A little thought, and a shoestring budget, can keep your name in the headlines

It was Oscar Wilde who said, “there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about”. Never was a truer word spoken when it comes to marketing. Because if you’re not being talked about, someone else is. The media, clients and prospects only have so much bandwidth, so it’s a zero-sum game. Your loss is your competitors’ gain. So how do you make sure you’re the one who’s on everybody’s lips?

Wheel of fortune

Back in the 1980s, the Docklands Light Railway was inaugurated in London. And the big novelty of the trains was that they’d be driverless, unlike Tube and overground trains. How futuristic. How forward-thinking. And how scary. They were, supposedly, perfectly safe: computer-controlled, centrally monitored and packed with the latest technology. So far, so reassuring. Except that people weren’t reassured. They couldn’t get away from the idea that it was dangerous. So the DLR gave them the safety blanket they were looking for: drivers, kitted out in eye-catching red-and-blue uniforms. Except they weren’t necessary, and strictly speaking, they weren’t driving the trains. Just helping give people the warm fuzzy feeling that somebody was in control. Fast-forward 30 years, and Google is talking about driverless cars. Now, that’s an even scarier idea than driverless trains. At least trains run on tracks, so the potential for snarl-ups is limited. But cars? How will a driverless car handle traffic jams, other drivers who break the rules, and poor GPS coverage? Who knows. And who cares? Because in the end, just like Project Glass (those weird HUD specs coming out of Mountain View), driverless cars are simply an idea that Google is rolling out to get people talking. And talking they certainly are.

Wing and a prayer

Budget airline Ryanair knows the value of talk. They’re past masters at the art of free publicity. I watched a documentary BBC2 a couple of weeks ago where Michael O’Leary, the cheeky chief exec, was asked if there was any truth in the rumour that they were going to charge people to use the toilets, or have passengers standing up. Of course there wasn’t, he said. But what a great way to get people talking about you. Both claims were false, but it brought them lots of welcome PR. The canny marketers at Ryanair don’t employ an advertising agency, and knock up all their own ads in-house. They create – and sometimes court – controversy, simply to get their name in the headlines. Competitors easyJet are no strangers to guerilla marketing either. When British Airways launched budget airline Go back in the 1990s, easyJet’s Stelios Haji-Ioannou hijacked (figuratively speaking) the inaugural flight. He and his team turned up in orange jumpsuits (this was before Guantanamo) with easyJet branding, boarded the flight and gave free easyJet tickets to Go passengers. An easy win.

Good, bad and different

When it comes to publicity, there’s no such thing as bad news. Or an idea that’s too wacky or unbelievable to put out there. It could be a product you’re testing, or an idea you’re not sure about. So what do you do? Broadcast it loud and wide, and see what happens.
  • Is Colgate really thinking of launching toothbrushes with caffeine or slow-release medication? It doesn’t really matter. The fact is, it got people talking around the world, and you can’t buy that sort of publicity no matter how much you spend. 
  • Is Dollar Shave Club (whose hilarious video I’ve mentioned before) really going to market wet wipes to men? Of course they are. Why wouldn’t they? Toilet paper is an $8.4bn market in the US, so it’s an opportunity to clean up (yes, intended). And in true DSC style, they’ve produced another hilarious video to get people talking – and laughing.
  • Did Cheerios have any inkling that they’d create a social-media storm when they featured a mixed-race couple in a breakfast cereal advert? Of course they did. The racist ranters on YouTube came off worst out of the affair. Cheerios maintained the moral high ground, got a ton of free publicity and sold lots of little loops. Clever old them.

Who’s sorry now?

OK, I hear what you’re saying. The common denominator here is that from budget airlines to toothpaste makers, from butt wipes (yes, really – watch the video) to breakfast cereal, they’re in control. They created the story, and fanned the flames of controversy – and of publicity. But what about when you’re not in the driving seat? When you’re taken by surprise and overtaken by events? When the ether is crackling with a buzz that you didn’t create? Simple. You check it out, size it up, and use it to your advantage. Don’t defend yourself, as you’ll look defensive. Don’t attack, or you’ll be offensive. Instead, keep your cool, take a deep breath and crank up your sense of humour. It’s exactly what maxipad manufacturer Bodyform did recently when they were faced with a humorous post on their Facebook page that went viral. Caroline Williams, CEO of the company, quickly responded with a tongue-in-cheek video that made a virtue out of a necessity, and came clean about the little white lies they’ve been telling, to spare men the truth. It’s a stroke of genius, and strikes exactly the right tone. Creating a buzz is the holy grail of marketing. If you started it, great. Just make sure you stay on top of it. And if you didn’t, you can still stay on top of it, with a little thought and very little budget. Oscar was right: being talked about is the lesser of two evils. Though what he would have made of ‘butt wipes’ is anybody’s guess.