In February, restaurateur Peter Ilic hit the headlines across the globe when he invited diners to ‘pay what you think it’s worth’. We spoke to him, and others who have dared to be different to bring you some tips on gutsy marketing
Guerrilla marketing has become a lot more common in recent years. As a generation that has grown up with the internet feels increasingly like they have seen it all, it’s becoming even harder for brands to get themselves noticed.
Many have turned to riskier and more daring strategies – with varying results. Some have worked wonders: Gail Porter’s nude image projected onto the Houses of Parliament to celebrate FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women sparked a media frenzy, and a number of copycat stunts. Others haven’t worked so well. Last month, a bar in Newcastle was chastised in Parliament for offering free shots to women who exposed themselves to the bar staff.
Similarly, when computer game firm Acclaim released racing game Burnout 2 in 2002, the company promised to pay for any speeding fines issued on that particular date. Unsurprisingly, the Department of Transport immediately hit back, insisting that the promotion would only encourage unnecessary speeding and dangerous driving. So how do you make sure unconventional marketing works for you, and gets your brand talked about for all the right reasons?
Getting the buzz
If done well, the unconventional can work wonders. This was not the first time Ilic had run this promotion, which he trialled during the 1980s at his fourth restaurant, Just Around the Corner, in London’s Finchley Road. It ran for two years and was extremely successful. But he admits he was surprised at how well it went down this time. “It was even better,” he says. “Maybe because it was done at the right time, in the recession, or maybe news travels much faster now than in 1985.”
Word certainly got around. The Little Bay restaurant in Farringdon was featured on 36 TV and radio shows globally, including CNN and hourly on Sky News, as well as in newspapers on all continents. Crucially, this translated into sales. The restaurant was fully booked all month, serving just under 10,000 customers who paid on average £17.25 each, nearly 30% higher than the usual average food spend of £13.50.
Clearly, publicity snowballed because he was taking a significant risk. Giving away free samples to win new customers is one thing, gambling with your entire revenue stream is quite another.
“I always try to find something inventive, and give people something to talk about,” says Ilic, who has been known to have opera singers serenade his diners. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘everything is half price tonight’. I don’t advertise it. People will be surprised and talk about it. If you just sit and drink in a restaurant, it’s nothing to talk about.”
The PR buzz and web traffic spike can be short lived. So if you’re doing something like this, your offering needs to be strong enough to convert the curious into paying customers. A number of bands ran similar promotions last year, in a bid to cushion the blow from illegal downloads and attract a wider fan base. Radiohead invited fans to pay what they wanted, while The Charlatans offered their album for free.
The Charlatans’ manager Alan McGee said at the time: “We increase our fan base, we sell more merchandise and get more advertising. I presume it will double gig traffic, maybe even treble it.”
At Little Bay, the increase in bookings has so far been sustained. “I believe in good food, excellent service and the best value,” says Ilic. Business has increased at all four UK sites, even in Belgrade. “Little Bay has been put on the map. We were doing 1,100 covers a week. We’re now doing 2,000.”
This type of marketing carries inherent risks, which you need to calculate. The downturn offers an opportunity to innovate, boost consumer confidence and build up a loyal fan base, but you must ensure you don’t destabilise your brand. You need to know your market. “I came to this with the following logic: if you don’t give customers a service charge on the bill, they will leave 10-12%, on average. Some will leave more, some will leave less,” says Ilic. “If a customer eats a decent meal, they will leave on average what it cost.”
However, one of the reasons it worked so well is that Little Bay already offers great value, he stresses. Restaurateurs with pricier offerings should think twice. “If they are expensive, say £30 or £40 a head, they shouldn’t do it,” Ilic adds.
You also have to foresee any potential problems. For example, Ilic only ran the promotion at one of his five restaurants. “This system is difficult to control, because you don’t know what the customers leave. Some waiters may take advantage,” he says.
Dominic Monkhouse, MD of web hosting firm PEER 1, has always been a fan of ballsy marketing. Last month he launched the UK arm of the Canadian firm at Internet World. They purposely took the pitch opposite rival Rackspace, floated a large inflatable over their stand, had dancers performing hourly and gave everyone who walked in a sticker that said ‘I love PEER 1’. One delegate said he wished he had a camera to capture the faces of the Rackspace staff.
PEER 1 left with 250 strong leads. For Monkhouse, successful guerrilla marketing involves doing something funny that will have a big impact, for a low cost, and ideally ruffle a few feathers. “I look at marketing from a sales perspective,” he says. “A lot of people spend millions on raising awareness, but it doesn’t make the tills ring. I’ve never been in a position where I can do that. The nice thing about what we’ve done is it had a high perceived impact for a low cost. I don’t think anyone went away and didn’t know we were there. Other stalls gave out stress balls. I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything from anyone whose stress ball I’ve owned.”
For Monkhouse, marketing should tick a number of boxes: “Do staff get a warm glow when they see it? Are we not spending much money, yet still annoying our competitors? Do their salespeople wish they worked here? Do our customers approve?”
However, he believes bold marketing only works when it reflects your brand ethos. “You’ve got to be true to the business,” he says. “You can’t try and pitch something untrue, it will have a negative impact.”
This credibility is vital for getting press coverage, too. “We issued PEER 1’s first UK PR story entitled ‘£1,000 Foxtrot-Oscar bonus for new recruits’, offering £1,000 for new employees to leave within two weeks,” says Faye Hawkins of Champion Communications, who handles their PR. “They would rather people walk away if it’s not for them than invest in their training.”
The story was picked up by several national papers. “You don’t expect an MD to go public with something like that,” adds Monkhouse. “The secret to getting PR is it has to be consistent. We’ve got a brand that has an edge and is a bit cheeky, so it’s coherent. People don’t see it as a stunt, but part of the story.”