Google’s use of a barge to upstage Apple's stylish stores and heighten media and consumer awareness of the company’s new Google Glass product was brilliantly executed.

Major media such as CNN published reports citing unnamed sources, San Francisco’s mayor and even the Coast Guard to speculate whether three barges located in three separate ports across the U.S. were the property of Google.

As it turns out, Google plans to use each barge as part of a small fleet of luxury-event spaces, complete with a party deck, for invitation-only visitors.

The barge is just the latest brainchild of Google X, an uber “secret skunk” that works within the company where engineers have created such cool things as a self-driving car and Google Glass, which allows wearers to use voice commands to shoot videos, access email, and web surf.

So far, the Google stunt has been a huge hit. Major media have covered it, and speculated about it while social media channels have heightened the hype by guessing the barge’s ownership and purpose. It’s all good. And, it’s succeeding because Google has established a long track record of doing unexpected things:

  • In 2008, Google partnered with Virgin Airlines to announce the colonization of the planet Mars. It was an April Fools joke that people adored.
  • Also in 2008, Google announced a strategic partnership with Procter & Gamble in which fast-track executives of each corporation relocated to the other’s campus and became fully embedded with brand-new teams for a full month. Talk about revolutionary. The business world applauded it.

Ah, But You Aren’t Google

Before you begin brainstorming ways your small business might generate big-time buzz, stop and think. Lots of similar teaser stunts from other big-time brands have failed miserably. Consider these examples:

  • Earlier this year, Domino’s Pizza launched a week-long social media campaign. Their first banner ad on Facebook read, “Get ready for our biggest announcement in 20 years #gamechanger.” Chief Executive Officer Don Meij added: “You’ve demanded change and we’ve responded.” As it turns out, Domino’s made only slight changes to its signature pizza. The letdown ignited a firestorm of controversy on social media channels: “YOU HAD US ON THE EDGE OF OUR SEATS FOR THIS?” wrote one Facebook user on the company’s FB page. “What a waste of my time!” wrote another.
  • In March, Dodge Viper launched a teaser campaign for its new SRT Viper. The marketing geniuses at Dodge told fans they’d share a photograph of the yet-to-be-unveiled car if Dodge followers provided 2,013 likes on the car’s FB page. Guess what? Very few people responded. Later, Dodge lowered the audience response threshold to 300 shares. Even that didn’t generate any buzz, so the company just released the photograph. The media, automotive influencers and car enthusiasts alike shook their heads at the pathetic outcome.

Both teaser campaigns failed because the brands failed to listen first to their target audiences.

Best Practices

Google teaser campaigns work because we’ve come to expect just about anything from Google. Besides, they’re Google. To paraphrase an 1980s ad slogan, when Google talks, people listen.

Teaser campaigns can work for any brand if they’re seen as educational, authentic and informative.

Here are two examples:

Educational. An insurance company launched a consumer personal finance education campaign aimed at helping people save money. It entitled the campaign, “Small changes can save big dollars.” On day one, the company sent calculators, empty brown paper bags and Folgers Coffee to analysts and newsrooms across the U.S. The next day they mailed coffee cups to the same audience. On the cup label, they’d written, “Is this coffee worth $30,000?” Finally, on July 4th, the company announced Financial Independence Day. Their spokespeople appeared on TV everywhere, and showed viewers how they could save $30,000 annually by brown-bagging their lunch to work, buying Folgers coffee instead of Starbuck’s and adopting other money-savers.

Public purpose. The 50 states’ attorneys general received a multimillion settlement as the result of the Ford/Firestone SUV rollover crisis. To their credit, they used the cash to initiate a nationwide safety-awareness campaign aimed at young male drivers (the chief drivers in most SUV rollovers).  Research showed that drivers described driving an out-of-control SUV as akin to “riding a wild beast.” A teaser campaign was launched to heighten blogger and media interest by warning them a wild beast was nearing their market. There were multiple mailings of specially-designed beast key chains, postcards and wild postings of hairy paws around various cities. But, the signature creation of the teaser campaign was a huge animatronic wooly beast (called ESSUVEE) that debuted at New York’s Central Park Zoo, and then proceeded to appear on the major network morning talk shows. The beast was a roaring success. Results were amazing. Nearly 2 million young male drivers visited the website, and two-thirds of them signed a safety pledge.

Stop Teasing and Start Listening

Teaser campaigns work if you’ve established a Google-like buzz around your brand. They don’t work if your stunt is so obviously self-serving that it turns off your target audience. A teaser campaign might work if it’s not self-serving, serves a higher interest and helps to educate or inform a target audience. Think about your stunt, listen to your target audiences to determine how they view you, and your brand and, then, and only then, initiate a teaser stunt to inform or educate. Otherwise, be prepared for your customers to post such very visible comments as, “Why are you wasting my time?”