Publicity Stunts That Take Off

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos channeled Evel Knievel in his December 2013 interview on “60 Minutes” announcing Amazon Prime Air, a “new delivery system is to get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.”

Bezos insists Amazon’s drones are not science fiction. A recent Federal Aviation Adminstration ruling however grounded Lakemaid Beer’s delivery drones serving ice fishermen, showing Bezos was potentially full of hot air. If beer delivery drones can’t operate on remote, flat frozen lakes of Minnesota, it’s improbable that Amazon’s drones will take to the skies any time soon. That doesn’t matter. If Amazon Air Prime was merely a publicity stunt, it was a brilliant one.

Bezos had impeccable timing as the interview aired the evening before Cyber Monday. Amazon made itself the topic of conversation on the news, online and at the water cooler on what is considered “one of the biggest online shopping days of the year” according to Shop.org.

While Apple is struggling to maintain its innovative reputation without Steve Jobs, Amazon positioned itself as a pioneer. Six weeks after the drones, it announced patenting “anticipatory shipping”, predicting and expediting customer’s orders through Amazon’s shipping process. There is no implementation immediate plans, but it sustained the conversation framing Amazon as a trailblazer.

The Bottom Line

  • Be credible. Amazon got away with fantastical drones because they have credibility based on their innovation in product delivery services such as Amazon Prime shipping, Amazon Instant Video and Kindle Whispersync. Make sure that the conversation you want to start or jump into is one that you can legitimately contribute to.
  • Align to your values and brand. You can be irreverent, controversial, offensive, or even foolish as long as it is what your target audience expects. Red Bull positions itself as an extreme energy drink, so sponsoring Felix Baumgartner’s jump from 23 miles above the Earth and breaking the sound barrier fit their brand, with the video accounting for 1% of all online conversations at the time. If a stunt can be reasonably misconstrued of being out of character, you run the risk of alienating your audience.
  • Be relevant. To be worthy of attention, stunts need to relate to your audience. Adult Swim caused a Boston bomb scare in 2007 by placing LED placards around town that were misidentified as improvised explosive devices. It wasn’t until hours later that a young staffer in the mayor’s office recognized the cartoon characters because the wrong audience saw it first.
  • Make it shareable. Stunts may get traditional press, but they’re more likely to get major play online. Videos need to tell your story in under two minutes and descriptions need translate to a tweet, so keep it simple. Think visually to translate to Facebook or YouTube.
  • Achieve an objective. No matter how popular, stunts that fail to achieve tangible outcomes are failures. Canadian airline WestJet’s marketing elves crafted a Christmas miracle with video of passengers finding presents at luggage claim they told Santa they wanted before takeoff. Two months later, WestJet may have to raise fares and institute baggage and wifi fees due to a struggling Canadian dollar. Their holiday cheer may not translate into customers if they can’t compete on price.
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