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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No such thing as bad publicity?

I have sat in many meetings, having laughs about ideas that seem hysterical when proposed. These times are great for building teams, generating ideas, and loosening up everyone's stress levels. However, the ideas that have everyone laughing often need to die in the meeting.

We want our customers to be entertained, but we don't want them to be offended.

Now I am not one to avoid all risks, and there are situations when reaching your target audience may result in upsetting people outside of your target. Not in a blatant way, but messages cannot be perfectly safe for everyone. What I am talking about is sending out a message to customers that will back-fire. The old adage "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is a lie. Bad publicity can destroy a business.

Today's example comes from the Utah Flash, a professional development league basketball team who has a very enthusiastic owner. Looking at some of the activity he has been up to shows someone who is willing to take some risks and think outside of the box. More sports teams need to be like this. It is not a great time to be a sports-owner, as many markets simply cannot afford the big dollars to sell out stadiums at premium prices. I am not poking fun at the situation, rather showing how good intentions and enthusiastic marketing can lead us to bad decisions.

It all started with Bryon Russell calling out Michael Jordan, challenging him to a one-on-one match to show who was the better player. Sports commentators have been mocking this suggestion for months, but Utah Flash owner Brandt Anderson decided to capitalize on this media spectacle. They put a challenge to the hall of fame basketball player, and told fans of the plan to have a Jordan vs. Russell half-time show at the season opener.

While there were no definitive promises that Mr. Jordan would be there, the game sold out. There was also a staged "sighting" of the legendary player in the Provo area, where a look-a-like was dining with Men-In-Black security entourage by his side. At half-time it became obvious that there was to be no real Michael Jordan appearance, and many fans walked out.

Mr. Anderson posted an apology on his blog that evening, stating that the "challenge didn't go like any of us hoped." By Tuesday morning, there were 55 comments to the post, most critical of the stunt, and many demanding refunds. In reading the comments, it is apparent that many negative comments were deleted. Likely profanity-laden, and I do not condone Mr. Anderson for deleting that type of content from his blog, I would likely do the same in his position. The point is, this upset people. It did exactly the opposite of what a marketing person is responsible for doing. Just because something was risky, does not make it brilliant.

Great idea to propose the challenge. Get your name out there, participate in the world of sports entertainment. Had you approached Michael and he turned you down, you're not out anything for trying.

Great job of posting your blog apology. You didn't want thousands of angry fans. As you said, you wanted a season of fun. It was a bold move, that could have worked had there not been the outright deception.

Bad ideas: getting peoples' hopes up. You knew there would be no MJ, which is evident by the phony sighting. Think of this like any product, you can tell people about the attributes of your product, how it tastes, what it contains, what it can really do for customers. You cannot and should not imply something that is not going to happen. It is illegal. While there was not implicit promises that MJ would be there, and therefore you're not likely to be fined, sued, or otherwise punished, it is a bad road to walk along using deception.

Another bad idea: calling this "viral" marketing. Rather than the positive buzz-word that viral has become, people will be talking about this like it is a virus no one wants. You do not just want people talking about your product, you want to connect good-feelings with your product. No one ever got rich by selling the product no one wants.

My message to Brandt, please keep taking risks, be bold, and put the fun into sports. But get someone on your team who is a seasoned veteran at making people happy. My offer stands, I will take on the Utah Flash as a pro-bono client. No bait & switch, no strings, no hoax, and no imitators.

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