Confession: I’m not your typical marketer or business owner. While other people find comfort and safety in “playing it safe,” I find inspiration in stepping outside my comfort zone.
Case in point: last year I decided, on a whim, to sell everything I owned to travel full time as a digital nomad. With two suitcases, my laptop, and my 4-year-old in tow, I set out to travel the world and expand my PR firm. I haven’t looked back since, and I don’t regret a thing. It’s hands-down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made personally and professionally.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “That’s all fine and good, but that wouldn’t work for me,” or “What does that have to do with marketing?” As the owner of a PR firm, I’m here to tell you that big time when it comes to creating a campaign strategy.
Whether you’re marketing a business, trying to land new customers, or attracting prospective employees, playing it safe is rarely your friend. Some of the most successful campaigns of all time have been major risks.
Here are four risky marketing campaigns that completely kicked butt — they just might convince you that it’s time to take a chance.
1. Make Events Great Again
When the marketing team at was preparing for an upcoming trade show, they knew they were facing an uphill battle. But a small budget and a target audience that wasn’t familiar with them led to one of their best marketing ideas of all time.
The team turned Donald Trump’s polarizing-but-famous slogan, “Make America Great Again,” into a fun play on words: “Make Events Great Again.” They registered the domain name and gave away trucker hats and other promotional materials that donned the slogan.
It was especially risky, because they were marketing to a mostly liberal audience. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was on board with the marketing ploy, but the end results speak for themselves.
By the end of the event, Attend booked 24 sales meetings; of which, half of them turned into qualified sales leads. Bottom line? A 10x return on their investment.
Jenna Keegan, Director of Demand Generation for Attend says, “If you play if safe, you won’t offend anyone, but you probably won’t delight anyone either.”
2. Realtors Gone Wild
Most realtors aren’t known for their wild and wacky marketing tactics. But when was asked to sell a home in Ontario, Canada, she knew boring just wouldn’t do.
Shelley was the brains behind a that showed an attractive blonde woman (Vanessa herself) sipping coffee on the deck of the home and playing in the backyard. To make it even better, the entire thing was narrated by a man with a British accent.
Although some people were put off the video’s sexually suggestive tone, the overall response was positive, and the listing of the home was viewed over 900,000 times. Shelley received numerous local and national media interviews about the campaign and, more importantly, two above-list-price offers on the home the same day the video was launched. Not too shabby!
3. Everyone Loves Ice Cream
Everyone knows that Uber is a company that specializes in ridesharing, right? True — except for that time they decided to start delivering ice cream.
In honor of National Ice Cream month, Uber pulled together a marketing ploy in under three weeks to deliver ice cream to residents of eight select cities. They spent about $2,000 per ice cream truck purchased, but the national attention the campaign received paid off in spades.
Uber’s General Manager of New York, Josh Moher says, “When you think about the cost of media, we prefer to advertise by meeting people and talking to people about the service. We’d rather be out all day than putting up ads. The price, we think, is well worth it.”
A transportation company going into the ice cream business certainly isn’t a safe bet, but it was a good bet, nonetheless.
4. Presidential Election Billboard Gone Wrong
Most hiring and recruiting platforms generate traffic and leads through pay-per-click campaigns, SEO, and content marketing. All of those are great strategies, but getting national media attention is even better.
In 2000, when the Bush/Gore presidential race was well underway, the marketing geniuses behind 123Hire.com, took out a huge billboard with a picture of George W. Bush and a caption underneath that read, “Gore 2000.”
Within days, the company was fielding calls from confused and annoyed consumers, political activists, and media outlets. But that was all part of their grand plan. Days later, they put a diagonal banner across the billboard that said “Proofreader needed. 123Hire.com.”
With almost nothing as polarizing as a political election, their team knew the marketing strategy was sure to rile people up. But more importantly, the campaign generated 2 million website hits, garnered thousands of sign-ups, and landed the company in the Wall Street Journal. The platform eventually got bought out by a competitor at a highly favorable price. Now that’s a risk worth taking.
Dan Barron of , the genius behind the ploy said, “You simply can’t begin to sell until you get your prospect’s attention.”
Calculated Risks = Reward
Taking a risk on a marketing campaign is much like taking a risk in any other area of life. Typically, the more you risk, the greater the potential reward. They key is to make sure those risks are calculated and strategic, rather than irresponsible.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure whatever risk you’re considering is worth the potential fallout. Never take a risk on a campaign that’s intentionally hurtful or offensive, but don’t be afraid to capitalize on something that’s polarizing. Taking a funny spoof on a current event or pop culture topic is always a good place to start getting in touch with your creative rebel side. As T.S. Eliot once said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Blair Nicole is the CEO & Founder of , host of the #KickassPR podcast, and columnist at several well-known business outlets. Marketing and traveling are her passions, and she travels around the world full time with her 4-year-old son, working remotely and speaking to business audiences of all shapes and sizes.