When OfficeMax's 2005-2006 Tracking Study revealed that consumers perceived customer service, value, and quality were identical among OfficeMax and rivals Office Depot and Staples, the company's senior director of external relations Bill Bonner faced a challenge.
"My boss gave us a mandate," Bonner says. "'Don't make ads. Make news.' We needed to deliver a campaign to break through the clutter in the office supply category, enliven the brand with PR, and drive visibility, when consumers had concluded that a paper clip was a paper clip, no matter who sold it."
OfficeMax enlisted agencies Maccabee Group for PR and Innova for marketing.
"The initial concept was related to art projects," Bonner says. "That was before Innova found Steve Milton on YouTube."
Milton created a massive ball from 175,000 OfficeMax rubberbands that stood 5.5-feet high, with a circumference of 19 feet.
Seeing the rubberband ball as an underutilized corporate icon, OfficeMax aimed to bring it to life by transporting the "World's Largest Rubberband Ball" from Milton's home in Oregon to Chicago for its official Guinness World Records weigh-in.
OfficeMax would leverage the publicity to underscore a nationwide store-remodeling effort.
"The biggest challenge was ensuring that the OfficeMax brand was not overlooked by news media," says Heather Schwartz, SAE for strategic planning at Maccabee. "So the OfficeMax logo was featured in all event signage, on the rubberband ball itself, on ceremony backdrops, and even on the hats and clothing of Milton and family."
Milton also was media trained to ensure the OfficeMax message was not left behind in interviews.
Maccabee created a target list of 350 media outlets, with a special focus on TV and social/viral media relations, Schwartz says.
This included developing media materials that highlighted how the event underscored the remodeling of OfficeMax's Chicago stores, a b-roll TV news package downloadable within three hours of the event, broadcast faxes to 210 TV markets, a news release to 2,500 media points, and phone calls to more than 150 outlets.
Innova augmented PR efforts with guerrilla marketing, including street teams handing out replicas of the ball and jugglers tossing OfficeMax-branded balls.
There were a few obstacles: One event site couldn't be secured because of concerns that the two-ton ball might crash through its floor, the ball couldn't fit inside Fox-TV Chicago's studios, and the event date changed four times.
Ultimately, the 4,594-pound ball smashed the old world record, and the event generated more than 421 TV segments that aired in 127 markets, including on all five Chicago network affiliates and Chicagoland Cable TV.
Rubberband ball TV coverage reached 27 million audience impressions - a value of $1.25 million for TV alone, Schwartz says.
And more than 159 Web sites and blogs featured video from the event, including two appearances on Yahoo's home page, where the ball video was downloaded 320,000 times.
"This was the single most successful special event in OfficeMax history," Bonner says.
The ball was subsequently taken on tour to each of the 14 remodeled Chicago stores, with plans to send video footage to store managers, offer the ball to late-night TV shows, and leverage the ball further in PR campaigns throughout 2007.
Next stop: OfficeMax locations in Denver.
PR team: OfficeMax (Chicago), Maccabee Group Public Relations (Minneapolis), and Innova Marketing (Minneapolis)
Campaign: OfficeMax World's Largest Rubberband Ball
Duration: October to November 2006
Budget: $50,000 to $100,000
At a time when many PR practitioners struggle to conceive stunts they hope will catch fire on YouTube-style media, OfficeMax instead found something relevant that was already being downloaded and wrapped a campaign around it.
So for all those PR pros looking to get their clients on YouTube, the answer may already be there.
Despite the logistical obstacles, solid tactics helped ensure the effort was a success.