Marketing Fail: Lessons from the Green Graffiti Fiasco

It was a great marketing idea. It was going to drive more traffic to our site and generate more buzz for our company than we had ever seen. It was a clever, innovative and visionary effort that couldn't fail. But it did. It failed spectacularly.
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When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas

It was a great marketing idea. It was going to drive more traffic to our site and generate more buzz for our company than we had ever seen. It was a clever, innovative and visionary effort that couldn't fail.

But it did. It failed spectacularly.

Here's how we learned to stop worrying and love our big marketing bomb.

The Green Graffiti Plan

Oracle's JavaOne is a huge show for our reporting software company. We were wracking our brains for an idea that would make us stand out from the hundreds of other vendors this year. The parameters were the idea needed to be:

  • Green. The show is in San Francisco, where the city banned Apple computers because they aren't environmentally friendly enough. Plus, we're based in Boulder, home of one of the top green universities in the country.
  • Affordable. Like most companies these days, we don't have an unlimited marketing budget. We know you know what we're talking about.
  • Portable. We were flying from Denver and couldn't transport thousands of items or anything too heavy or unwieldy.
Our founder and CTO came up with the idea of green graffiti,
earlier this year. We would create a large metal stencil, lay it down on sidewalks around the Moscone Center, and power wash the sidewalks. Passersby would see the reverse graffiti design, and while they were sitting around waiting for the next JavaOne presentation, they would pop the URL in their phones/notebooks/tablets and check us out.

The stencil would promote not our boring software (which is vital and gives your company great ROI, but even we admit how boring reporting software is) but a kick-ass video that we commissioned from Barats and Bereta, the sketch comedy duo that rules YouTube.

Our marketing/advertising team dreamed up this design:

We even had a bet going about how many would head to the landing page. Our CTO thought more than 10,000, and our marketing manager predicted fewer than 5,000. The major discussions revolved around who would win if the number fell in middle of that range.

Preparing for the Big Day

We covered all the bases in our plan. We've already talked about the why above. Here's the rest.

Who. We went to Marin Metals, local metal workers who cut the stencil. They came highly recommended even though they had never cut a sidewalk stencil quite like this before. You can see from the image above they did a great job.

What. We thought about doing the stencil in steel, but after realizing how heavy it would be we went with aluminum. An aluminum stencil was easier to carry around, and we could load it up in the rental car and drive it on over to the trade show.

How. We hired Clean Sweep, a San Francisco sweeping and pressure washing company. They had the expertise and the equipment to do what we couldn't do ourselves. We also cleared it with the Department of Public Works and made sure we followed the guidelines of a 6-foot minimum safe path of travel at all times.

When. We picked a time of day when there wouldn't be much traffic, foot or otherwise, to lay that baby down. Early in the morning before the show was the best option. The night before would be too dark for anyone to see (including us as we put it down), and during the day there would be too much commotion on the street.

Where. We planned to spray a half-dozen or so stencils on the sidewalks around the Moscone Center. Attendees coming to the show from every direction couldn't fail to see our message.

The Plan Goes Down The Toilet

First off, do you know how freaking loud those power washers are? And did we mention that early in the morning meant 6 am? And that the Moscone Center is surrounded by residences and hotels?

The power washing got noticed, but it wasn't the kind of notice we were hoping for. A doorman at one of the nearby hotels kindly let us know that we were disturbing some of the residents. Others weren't quite so kind.

So we didn't lay down as many stencils as we planned.

Then there's the fact that San Francisco is a great city for holding a conference. The City By The Bay is known for being welcoming, vibrant, cultural, interesting - and clean. As in one of the top 10 cleanest cities in the U.S.

That's great for residents and visitors, but it sure didn't help our stencil stand out.

Another reason our stencil didn't pop is that the sidewalks aren't your standard industrial gray but instead a much darker, stone black in color. Washing away any grime didn't make a heck of a lot of difference to the naked eye.

You could barely see what we had done.

What We Learned from the Green Graffiti Gremlin

That bet we had about how much traffic this would generate?

Yeah. Six. We had 6 visitors to our landing page. As in you can count them almost on one hand. Or on one hand if you're Count Rugen in The Princess Bride.


It wasn't all discouraging, though. We learned some valuable lessons from this experience.

  1. Test, test, test. Test everything. We had assumed, based on what we had seen someone else do, that the power washing part would just work. It didn't.
  2. Life is unexpected. You don't know what will happen until you try. We were terribly disappointed that this endeavor didn't work, but we're glad we tried it. It gave us ideas for other promotions.
  3. Challenge brings a team together. Some of the circumstances were beyond our control, but it was great to see the team work on a new project and bring a lot of thought, energy and enthusiasm to it. We met a challenge and showed ourselves what we could do with teamwork.

Farewell, San Francisco

Despite the green graffiti fiasco, we had a great time in San Francisco. We met a bunch of great attendees, got to talk about our software in person, and saw some really cool displays.

And if Oracle decides to move JavaOne to New York, aka The City That Never Sleeps and The Dirtiest City In America - we're ready.

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