A Skyscraper-Sized Risk for Chicago

Sunday night Nik Wallenda walked on a high wire between three Chicago skyscrapers. He first walked from one of the Marina City towers to the Leo Burnett Building. He then crossed from one Marina City tower to the other while blindfolded.

The event was mesmerizing. On a cold, dark and windy November evening, he put one foot in front of the other and crossed the Chicago River more than five hundred feet over the city. The event was a triumph for the City of Chicago.

It generated enormous publicity. The Discovery Channel reported that viewership reached 6.7 million people from all around the world. People discussed the event on social media, with more than 150,000 tweets. According to Nielsen, more than 3.4 million people received a tweet about the walk, many with the hashtag #SkyscraperLive. Sixty-five thousand people gathered to watch the event live.

More important, the event showed Chicago at its best. The walk took place over the Chicago River, a spectacular setting. Aerial views showed the entire downtown area. The event built on Chicago's reputation as a city of towering buildings and home of the world's first steel frame skyscraper, built back in 1885.

Events like Wallenda's walk builds brands. It is incredibly difficult today to capture people's attention. There is so much clutter in the world that people tune out everything that isn't unique or special in some fashion. To break through the clutter and engage people, a brand has to do something that justifies the attention. Traditional advertising is just not as impactful as a compelling event; people tune out the ads.

During Sunday's event, millions of people saw Chicago's stunning urban environment. While they watch Wallenda, they saw a lot of Chicago. Indeed, the walk was as much about Chicago as it was about Wallenda. People who knew the city felt a sense of pride. People who didn't know the city now have a favorable impression.

It is impossible to get this sort of attention with traditional media.

The event only occurred because Chicago's leaders, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, embraced it. In doing so, they took a calculated risk. There was a chance that Wallenda would fall or cancel. Some people called it a stunt more suited to Las Vegas or Orlando.

Phil Rosenthal, a business columnist at the Chicago Tribune, wrote, "Just because Nik Wallenda is willing to risk his life on the high wire doesn't mean Chicago should take a chance, too."

Emanuel's team could easily have blocked the production or scaled it back. Simply enforcing the Illinois' Aerial Exhibitors Safety Act, which called for a safety harness, would have reduced the risk and downside.

Instead, the mayor embraced the production. His only concession was that he didn't attend in person; he watched from his home with his family.

The Chicago team bet on Wallenda and enhanced Chicago's reputation around the world.

This is how people grow great brands today.