Retail Rundown: The Making of a Successful Brand Stunt

Welcome to the Retail Rundown, your go-to weekly podcast where RETHINK Retail teams up with industry experts to discuss the news and trends defining the world of retail.

 

How much do you love Panera Bread’s broccoli cheddar bowl? Would you wear it on your bathing suit? Although nobody asked for it, Panera Bread’s new limited swim suit line is certainly raising eyebrows.

 

In this episode, Skai CMO Margo Kahnrose joins us to discuss Panera’s swim suits along with the brand stunts that have seen real results—and the ones that have fallen flat.

 

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TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond Hare:
Hello, Retail Rundown listeners. I’m your host, Julia Raymond Hare. Today, we are joined by Margo Kahnrose, the global CMO of Skai. Skai is a commerce intelligence platform and Margo leads demand generation branding and communications for them. She has over 15 years experience in marketing, branding, communications and creative across enterprise SAS and consumer industries. And she previously led the development and management of Skai’s brand marketing for over four years, before doing the same for the mobility app SpotHero. Thank you for joining today Margo, excited to chat with you.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah, thanks for having me.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Well, today is going to be a fun one. For all of our listeners, we’re going to talk a little bit about brand stunts. And this one caused a lot of buzz, earlier this month, Panera Bread … And you might remember from last year, they had a lot of buzz when they released their coffee subscription, which is still going on, although there haven’t been any reports I could find about how well that’s doing but we’re talking about Panera Bread and they released swimsoups.com. It’s not suits, it’s soups like the bowl soup that you eat when you’re at Panera. And that is a site that has a few swimwear and pool accessories options. And they’re dedicated to, drum roll please, the broccoli cheddar bowl. That’s the one that is a crowd-pleaser. Margo, what do you think of this?

Margo Kahnrose:
I think it’s very reflective of the ways that brands and retailers and restaurants are thinking about marketing these days. And it’s a, “Challenge the old school, bring in the new school way of doing things, get attention in different and unexpected ways.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And sometimes, that means unexpected product associations or forays into new categories. I don’t think that Panera is going into clothing. This is not going to be some long-term experiment for them but I think it’s tough for a company like that to become part of the conversation on social media to get younger consumers talking about them or posting about them. And that’s really the holy grail these days, is, “How do you inspire the public to basically do your advertising for you, by engaging with their peers and with their friends and their followers on social and other platforms?”

Margo Kahnrose:
I think that’s what this was about. And it’s funny, which it was definitely as intended and remains to be seen, what they’ll get out of it.

Julia Raymond Hare:
It does remain to be seen. And Margo, you mentioned the goal behind this obviously is to get the public to do the advertising for Panera or any brand stunt, that’s the goal but sometimes … I looked up some examples for this episode and it seems like the cost factor should be considered. There was one … And I know you have some that you’ll share but KFC in December, 2020, had a lifetime mini-movie. It was 15 minutes, called A Recipe for Seduction. And Mario Lopez was starring as a sexy Colonel Sanders. And on YouTube, it has almost 250,000 views of the trailer. Pretty decent but that had to cost a pretty penny. When you’re working with retailers, how do you think about the ROI when it comes to brand stunts?

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah, I think that you have to be very mindful of it and sometimes it’s about ROI in terms of, “What’s a big sales bump that I can make happen by becoming the center of attention for a brief period of time? If I’m Panera and I can sell a whole ton of broccoli cheddar soup, in the month of July, what does that translate into in terms of dollars?”

Margo Kahnrose:
Well, maybe X and maybe you factor in the swimsoups, swim suits, soups, whatever, that they sell and they make a little bit of incremental but it’s probably overall nothing so material to warrant the cost of the stunt but then when you look at, “What is the network effect of the stunt and what’s the trickle-down effect of the stunt and how long do you get people not only talking about your brand but then piquing new customers’ interests and suddenly the ROI can be much greater and start to justify the effort that goes into it.”

Margo Kahnrose:
I think it’s really important for brands that are trying to consider this type of marketing, to think about, “How can I test the waters a little bit and gauge how well something like this might work for my brand, before I go all in, KFC hiring celebrity talent and whatnot style?”

Margo Kahnrose:
There’s probably something in between that can give some rapid feedback to the brand about, “Is this a good idea? Is this worth putting money behind?”

Margo Kahnrose:
But I also will say, when you think about the grand scheme of where big brands place their big advertising bets, a lot of the time, it’s these big expensive ad spots on TV and those don’t prove immediate or super measurable ROI either. And so when you compare to some of the other big budget items and the balance sheet of advertising, something like this starts to make a little bit more sense because you can very quickly see what people are thinking and feeling and reacting to, as opposed to some of those other channels that are more about just one way conversations. I think it’s definitely a cost-benefit analysis but you have to be creative, both in terms of how you can do it while mitigating risk and that’s something we can talk about and also, what type of ROI are you looking for? Are you looking for a bigger audience? Are you looking for engagement? Or are you looking for sales?

Julia Raymond Hare:
I like that, bigger audience, engagement or sales. And you said mitigating risk is important. And I think if you look at the Panera Bread example, it seems aligned with their target demographic and also with the season, being that it’s swimsoups but what are some things that you mention in terms of mitigating risk and balancing wanting to launch a great idea quickly and while the iron is hot, so to speak, versus making sure it’s the right idea?

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah. Timeliness is extremely important here. A smaller-scale brand stunt that happened this week, was by Mercado Libre, which is the big Amazon type retailer in Latin America. And while Jeff Bezos went to space this week in his own spaceship for fun or whatever his reason was, Mercado took advantage of that moment to update their homepage with all this space imagery. And they poked a lot of good humor fun at Jeff Bezos and by extension, Amazon, which is in many ways their competitor for being such a one-percenter. They did a lot of quippy lines on social media about, “Cool, you go explore space. We’re going to help the rest of us who are here on earth.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And they talked a lot about the speed of their shipping and how by the time Jeff Bezos went up and came down, a lot of customers had already received their packages. That’s an example of an activation that has very low risk when you think about it because they didn’t put much money behind it. It’s just about disruptive marketing, in terms of the messaging and using the assets they already had to send the right message very timely but also, taps into something that does evoke emotion, which is really the key to getting through to customers, is to make them feel something. People have a lot of opinions about Jeff Bezos going up to space and Mercado Libre said, “Let’s take advantage of that and play into it but without spending a ton of money. We can do a lot of brand positioning and persona communication.”

Julia Raymond Hare:
And hats off to them.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah, yeah. It was creative and nobody was hurt. I think nobody was hurt, is not a small thing when you think about these brand stunts. Some older examples … And I think for sure, companies have gotten better at mitigating risk over the last few years but there’ve been some really famous ones in history that have been massive fails. In 1986, this isn’t a new type of marketing, I guess, is what I’m saying. We’ve gotten smarter about it. In 1986, United Way did this big fundraising stunt to raise a lot of money, by releasing millions of balloons into the air, in an attempt to break a Guinness world record. And what happened was horrible. They didn’t account for weather, wind blew balloons north of the city. And then it started to rain and all the balloons started to fall and that caused the runway at the airport to shut down and prevented the coast guard from finding two fishermen who had fallen off their boat because it had restricted the visibility over the water so much, having this balloon cover blocking the light and they died.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Oh, my.

Margo Kahnrose:
Something like this big brand stunt turns into a massive disaster and a PR mess. And then on a smaller scale, you have things like more recently, Airbnb during the pandemic, they did this thing where they tried to launch what they called kindness cards, which were supposed to be encouraging guests to write essentially, thank notes to hosts that they had stayed with. And it was really ill-received. People did not like that feeling of, “Who are they? Airbnb, who has killed a lot of hospitality industry players and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, telling us to thank our hosts.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And there was a lot of mockery and a lot of criticism on social media. That’s a different type of risk, right and brand safety.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Sure. Those are both great examples, Margo. The United Way one, it’s like, “What could go wrong with balloons?”

Julia Raymond Hare:
Right and literally everything that could go wrong with balloons went wrong.

Margo Kahnrose:
Everything. Yes.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Oh, man. And the Airbnb one. Yeah, that feels a little bit like they could have avoided that. It’s an exchange of services between hosts and guests, so I’m not sure where the thank you note campaign was born but … And this isn’t necessarily a brand stunt but sometimes I think even though there’s backlash, it actually still helps the brand in some ways because you remember the Pepsi Coke commercial of Kendall Jenner but that is still getting so much play on the meme streams and people … Their brand is still being shown. I don’t know if it necessarily impacts people’s decision if they’re going to go with a Pepsi product or not but …

Margo Kahnrose:
You’re bringing up something that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, which is there’s this old idiom or adage that no press is bad press. As long as you’re getting brand awareness out of something and your name is present and you’re top of mind, even if it’s for negative reasons, eventually the sentiment or the negativity is going to die down and what’s going to be memorable is your brand.

Margo Kahnrose:
And that was really a wisdom in marketing for decades. And I’m really skeptical of whether it’s true anymore. I think people have changed so much and as consumers, our expectations of brands have changed so much. Our relationships to brands have changed so much and we have so many more options than we ever had, in terms of who we give our money to and who we do business with. Now, I think actually, bad press is bad. If you’re seen as insensitive or not thoughtful in terms of the risks or selfish or vain as a brand, I think that stuff can have really detrimental effects today, unlike in the past because everything spreads like wildfire on social media. Younger generations are highly attuned to morals and ethics and values in brands and they want to see their own values reflected back. I think it’s a different game today and just because something made the meme, doesn’t mean that it’s a good look or helpful and it can do a lot of harm.

Julia Raymond Hare:
That’s a really … I think that could start quite the debate among the marketing folk out there because in media as well, it’s hard to say but I think you’re right in terms of me agreeing with you with the generational changes and it’s harder to hide now. Like you said, it’s all over social media, it spreads like wildfire and moreover, people should just have a little bit more of a meter as to putting out things that do align with their brand values. And so all good points. Oh, gosh. I had something I wanted to ask you but then I was talking and I forgot what it was. Oh, gosh.

Margo Kahnrose:
Brands also have so much more intelligence at their disposal right now. They have so much more data to work with to make these decisions. You don’t have to guess what consumers are going to feel. There’s really not that much excuse for Airbnb getting it so wrong, for their EQ being so low on something like that because the data is available. The insights are there about what consumers are feeling, what’s the pulse about different issues, what are key opinion leaders saying? And how do brands feel about your brand versus other brands and what do they expect from your brand? And how to feed into those expectations in a positive way. If brands are sophisticated, they’re already using those levers. They’re accessing all those signals and they’re making much more informed decisions before they go into one of these areas and take a risk with guerrilla marketing or a stunt or something like that. And if they’re not, then they probably aren’t ready to take a risk, which can have huge reward if it goes well.

Julia Raymond Hare:
If it goes well, right. If you thought of every angle to make sure that it has the right tone and message that’s coming across to all groups. I will say, I remember what I was going to ask … Abercrombie & Fitch is an interesting one that bounced back a bit and through social media because for a while, they were a retailer that was doing really poorly. I think someone at their company said something bad about overweight people. And now, they’re an all-inclusive brand. They have a ton of influencer marketing programs, from what I can tell on social media. And it’s interesting how they were able to turn around but what about Victoria’s Secret because that’s been in the news a lot recently, just what’s your take on if they’ll be able to have a turnaround with consumers?

Margo Kahnrose:
I’m very curious to see what happens there. I think when some of these brands like Abercrombie or Victoria’s Secret all of a sudden get this huge amount of backlash for something negative, when that thing has probably been happening for a long time or been out of sync with the broader culture for a long time but suddenly it gets exposed and they just feel the pain really sharply all of a sudden, they do have these huge growth opportunities because they do have attention. They have a forum.

Margo Kahnrose:
Once you have an audience, you have an opportunity to pivot and to tell that audience how you intend to do so and to grow. And people will be watching and paying attention, which is a different universe for how we grow as people behind the scenes. Not everyone’s waiting to see what we make of ourselves but with brands that have big audiences, people are interested. I think Victoria’s Secret had to change. There was no continuing that way. And the question is, can they tap into today’s customer for lingerie and still have a unique brand persona because there’s been a lot of D2C brands that have launched in their categories and have been extremely successful because they’re super tapped into their specific customer and their highest expectation customer. And Victoria’s Secret is going to have to carve their own identity out, when their identity used to be something else so specific and known.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yeah, that’s a great point. The competition is rough, all the D2C players that you mentioned.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yeah.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah. They have the resources, which is a massive advantage. They have the resources and they have the audience, they have the stage, actually literally in their case, they have the stage. It’s just a question of, “Do they have the savvy? Do they know how to use data? Do they know how to listen to the market, instead of talk at the market and tell the market what they should want and look like and feel like?”

Margo Kahnrose:
And I don’t think every brand can do that turnaround. Uber did it, right. Uber had some big fiascos and big PR disasters and turned it around with a fantastic CEO leading that culture change but not every brand can do it.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Pivoting back to brand stunts, we’ve talked about the things that have gone wrong, a few that have gone right but are there any other examples that you can share with our retail listeners about ones that were successful?

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah. There’s one that is very recent and a newer industry that I think is really interesting, that did a really beautiful brand stunt. And it’s a CBD brand called Charlotte’s Web. It’s not their first time that they’ve done one of these stunt marketing activations but their big brand identity is about removing or countering any remaining stigma that there is out there around CBD based products and health effects or health association. They like to tap into the active, athletic community to bridge that perception gap, I guess. They did an activation that took them two years to produce really, which was that they gave climbers or riders or hikers that made it to the top of the 400 foot Castleton Tower, which is a big landmark in Utah overlooking the Moab desert, really spectacular views at the top. They installed a vending machine dispensing their CBD hemp infused bombs and oils and products for the purpose of soothing overtaxed muscles from the athletes and hikers that made it to the top. This free product at the top.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Cool.

Margo Kahnrose:
It’s really cool, mainly because they filmed it all and they produced the journey of getting the vending machine to the top of the mountain, which was just an incredible logistic feat, right. And they had to hire professional climbers and do all kinds of cool stuff and just the views are just spectacular. And they also then filmed the reactions of various types of climbers getting to the top and finding it and using it and it’s just beautifully done with a serious tone. And it all came out very inspiring, not really what you think about for CBD. And I just thought it was really beautifully executed, clearly expensive, clearly a big undertaking but clearly, they know what they’re doing. They were going for a vibe, they had a very clear vision and I think they got buzz, they got the message that they wanted to get across because a lot of times, stunts don’t have a message. It’s like, “Hey, we want attention.”

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah. Shock value, buzz but they don’t really have a point of view. I think this one did and for that reason, I think it was pretty special. It’s worth looking up that video.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Super special with Charlotte’s Web. I was surprised when you started telling a story because a vending machine on top of a mountain overlooking the desert …

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Just sounds crazy, that’s amazing. It’s amazing that they did that and emotions must be so high when you get to the top of your climb, just that feeling that you get and then to have that forever be a little bit associated with that brand because you interacted with it right then.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yes, yes. And emotion is incredibly important in the stuff. You have to tap into something that people are feeling or make them feel, otherwise you’re not going to get the intended reaction of engagement and buzz. If you’re a retail brand or any brand, really and you’re thinking about, “Is this type of marketing right for me, right for my brand? Can I tap into new audiences with some stunt or guerrilla marketing effort?”

Margo Kahnrose:
Think about being authentic, think about having a point of view and a message and tapping into the emotions on the other side. Know your customer and know … Beyond just your customer base, know what the vibe is out there about certain issues because if you’re going to touch any hot issues, do it with care.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yeah.

Margo Kahnrose:
Oh, yeah. It’s not to say don’t do it, by the way because it’s a great way to be seen as more relevant than you might be ordinarily viewed as and to win some customer love and ultimately loyalty, if you do it right but do it eyes wide open and carefully with intel. And then obviously, consider the logistics. With this Charlotte’s Web example, they used the logistics to their advantage. They made the logistics part of the story. Getting that vending machine to the top of the mountain is as if not more interesting, to watch the way they filmed it, than people engaging with the vending machine at the top of the mountain. If something is a heavy lift on the logistics side, then get more out of that, make that work to your advantage. And if you’re not there yet, then think of low-risk ways to engage and make a difference, like Mercado Libre was just tapping into the Jeff Bezos buzz and stealing some of his thunder.

Julia Raymond Hare:
And Margo, are there certain times that are … Is it seasonal? How do retailers or brands decide when is the right time to do something like this?

Margo Kahnrose:
It’s a great question. I guess, I can answer from my own experience. When I was at SpotHero, we were given the charge as a marketing team … Twofold, one, make use of the holiday season and make a lot of noise around the holidays when holiday parking was very much in demand and our product was very much in demand in new ways than it is the rest of the year. And two, we had certain growth objectives as a company and we were being given the directive like, “We want a growth hack right now. We want to do a big marketing push and see if we can acquire X new customers in a short amount of time.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And we went about it in a variety of ways but we attacked both of those goals with two different brand stunts and one of them was successful and one of them wasn’t, at least through certain lenses. And I think it can help you understand what to consider but then also when to do what. One thing that we did around trying to just do a big growth hack was we did, I guess, you could call it a stunt. We put out to the press that we were going to pay every parking ticket in the city of Chicago for a specific day. Part of our message there was, “There’s no reason to still be getting parking tickets, what a waste of money when you have so many smarter ways to do things. And we believe in this so much that we’ll cover your parking ticket and hopefully, you convert over to our way of living life and avoiding them in the future.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And it was really successful because all we did is put out this statement, right. We did the math, we did the calculus about what we expected to actually have to end up paying. And we got a ton of buzz and press coverage and social media postings and just basically good will, brand good will without having to actually in the end, pay that much because we said, “You have two weeks to submit the parking ticket.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And we didn’t actually get that many that we ended up paying for.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Margo, that is an impressive example. The fact that you were on the team that came up with that or that you led that is amazing. And it makes so much sense because if you were someone that got a parking ticket and you were able to get that paid by someone else, you’re definitely going to post about it.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yeah. And then not everybody actually even submitted them in the end. That also taps into understanding what people feel versus what they actually do. Less successfully, around Christmas time, we planted a bunch of Santas around the city that were dressed in blue instead of red Santa outfits, head to toe. We hired a bunch of people to do it and we made this social media stunt that was like, “Find the blue Santas and take a selfie with them.”

Margo Kahnrose:
And there was some promotion around it. And what we didn’t factor in, was that it could and did happen to be an excruciatingly cold day, the day that we hired everybody. We had these 25 people ready to go in their Santa outfits but they were like ice cubes by mid-day. And it just felt wrong to leave them out. Stuff like that, where it’s really not …

Julia Raymond Hare:
You’re actually turning blue, come inside.

Margo Kahnrose:
Yes, yes. And it’s like, “It’s not a good look for us to have these people freezing out there.”

Margo Kahnrose:
If something is inflexible, in that it’s really dependent on a specific point of time and there are factors out of your control, like weather, I think we learned a lot from that.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yeah. And it sounds like it was still mildly successful, people engaged, right. There’s something to be said about that. I think the parking ticket one … I don’t want to sound like one of those people but I swear I saw that covered in the news somewhere.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Certainly excellent points from the chief marketing officer of Sky, Margo Kahnrose. It was great to have you on the show today. And I hope to have you on again in the future.

Margo Kahnrose:
Thank you so much for this conversation. It was really, really fun to talk about. Great to be here.

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