This week, the world was presented with a truly unusual retail mystery: The Case of the Inexplicable In-N-Out Burger.
The story starts at 6:30 a.m. EST on July 20 in Jamaica, Queens, when Lincoln Boehm and his wife were heading to McDonald’s. By all accounts, it was a very normal trip, which included one extremely unusual feature: a single In-N-Out burger, wrapped and in photo-ready condition, lying in the middle of Sutphin Boulevard. It was especially unusual given that there is not a single restaurant within a thousand miles of that location that makes the “Double-Double.”
Looking for answers, Boehm was pretty sure he could handle the truth, so he snapped a photo that went viral. A host of potential resolutions to the mystery flooded across the web – the most popular being that this was some kind of marketing stunt by In-N-Out, possible portending a New York opening.
But In-N-Out was pretty adamant that it wasn’t them. They were happy with all the Twitter mentions, and congratulated whoever had carried the burger several thousand miles, but were quite adamant they had no idea how it got there.
After two days of a lot of media coverage, the solution to the mystery came forward: A 16-year-old high school varsity badminton player named Helen Vivas had purchased several In-N-Out burgers on her way home from a California trip to bring back with her. She was able to provide both Instagram and credit card evidence of having bought the burgers on the other side of the country several hours prior to Boehm’s discovery.
According to Boehm’s account, the single burger was lost when Vivas ran to catch a bus and her bag broke open.
“Thanks to her badminton training, her reaction time was elite enough to enable her to catch two of the three burgers before they fell to the ground. But once she sat down on the bus and caught her breath, she noticed that the Double-Double was missing,” Boehm wrote for Vice.
Mystery solved, with perhaps one minor heartbreak (other than the lost burger). It had seemed for a moment— before it was revealed to have been a series of quirky coincidences—that In-N-Out Burger had pulled off the rarest of rarities in the world of retail: a well-done marketing stunt that managed to be just interesting enough to get people’s attention, and enjoyable enough to make people want to buy the product.
The problem with marketing stunts is that they rarely thread that needle.
The Many Ways to Go Wrong
In fairness, PYMNTS has high standards for marketing stunts, and their objective quality can be hard to judge – one person’s or analyst’s success is another’s miss.
Nike drafting Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson last fall led to a rash of people burning their Air Jordans on YouTube and Instagram, and a spike in sales for Nike. Briefly changing its name to IHOB earned the International House of Pancakes weeks of mockery on Twitter, but the name change did compel people to go actually eat their burgers. Similar things can be said of Burger King’s attempt to introduce boxes that matched customers’ moods: It drummed up more negative attention than positive in the social media world, but it got people interested in the product.
An argument can be made that in marketing, almost all attention is good attention – and if people are talking about your product, they are being reminded to consume it, which is the end goal.
However, that argument is easier to make in some cases than in others. Sometimes marketing stunts go undeniably wrong – in a way that demonstrates that not all attention is good attention.
Our favored example was an attempt by the Cartoon Network to promote its line of grown-up-oriented nighttime programming, Adult Swim, by using a viral marketing firm to plant a host of unexplained electrical boxes that mysteriously lit up and made noise in a few major American cities.
It probably would have been a good idea to tell city officials about their plan.
But they didn’t. And when Boston area consumers ran into the boxes, their first thought wasn’t “viral marketing stunt” – it was “bomb.” They promptly called in law enforcement. Turner Broadcasting System, the owner of the Cartoon Network, ultimately ended up paying a $2 million fine to the city of Boston and apologizing. (The news in Boston alerted other cities to the boxes’ presence, and they were removed before they managed to scare anyone else.) The two marketers who were responsible faced felony charges of placing a hoax device.
Another excellent example, this one from the pre-digital age, involves not a marketing stunt that consumers didn’t understand well enough, but one they perhaps understood a little too well.
In the mid-90’s, Pepsi started pushing its Pepsi Stuff promotional campaign, which was basically a points-based rewards program that gave shoppers access to soda schwag – T-shirts, sunglasses, etc. – in return for points earned by buying Pepsi products.
The stunt-like part of the offer was in one of the commercials for the promotion, which showed a Harrier Jet as a potential prize, listed for seven million points.
Most people understood that to be a joke, but 21-year-old John Leonard took it as a challenge to be met. Some quick math told him the value of Pepsi products he would need to rack up seven million points was about $700,000 – an approximately $400,000 discount on the 1996 price of the jet. So he solicited investors, got $700,000, spent it on Pepsi and waited for his jet.
He didn’t get it. So he sued, saying Pepsi owed him a jet. After a few rounds in a few courts, Pepsi ultimately prevailed – but the company spent a lot in court costs and ultimately damaged the reputation of the rewards program they were trying to launch.
And while one can argue about the success of a marketing stunt, it’s safe to say that if it ends in a lawsuit, prison sentences, a terrorism scare or a seven-figure fine, more time should have been spent on the drawing board.
A Story of Unqualified Success With a Marketing Stunt
Given the subjective nature of human experience, it might seem there is no such thing as a perfectly executed marketing stunt. One might find evidence of this in the fact that the near-perfect example earlier this week turned out to be a series of coincidences. We would agree that it is almost impossible to make it work just right, and that it’s probably easier to do it on accident than on purpose.
But it’s not totally impossible. Thailand figured out a way.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Thailand realized it ought to be a tourism capital with its historic sites, rich culture, beautiful beaches and delicious food. The only thing it lacked was tourists, as very few people knew that the country had any of these things. And so the Thai government decided it needed a better way to market its many wonderful features to the world. However, it found that it could not export its rich culture, beautiful beaches or historic sites – but it could export the food.
And so for the last several decades, the country’s government has run a program to train chefs and fund Thai restaurants abroad. The goal was to make Thai food an international mainstay, which they believed would drive tourism to Thailand.
It worked spectacularly, according to The Wall Street Journal. Since the program went into effect, Thailand has seen its tourism more than quintuple in response. In fact, the program worked so well that Peru, Taiwan and South Korea are all setting aside millions of dollars to see if they can make the same trick work again.
Today, there are 6,000 Thai restaurants in the United States – and fewer than 300,000 people of Thai descent living in the country.
Even North Korea has gotten in on the act, establishing 100 government-run restaurants abroad to help end what it calls “unfounded rumors about life and culture in North Korea.”
The effort would likely be more successful if their chefs and waitstaff didn’t keep defecting.
Like we said, a good marketing stunt is hard to create.
Particularly if one doesn’t have Pad Thai to use as a secret weapon.