Why Buffett's Billion Dollar Bracket Is Brilliant (and Wasteful)
The publicity stunt -- the PR strategy built around the idea that if you do something outrageous (perhaps even noble) it'll get you press -- is nothing if not tried and true.
Publicity stunts range from the grotesquely large KFC logo spotted from space to Dove's recent "Real Beauty" experiment to Phil Robertson's very public and controversial suspension from "Duck Dynasty." Last week, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, never to be outdone, created a perfect storm of press by combining the news (the NCAA March Madness tournament) with a ridiculous prize ($1 billion) for whomever can predict the bracket perfectly.
According to several sources, the odds of winning are 1 in 9.2 quintillion. This means that Buffett and team will more than likely get away with paying $100,000 to the 20 'closest' guessers.
That's still $2 million.
Through a genius combination of big money and sports mania, Buffett's contest is emblematic of the problem with all high-cost publicity stunts: They're just not worth it.
Money For Nothing
Like buying the naming rights to a sports stadium, launching the "Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge" has a payoff that's hard to quantify. In fact, for a (potential) billion dollars (or more) you'd expect to get a lot more press. It feels as if it's the epitome of corporate reality dissonance -- that somehow getting your name out there associated with something only tangentially related to your product is worth it so long as your name is attached.
Take this quote from Jay Farner, president and Chief Marketing Officer at Quicken Loans: "It is our mission to create amazing experiences for our clients. This contest, with the possibility of creating a billionaire, definitely fits that bill."
In this case, I'd have tasked Farner, as I would any client planning any kind of publicity, to walk me through his expectations of the customer reaction -- and call to action.
To make this worth it, a customer would have to see the billion-dollar bracket, and either A) be looking for a mortgage and thus use the site to get one or B) remember Quicken Loans the next time he or she would want a mortgage.
That is an immensely long road for any customer to walk. Even for $2 billion, which is slightly more than pocket change for Buffett, this is a wasteful excursion. And if he's really unlucky, someone will take him for a great deal of money.
Publicity stunts at their core are a divisive subject -- some say they're stupid (and distracting from a real message) while others believe they're great when well-executed.
The real key to remember with any publicity stunt is that it should have a likely benefit. It's very easy to spend a great deal of money to get a bunch of press, but you have to make sure that whatever it is you do quickly (not eventually) ties back to your core mission, vision and product. More importantly, it's also worth remembering that not all news is good news -- doing a rude, or negative, or bad thing to get a ton of press rarely if ever works out. Unless you want to be reviled, in which case go to it.
In the end, everything anyone in PR does should be geared towards actual results such as clickthroughs, notoriety or brand recognition in a way that actually ties back to sales.
ED ZITRON is the founder of EZ-PR, a PR and Media Relations company based in San Francisco. He is also of the author of This Is How You Pitch: How To Kick Ass In Your First Years of PR, an Amazon bestseller in the PR category. He has worked with companies large and small, including Target and The Nature Publishing Group, as well as smaller startups and tech figureheads.
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