Last year, during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Joelle Murray, who owns a small coffee shop in Toronto called Grinder Coffee, launched a Twitter campaign to attract Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling to her store. It generated more than 10,000 likes and retweets in mere hours.

This year, Murray tried a similar strategy during TIFF, this time inviting actor Tom Hanks to pop by for a coffee:

Murray's social media accounts pushed the campaign hard for 10 days, pushing out their message every day and getting the community to retweet and write about the campaign. It worked: Tom Hanks showed up, and in doing so drove even more attention to the small business.

Hanks even tweeted about the coffee shop to his 15 million followers, generating more than 17,000 impressions across Twitter and surpassing Gosling as the leading traffic generator for Murray's shop. 

Double Down or Dump

Grinder Coffee's successful stunt illustrates a key management strategy that I call "double down or dump." I learned this technique from David Cohen, founder of startup accelerator Techstars. Cohen calls it "persevere, pivot, or punt." 

Cohen advises startups to experiment with all elements of a business plan. Some will work, others not so much--and that is where this technique comes into play. Where the experiment is successful, he says, you should keep going (persevere). Where the experiment fails, pivot, and try the same experiment again with a change (say, changing the customer segment targeted in the experiment). Finally, you should abandon (punt) concepts that fail after multiple experiments. 

With the startups I advise, I take Cohen's approach further. After each experiment, I ask the entrepreneurs a simpler question: double down, or dump? If your experiment doesn't perform extraordinarily well, then dump it. If it does, then double down, putting more resources into action. 

Murray has succeeded using PR stunts for the past two years. But this wasn't her first attempt. In 2017, she tried the same kind of campaign on Instagram, targeting Idris Elba, but it failed to garner attention and attract the celebrity.

Murray learned from that failure and pivoted, switching her marketing channel from Instagram to Twitter. And it worked. I'm note sure why Twitter performed better--perhaps Twitter users trend older and older people like coffee. But the reason is less important than the action. You experiment, dump what fails, and double down on what works.      

The other pivot Murray made in year two (with Ryan Gosling) was focusing the campaign on her cafe. The previous year, the Grinder team had posted photos of a cutout of Elba's head in locations across Toronto. With Gosling, they also used a cardboard cutout of the celebrity, but now all the photos featured the coffee shop. When that worked, Murray doubled down for year three with Hanks, and it was even more successful on social media than the year before.

PR stunts are not new, but more small businesses are making use of them. In a world where fame is being spread out to include the internet-famous and soon-to-be famous, all small business owners should consider what a cost-effective PR campaign might do for their business. It certainly worked for Murray and Grinder Coffee, not once but twice. 

Published on: Sep 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.