A McDonald's in Marshfield, Missouri created millions of dollars of free publicity for itself and other local businesses by starting a sign war with a neighboring Dairy Queen. Other retailers quickly joined in. The local Chamber of Commerce began posting the signs to its Facebook page, and the whole thing went viral, garnering--as of this writing--more than 19 million social media views.

That's pretty impressive when you consider that the cost of the effort was $0 and the population of Marshfield is about 7,500. It's a lesson in how a little creativity and a focus on fun can make a huge difference to a business. That's a mindset you can use to raise the profile of your own business, no matter how big or small it is.

It all began simply enough with the Marshfield McDonald's declaring its intentions on its marquee sign:

HEY DQ! WANNA HAVE A SIGN WAR

Dairy Queen shot back: 

WE WLD BUT WERE 2 BUSY MAKIN ICECREAM

This was a not-so-subtle reference to McDonald's ongoing troubles with its ice cream machines which are known to break down so often that someone created the McBroken website to let customers know which machines in their area are and aren't working.

McDonald's answered:

THAT'S CUTE OUR ICECREAM MAKES ITSELF

To which DQ responded:

YOU MEAN IT ACTUALLY WORKS SHOCKER

The sign war was on. And it was about to ratchet up a notch.

McDonald's:

WHATS A MILKMAN IN PANTYHOSE
A DAIRY QUEEN

DQ:

WHY DINE W A CLOWN WHEN YOU CAN W A QUEEN

Many local small businesses took note and gleefully jumped in. A bank put this sign on the sidewalk outside its entrance: 

Roses Are Red
Violets Are Blue
We Want In On The Sign War too...

A Mexican restaurant posted this:

NACHO AVERAGE SIGN 

PS-WE HAVE FRIED ICE CREAM

Pretty soon, just about every store and restaurant in Marshfield had put out a sign with a quip of some kind, including Domino's Pizza and Wendy's. The Chamber of Commerce posted them all to its Facebook page, and soon the sign war was getting national media attention, along with lots and lots of social media.

The magic in this is that all these businesses, beginning with the Marshfield McDonald's franchise, were able to see the potential for a mundane, often underused resource--the humble business sign--to surprise and engage customers. Sure, the whole purpose of the sign is to grab customers' attention and get them to come into your store, but the sign war was a chance to entertain them them in a personable way that had nothing to do with limited-time special offers.

Other companies have seen this kind of potential in the past. You probably couldn't name a single brand of shaving cream that was around in the 1920s and is gone today. Except, maybe, one: Burma-Shave, which famously decorated every highway in America with its rhyming billboards from 1925 to 1966.

A MISTAKE
MANY MAKE
RELY ON HORN
INSTEAD OF BRAKE
BURMA-SHAVE



 

Those billboards are gone from the highways, but not from our collective memory or our imaginations--they're now considered an iconic bit of Americana. That company, too, used the boring and ubiquitous billboard by the side of the road to engage with customers and the general public in surprising, fun, and whimsical ways.

Will a sign war or a similar bit of nonsense always lead to national attention, millions of social media shares, and television coverage? Of course not. Viral lightning only strikes once in a great while, and no one can predict when or explain why. But even if there had been no hoopla, the sign war would have accomplished what it was meant to do--insert a little fun into a depressingly hot summer, get customers smiling and engaged with your brand, and just maybe bring some of them through your door.

There's a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. Often they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. (Interested in joining? Here's more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and they tell me how important it is to bring fun and imagination into the workday. It's something that's always worth doing. Going viral is just a bonus.