Business

Hard to copy the (Carson) King of Marketing

Fans with the letters to spell out “Carson” to honor Carson King pose for a photo in the student section before their game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Fans with the letters to spell out “Carson” to honor Carson King pose for a photo in the student section before their game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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If you’re thinking of following in Carson King’s fundraising footsteps with your own beer sign, don’t expect the same success. His was no professionally deployed marketing campaign nor salesy gimmick by a beer company.

The beauty and success of Carson King was that he was authentic, unscripted, organic — an ordinary guy with a handwritten sign asking for beer money that was then humbly parlayed into a $3 million fundraiser for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

As Iowans, we’re proud of him. As marketers, we know he’s a unicorn, and what he’s done is difficult to replicate.

Why? A viral campaign is unpredictable. As a marketer, you can think of the juiciest idea, backed up by the best analysis and delivered flawlessly, but no one can guarantee a viral success.

That’s because you’re marketing to humans, and as humans we are, for the most part, unpredictable.

The phenomenal success of Carson King reminds me of the 2014 ice-bucket challenge for ALS. That, too, started small and grew wildly successful, raising $15 million for research and awareness to this degenerative illness, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Propelled by golfer Chris Kennedy and Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player who at age 29 developed ALS, the challenge asked people to pour a bucket of ice water on their own heads similar to the sports team practice of dumping the ice cooler water on the coach.

Frakes wanted to get people talking and laughing to bring awareness to ALS.

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The challenge went viral. I remember my whole family participating — even the kids — as well as donating to ALS.

The challenge was cold, wet, fun, entertaining and unifying. It gave ordinary people a chance to participate in something that celebrities also were doing.

So what are some of the things these two initiatives have in common and what can you learn from them?

• The Simplicity of the Ask — Beer money for Carson. Icy water over your head for ALS. The ask is simple. We didn’t have to watch a product video, consider a purchase or click on an ad that followed us around the internet.

• Humor in the Moment — People like to laugh. Carson held up his handwritten sign in the background of a serious ESPN broadcast. It caught our attention. We shared it.

Another funny attention-getter — watching the reaction of people getting dumped with ice water. They screamed. They flinched. They froze up.

The content for both was funny, compelling, original. It amused and entertained us in the moment, so we shared it.

• Feel-Good Emotions — Who doesn’t like to feel better about him- or herself? Carson King turned his money over to a children’s hospital, pulling in corporate donations as well as donations from average people.

ALS was funding research and awareness on a crippling disease.

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Both are respectable medical causes, and by donating whatever we could afford, we felt good about helping others in need.

So while we can try and create contagious content — funny, bizarre, emotional, shareable — we can’t truly predict an outcome as successful as Carson King’s until we can predict the future and until we can better leverage the drivers of human behavior.

Tracy Pratt is a marketing product manager and lead strategist at Fusionfarm, a division of Folience, The Gazette’s parent company; (319) 398-8343; tracy@fusionfarm.com.

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