKaneUS. As the orb slowly revolved, the hammer blows began to crack it into pieces. The tweet that corresponded to the finishing blow won the prize. Sounds straightforward, right? But someone had to actually build it.
While Nars paid the freight for the event, it was Sam Ewen of environmental marketing firm Guild who hatched the idea. "I wanted an audience to be able to participate, because Nars has such a strong social media following," Ewen said. "And since Nars' new Spring line was coming, I liked the idea of something cracking open—almost like the birthing of something." Births are normally not very pretty to watch, but Guild decided that a sphere that could be cracked open would be cool to watch. Above, an early sketch.
The Right Stuff
The biggest challenge was finding the right material to construct the hollow sphere with. "Our staff sculptor spent three weeks just making things and breaking things to figure out what materials give nice cracks and fissures," Ewen said. In the end, they settled on Hydrocal, a white gypsum cement usually used for industrial casting. Paintable and sturdy, the material also stood up under repeated striking—but once weakened, it fractured into pleasing, jagged pieces.
Meanwhile, Guild's build team rigged up four striking arms a few inches from the orb. Each would recieve a signal to fire by an incoming tweet. Since a high volume of tweets would prompt the hammers to hit too quickly and shatter the sphere right away, Guild devised a queuing system by which the tweets effectively lined up to trigger evenly timed hits.
Because the Breakthrough event would be live, the first take was the final one. If the sphere didn't break—or if it broke unevenly—the whole event would have been disastrous. "We performed 20 tests in our studio beforehand," Ewen said, "just so we knew how the sphere would break." Above, how the sphere broke during the live event.
When Breakthrough went live, tweets came in at an average rate of 5.8 per second, with as many as 600 tweets lined up in the queue. The hydrocal orb withstood the blows for 30 minutes before it began to crack, and 15 minutes later it was all over: The sphere lay in pieces with the prize exposed. "We couldn't have asked the thing to break more perfectly," said Park. "A lot of people said, 'I can't stop watching this.'"