Getting attention through stunts is not anything new. It’s a healthy tactic that brands keep using to make a splash in news and culture. However, in the past several years, stunts have become more sophisticated in how they reach audiences. High-impact creative ideas from agencies can illustrate the true power of capturing moments in time that break the internet and fill the mainstream airwaves.
Burger King and KFC (through their agencies David and Wieden + Kennedy, respectively) are well-known for their recent prowess in securing eyeballs and share of voice. Fruit of the Loom and its agency, CP+B, gave away cash in a scavenger hunt. IHOP, which changed its name to IHOb to promote burgers, in a stunt created by Droga5, earned tens of billions of impressions, waking people up to the idea that the brand is more than just pancakes.
Brands like REI with #OptOutside and Patagonia’s stunt on its website decrying President Trump’s plan to reduce the size of two national monuments fit their company philosophies. Nike’s audaciousness in its attempt to break the two-hour marathon mark may have set the tone for the future of sports marketing.
Even the business-to-business space is ripe for the practice. Volvo’s “Epic Split” with Jean-Claude Van Damme was a global awards darling that made major waves. A recent video that features the CEO of Swedish engineering company Sandvik driving through a maze of glass surprised and delighted audiences and, closer to home, marketing company Freshworks flew a #Failsforce blimp over Salesforce’s huge conference in San Francisco to garner press and eyeballs.
Clearly, when done right, stunts can have an immediate impact, but the main question generally asked is whether they have a net positive on the brands they serve. The advent of social media, in addition to media and society’s unquenchable thirst to find “the next great thing to talk about,” is rich tinder to create potential brand fire, but only if it makes sense.
“We’re living in a moment-to-moment society, and I think we’re seeing more brands trying to capitalize on that,” said Mack McKelvey, a brand advisor based in Washington, D.C.
One stunt that leaned heavily on serendipity—and became one of the most cited marketing case studies—was Oreo’s 2013 “Dunk in the Dark.” The brand and agency it worked with, 360i, were fully prepared to be a presence on social during the Super Bowl. But when the lights went out during the game, the team sensed an opportunity and created immediate buzz with a simple image of the cookie and copy that read “You can still dunk in the dark.” It’s still considered a gold standard and supports an essential component of stunts: relevance.
“Social media allows brands to have direct conversations with consumers. Mondelez took advantage of a moment in time and executed against it to be relevant,” said McKelvey. “But that doesn’t happen all the time and it’s hard to duplicate lightning in a bottle.”
Interestingly, and in looking at which categories rely on stunts as a marketing tactic, it appears that there’s more activity around “low-threshold” products—those that don’t comparatively cost much money, like a Whopper or can of Red Bull. McKelvey, who works with Fortune 100 companies, sees firms with larger-ticket products less apt to put budget toward stunts.
“They won’t spend a penny unless it’s driving dollars in revenue. They’re more focused on the bottom of the sales funnel,” she said, adding brands want long-term value out of their marketing dollars.
Lindsey Slaby, who founded the Sunday Dinner consultancy and works closely with CMOs, says there aren’t as many brand stunts as the industry may perceive at the moment. Moreover, the rise of ad blocking and consumer desire to see real things in the world could partly explain why the tactic seems to be making its way into more traditional agency concept decks.
“Media is tricky right now,” she said. “[Marketers] have all of these issues. Is a digital ad too expensive? Is digital actually performing? Am I talking to real people? What about TV and direct? There are only so many channels and places you can spend money. Stunts have become viable places where you can do something big and bold. Brands are looking for attention.”
Ironically, as the industry conversation hones in on performance, stunts could very well deliver on that promise, with one key caveat.
“When a stunt gets mass media attention in the news, then it hits an entirely different level of conversation and potential success,” said Slaby, who has worked with brands like Converse, Nickelodeon, Target and Union Pacific. “They can be efficient, but must, first and foremost, solve for a business challenge. If those needs change for a brand, you don’t necessarily have to replicate it.”