Summer Series - Unforeseen Circumstances: How Companies Are Affected By Chance
*Our Summer Series airs Thursdays & Saturays at 11:30am on CBC Radio One*
This episode explores what happens to brands when a completely unexpected event occurs. Most companies tightly control every aspect of a brand - but occasionally, an unforeseen circumstance rears its head. And it's always interesting to see how the company reacts and what happen to their business as a result. We'll look at what happened to Ford Broncos after the OJ Simpson slow-speed car chase, what happened to Red Lobster after Beyonce gave it a sexy callout in a song, and what happened to James Bond when JFK gave the books a ringing endorsement.
The Podcast for this show was recorded at the first ever live performance of Under The Influence at the Hot Docs Podfest. We do a Q&A with the record after.
Of all the superheroes in the comic book universe, one stands out from them all.
Superman was created back in the '30s by Toronto-born illustrator Joe Shuster (cousin of comedian Frank Shuster of Wayne & Shuster fame, by the way) and Cleveland writer Jerry Siegel.
The first comic book to feature Superman was Action Comics No.1 – which sold for 10 cents in June of 1938.
One year later, Superman comics were a massive hit, selling over 800,000 copies per issue.
Of the 200,000 copies of the very first 1938 issue, it is believed that only 100 survive today. And one of Superman's biggest fans once owned the most pristine copy.
Actor Nicolas Cage.
It's fair to say that Cage is a Superman super fan. He even named one of his sons Kal-El – Superman's birth name on his home planet of Krypton.
Cage is such a fanatic, that he purchased what is considered the finest copy of Action Comics No.1 in the world – graded at 9.5 on a scale of 1 to 10.
He paid $150,000 for it in 1997.
Cage kept Action Comics No.1 in a locked, bulletproof display case in his Beverly Hills home.
But one day, Cage discovered it was missing. The world's most desirable comic book had been stolen.
He called the LAPD, and its Art Theft Unit responded. It was an odd case for them, because they had never investigated a missing comic book before. They dusted for fingerprints, but had no leads.
Comic book dealers across the nation were notified and instructed to report anyone trying to sell the valuable comic.
Then… eleven years passed.
In those intervening years, another Action Comics No.1 - graded 8 on the scale - sold for a cool $1 million.
Then the strangest thing happened.
An auctioneer in LA was approached by someone looking to sell a pristine Action Comics No.1.
The seller bought storage units and sold the contents for a living – like on the TV show Storage Wars.
He had found the comic in one of the units he had purchased, and he wanted to sell it for $1 million.
The LAPD was quietly called in and the comic book was confiscated. Sure enough, it was the missing Nicolas Cage Superman issue.
The comic book now belonged to the insurance company who had settled Cage's claim, but Cage wanted it back. So he paid the insurance company to regain ownership.
Then Cage put the comic up for sale.
It was an interesting scenario. Here was the most pristine Superman Action Comics No. 1 in existence up for sale – but it had the added mystery and allure of having been stolen for 11 years.
Cage's comic sold that day for a whopping $2.1 million.
As a collector myself, I can tell you that the value of an item is made up of three elements: Its authenticity, its condition and its history.
It could be argued that at least half a million dollars of that selling price came from a completely unforeseen circumstance: Its infamous theft.
The world of marketing has experienced the effect of similar, unexpected circumstances.
Even though companies work hard every day to increase the value of their brands, every once in a while an unexpected incident happens that suddenly increases the value of a product.
These incidents come right out of the blue, they are completely unexpected and no one sees them coming.
But when they do, it's manna from heaven…
Smart marketing is like a carefully tended garden.
Lots of care, feeding and watering is required in order for the brand to grow. Marketers protect their ground, do constant weeding and are always on the lookout for invasive species.
But no marketer can keep all of the world out of their garden.
When OJ Simpson led police on a slow-speed car chase in a white Bronco, 95 million people tuned in to watch.
To put that in perspective, 95 million viewers was just short of the previous Super Bowl audience. And Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest TV audience of the year.
The car chase lasted 90 minutes and covered 75 miles in total.
AC Cowlings, a friend and former teammate of Simpson's, was driving the white Bronco that day. Years later, by the way, Cowlings told the coach of the New York Knicks the reason why they were driving so slow. OJ had been listening to a basketball playoff game. The story was retold during a recent NBA broadcast:
The term "White Bronco" entered pop culture that day back in June of 1994.
Here's what you may not know:
The white Bronco didn't belong to OJ Simpson. It belonged to driver AC Cowlings. OJ's white Bronco had been confiscated by the police as evidence in the murder case.
Here's something else you might not know.
Ford was thinking about discontinuing the Bronco line around the time of OJ's car chase. Two-door SUVs were falling out of fashion and consumers were starting to prefer family-style, four-door SUVs instead.
But here's the strange thing:
The OJ Simpson car chase had a positive effect on Bronco sales.
That year – 1994 – sales of Ford Broncos surged 34%.
Without doing anything out of the ordinary, Ford was suddenly selling thousands more Broncos than it did the previous year.
All due to the strangest unforeseen circumstance.
When the OJ saga eventually moved into the courtroom, sales of Broncos started to stall again.
Two years later, Ford decided to discontinue the line altogether.
But what's interesting is that Blue Book prices show that the value of Ford Broncos hasn't changed much in the intervening years.
Given the fact it's an impractical 20-year old SUV, that demand is particularly unique. It means consumer interest in the infamous Ford Bronco continues to this day.
When undecided voter Ken Bone stood up to ask this question during the last live Presidential debate, he became an overnight media sensation:
It wasn't the most riveting question, but something about Ken Bone made him stand out.
It was his bright red sweater.
Ken Bone is an unassuming, average guy from Belleville, Illinois, with glasses and a small moustache. The day of the debate, he had chosen an olive-coloured suit, but when he was getting into his car, he split the seam of his pants wide open.
So the red sweater was Plan B.
But here's the unforeseen circumstance. It was an Izod Red Sweater – and immediately after the debate, Izod completely sold out of all its red sweaters.
Every single one.
Then – Izod quickly created a video starring Ken Bone:
Nobody saw Ken Bone coming. Not even Ken Bone. But it turned out to be a red-letter day for Izod.
Traditionally Super Bowl Sunday is one of the slowest days of the year at Red Lobster.
Like most sit-down restaurants, sales suffer because over 100 million people stay home to watch the game.
But during last year's Super Bowl, Red Lobster had an unexpected wave of customers.
The seafood restaurant had no idea why people were suddenly crowding into their locations across the country.
Turns out this unforeseen bump in business was due to a new song by none other than the Queen Bey herself:
When Beyoncé released the video for her new song Formation one day before she was to perform it on Super Bowl 50, it was big news.
The video had very explicit lyrics. At the three-minute mark, she sings - and allow me to paraphrase – that if her lover gives her good sex, she'll treat him to a meal at Red Lobster.
With that call-out, Red Lobster saw a 33% jump in sales on Super Bowl Sunday and on the following Monday.
The CEO said they weren't even aware of the new Beyoncé song until they saw Red Lobster trending on Twitter – which never happens.
After the Beyoncé mention, thousands poured into Red Lobster locations, and thousands more jumped onto Twitter to wait for a reaction from Red Lobster.
While they waited, there were some funny tweets:
One person showed a photo of himself looking in a mirror, saying:
Still another wondered if "Let's go to Red Lobster" would become a catchphrase for sex.
Strangely enough, Red Lobster didn't respond on Twitter for almost eight hours. Close to 300,000 tweets were generated over the Beyoncé call-out and the restaurant's failure to react quickly.
But in spite of the fact it was a marketing failure, it was still an in-store success. Red Lobster enjoyed a big jump in sales that week.
And it all happened because of one reason:
An unexpected Beyoncé Bounce.
It was the kind of bounce a certain ketchup would also experience…
When Heinz U.S. made the decision to close its Leamington, Ontario, plant, it was a huge blow to the area.
The factory had been part of the community since 1909. It had employed nearly a thousand residents and close to 50% of all field tomatoes grown in Ontario had been shipped to Leamington.
Not long after the closure, an Ontario business consortium called Highbury Canco took a lease out on the vacant plant, hired back 250 of the Heinz employees, and began processing food again.
Meanwhile, with little fanfare, French's – a company best known for mustard - started selling ketchup in grocery stores.
Not long after, CBC ran a story saying that Ontario tomatoes were being used for ketchup again, as the Leamington plant was making the paste for French's Ketchup.
Then a construction worker in Orillia came across the CBC story, and wrote a Facebook post saying that his family was switching to French's Ketchup because it was good and because they wanted to support Leamington.
That post went viral with 132,000 shares.
The day after the post, that same construction worker went into a local grocery store to pick up some milk, walked past the ketchup display and noticed every bottle of French's was gone.
"Don't even bother," a clerk told him. "All our stores are sold out."
Then came the next beat in the story. Word leaked that Loblaws was pulling French's Ketchup from their shelves.
Which provoked a Facebook rant from a disgruntled shopper.
That's when social media kicked into high gear. #FrenchsKetchup became a trending hashtag.
It was a patriotic backlash against Loblaws, with people demanding that French's be put back on the shelf. An internal memo leaked saying Loblaws had delisted French's Ketchup because it was eating into sales of its PC brand. But Loblaws reversed its decision, saying it was listening to its customers and re-stocked French's Ketchup.
With all that unexpected publicity, French's now had a big problem: It had to scramble to meet a 400% increase in demand. The company's president said they had never seen anything like it, and a fully dedicated bottling plant is now being built in Toronto to meet French's growing ketchup business.
A huge unexpected gain - all due to two Facebook posts.
It may be hard to believe, but when Purell was first created, it was a flop.
Back in 1946, a company invented an industrial cleanser called GoJo to remove grease from the hands of auto factory workers.
Then in 1989, the company developed Purell as a hand sanitizer for the restaurant industry.
The product lost money for 10 years.
People just didn't believe you could kill germs without soap and water.
Then came this:
The year was 2003. SARS becomes a worldwide concern and it hit Toronto hard. Suddenly, Purell was the hottest item in town.
The Ontario Health Ministry purchased 199,000 bottles immediately and was still looking for more.
Walmart said Purell sales quadrupled in just one month. Demand was so intense the retailer restricted purchases of Purell to two per customer.
Local authorities pleaded with the public not to hoard Purell – warning that stockpiling could threaten public health.
Businesses, schools and hospitals scrambled to purchase as much hand sanitizer as they could find.
The demand for Purell was unprecedented.
Before SARS, Purell had been relegated to the back of drug stores. Now it was in huge displays near the cash registers.
Then came H1N1 in 2009.
The demand for Purell was again unprecedented.
Because of the swine flu, people were sanitizing everything touched by human hands - doorknobs, railings, handles, desks and tabletops.
Johnson & Johnson, now the owners of Purell, was hit with so many orders it had to issue a statement to reassure customers they were doing their best to increase production.
The J&J plant was running 24/7.
Demand tripled. Purell's revenues jumped 70% in just a few weeks.
Through both unforeseen and unprecedented crises, Purell never increased its prices and never used fear as a marketing opportunity. It just tried to satisfy demand.
Prior to the outbreaks, most people didn't even know what Purell was.
Now, due to SARS and H1N1, Purell has not only become the generic name for the hand sanitizer industry, it's become a verb.
As in: Time to Purell this microphone…
Novels often have unexpected events that vault them onto the bestseller lists.
When Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon that night in 1980, he dropped the gun, sat on the ground cross-legged, pulled a novel out of his pocket and started reading until the police arrived.
That novel was The Catcher In The Rye.
On the inside cover, Chapman had written: "To Holden Caulfield, from Holden Caulfield. This is my statement."
When news got out that Chapman identified with the book's lead character, the 1951 novel was suddenly selling more copies than it had for decades. I remember going out to buy it that week, and bookstores were sold out.
It was a shocking event. Rock 'n' roll's first assassination.
And it was how many of us came to know The Catcher in the Rye.
When Ian Fleming wrote his first five James Bond novels in the 1950s, he enjoyed moderate success in Britain.
But when he released Dr. No in 1958, it got bad reviews and Fleming fell out of favour.
Then the most unexpected thing happened.
Life magazine in the U.S. ran a big article on John F. Kennedy's reading habits, listing his top ten favourite books.
Number nine on that list was From Russia With Love.
With that single JFK endorsement, Fleming became the best-selling thriller author in America overnight.
Kennedy was a big James Bond fan. He had been given a copy of the first Bond novel - Casino Royale – by a friend named Marion Leiter back in 1955 when he was recovering from back pain in Newport, Rhode Island. Marion was also a friend of Ian Fleming, and Leiter's husband was the namesake of 007's American counterpart – Felix Leiter.
According to Ted Sorensen, who was special counsel to the President during the Bay of Pigs crisis, Kennedy at one point yelled out, "Why couldn't this have happened to James Bond?"
It's also said that JFK watched an advanced screening of From Russia With Love at the White House the night before leaving for Dallas.
But it was that unexpected JFK endorsement that changed the course of James Bond history. More so than any marketing campaign could have ever achieved.
It pushed Bond novels to the top of the best-seller list.
That directly created a receptive audience for the first Bond film, Dr. No.
Without that, the movie might have flopped.
Without the interest created by JFK, United Artists might not have bankrolled the Bond films. It was American interest backed by American money that made Bond films possible.
Which means JFK was the most influential Bond fan ever.
Oh, and by the way, Ian Fleming thanked Kennedy in one of his books.
It was in chapter 10 of The Spy Who Loved Me. Praising JFK as a leader with vision, James Bond says, "We need more Jack Kennedys."
Yup, JFK was a Bond fan.
But Bond was also a Kennedy fan…
Businesses are constantly marketing to increase their value. But every once in a while, a completely unexpected circumstance occurs and a company is sent manna from heaven.
Sometimes that manna is strange fruit.
When OJ Simpson took police on a slow-speed car chase in a white Bronco, who knew Bronco sales would shoot up?
Sometimes that manna falls when you least expect it. When Beyoncé gave Red Lobster a sexy callout, the restaurant had no way of knowing it would be crazy busy on its slowest day of the year. Little did French's know that a couple of Facebook posts would galvanize Canadians to fight for its brand. And Izod had no idea someone named Ken Bone would enter its orbit.
Sometimes unexpected boosts come in dark packages. Purell had lost money for 10 years until SARS and swine flu put it on the map. It took the death of a Beatle to introduce The Catcher in the Rye to a whole new generation.
And sometimes unforeseen circumstances can echo for decades. Just one surprise endorsement from a President launched the most lucrative movie franchise in history.
That's the unpredictable thing about the marketing world. You can struggle day and night trying to increase the value of your business, then one day someone sends you an unexpected gift from Russia with love…
…when you're under the influence.