Red Bull Vs. Pizza Hut: To stunt or not to stunt

This week has delivered us two extreme cases of what can go right, and what can go wrong with brand-related PR stunts. Red Bull and Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos jump has achieved coverage in every major news outlet and the discourse around the science, the marketing and the sheer guts of Baumgartner continues.

On the other hand, Pizza Hut was firmly spanked by the media and the public ahead of their proposed Presidential Debate stunt where they challenged audience members via an online commercial to pose the question “Sausage or Pepperoni?” of Romney and Obama, to win a year’s supply of free pizza (as it turns out, nobody braved the question last night after a speedy concept recall by Pizza Hut.)

As brands duke it out for the highly-contested attention of consumers and indeed journalists, the tactics they’re employing are getting bigger, crazier and in some cases just downright desperate. Earned media remains one of the hardest nuts to crack and there’s no rule book to define where the line should be drawn.

We’ve pulled together a couple of guidelines around stunt-based PR campaigns:

Be authentic: Is the stunt true to your brand? Red Bull is no stranger to risk-taking and they have owned the extreme sport space for some time now. The Stratos jump follows a trajectory of similar Red Bull marketing and PR activities which include Air Races, Formula One sponsorships and Cliff Diving – we expect this kind of stuff from them. The Pizza Hut stunt was unexpected (not always a bad thing), but seemed to lack critical due diligence and it wasn’t helped that the connection between pizza toppings and politics is a far stretch. That’s not to say you can’t be spontaneous and capitalize on what’s topical but never be seduced by the sizzle; a tactic should always serve up to a bigger strategy, to meet a set objective.

Politics and religion. There’s a reason these two topics are taboo; both carry high levels of passion and austerity and both can evoke strong reactions. The whole Chick-Fil-A debacle is another example of a company playing in a sandpit not closely aligned with its core business. The “boxers or briefs” question posed to a slightly red-faced Bill Clinton was cited by supporters of Pizza Hut’s campaign, saying that we should all lighten up a little around politics but let’s not forget this was asked by a brazen young lady in an MTV setting, not by a brand trying to insert itself into a political conversation.

Fan the flame, don’t throw fuel on the fire. Red Bull has been applauded by the press for letting the stunt largely speak for itself. Chatter about the stunt in the lead-up was downplayed, with Red Bull activating the bulk of promotion, post-event. In comparison, Pizza Hut dialed up noise about their efforts to maximize exposure and inspire someone to actually ask the question. Most viral campaigns have an understated cool factor in common; people don’t like being told what is cool – they like to decide for themselves. If your idea “tips,” then you can increase your volume but there’s something to be said for the power of a groundswell effect.

Assume the worst will happen and have a crisis plan for it. If something goes wrong, you don’t want to be scrambling for a solution with egg on your face. As part of the planning process, ask the question, “What could possibly go wrong?” and prepare a plan for those scenarios that is 100% ready to roll out. Sometimes the way you handle something can even put you in a stronger position (think back to the Tylenol crisis case study from the 80’s.)

Red Bull is (thankfully) in the fortunate position of their incredibly risky stunt paying off, but one shudders to imagine the reaction if something had gone wrong. We’d love to hear your thoughts – was Red Bull significantly smarter than Pizza Hut, or did the cards just fall in their favor?

Posted on October 17, 2012, in Business, DiGennaro Communications and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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