marketing and sales executives from Silicon Valley

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Publicity by Pranking Victoria's Secret

While reflecting on how a colleague is trying to "Cross the Chasm" with his startup, I naturally reflected on basic marketing principles for customer development, such as reputation building, free PR, and testimonials. There are other principles, but I'll focus on those few since they came to mind when the topic of my undergraduate school's small size yet excellent academic reputation came up as a comparison.. And that's when I thought of Victoria's Secret.

My undergraduate education was earned at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), a small engineering focused school in southern California. It has consistently ranked in the top 3 for top engineering schools and for a brief time was ranked as the top undergraduate institution by US News and World Reports. Sure, we had more PhDs per capita than CalTech at the time, but for every one person who knew that, ten would ask "Harry Mudd - that guy from Star Trek?" Before geek was cool, and before there was a "Big Bang Theory" on TV, it was difficult to get recognition for my small, young, but rigorous school.

I and my classmates continue to fight that uphill battle, silently rejoicing when Harvey Mudd is acknowledged for any reason. Sure, we've had math champions, CS champions, famous faculty, and even the school President is on the board of Microsoft. The problem is that only a few "in the know" would assign weight to those facts, despite my personal bias that HMC President Maria Klawe is a recognized leader and lends additional credibility to the school. No, it would take a hilarious prank on Victoria's Secret to make me really happy.

In one act (many small ones, really), students from the school banded together to dominate a contest to win Victoria's Secret lingerie. The prank leveraged student technical know-how to beat voting protection systems to not only make it seem like Harvey Mudd had over 1 million students and alumni, it also spelled out school phrases, and catapulted other Claremont colleges into the top rankings. The prank on Victoria's Secret was covered in news sources all around the web, and an article in Yahoo voices can still be seen here.

Now back to my original comment about reputation building, free PR, and testimonials - this small, but meaningful prank demonstrated a few key points that could help attract new students and make alumni proud:
  • Reputation building: The student body self organized to pull off a technical feat. You can bet the school is both technically skilled and has a tight community.
  • Free PR: HMC did not have to spend a dime to advertise that the students were skilled technically or that there's a creative, if not "puckish", personality of pranks at the school.
  • Testimonials: Tthis prank was acknowledged by many online sources and shared via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and became virtual lore at the alumni meetings that followed. This also led to follow up discussions where fellow alumni suddenly started talking about the pranks they did or others did while at school. 
In short, sometimes communication and reputation can be assisted by events, people, and tools that tell a story about a school or product that has merit, but can be amplified by leveraging the goodwill of another brand. It helped Harvey Mudd, and it may help others looking for increased visibility.