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When silly ideas are serious business

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

“Surprise and delight” is a legitimate business strategy well overdue for a renaissance.

Think about all the times you’ve heard customer service, HR or marketing people use this phrase. It’s a great idea, but rarely a focal point for serious discussions.

How often do CEOs discuss emotional engagement as a strategic priority? Also rarely.

Let’s look at a delightful community engagement project from Germany that illustrates just how powerful the idea of "surprise and delight" can be in the real world.

Back in 2017, an art project called BewegtesLand, or “Moving Land - Staging for passing trains,” transformed the Jena-Naumburg train route in Germany’s Saale Valley into a series of performance art pieces.

Some 400 residents along the 30km route volunteered time over two days to perform delightful and utterly surprising short performances in fields visible by passing trains.

The brainchild of Jörn Hintzer and Jacob Hüfner, media artists and professors at the Bauhaus University Weimar, the goal wasn’t commercial. They wanted to replicate the flashes of media we all consume on a daily basis.

Some volunteers in the valley hoped it would bring more tourists to the area. Others joined for the community spirit and joy of it all.

Passengers on the train were delighted. They smiled, laughed and took pictures out the window as an incredible array of bizarre vignettes of life flashed before their eyes.

Images: Deutche Welle

A fake shark, reminiscent of Jaws, startles people in a canoe on the Saale River, causing them to fall out. A farmer out in an open field digs into the ground and triggers a giant fountain of water. Naturally enough, he runs away.

Hilariously, people dressed as bushes run around randomly in a field. In another scene a group of people stand on ladders, staring right back at the passengers.

Then we’ve got ‘Rocco’, a runner attempting to race the train. In reality, it was 25 people dressed in the same yellow and green outfit, diving in and out of holes in the ground and between marker points to create an illusion of incredible speed.

It’s all quite bizarre, yet you can’t help but smile and enjoy the sheer joy of it all.

Take a moment to watch this short documentary published by German public broadcaster, DW - click the image below to play the video.

Lessons for life and business

This story, which randomly popped up in my Facebook feed was perfectly timed to bring a smile to my face.

Clearly we all live in a time when our global community is experiencing stress, grief and uncertainty. Sometimes we all just need a little humour mixed with a positive human spirit.

But what if this cute example was actually a serious, ongoing strategy. What if your business thought about creative, real-world events or activities so remarkable it set the world alight with conversations?

There are already leaders living out the “surprise and delight” ethos. Remember when Elon Musk sent one of his Tesla’s into space aboard a SpaceX rocket with a dummy astronaut?

Bizarre, hilarious and definitely worthy-of-remark. In fact, it sparked the kind of earned media coverage and social engagement most businesses dream about.

Further underscoring the viral intent of the moment, the picture below was donated to the public domain by SpaceX. They WANT us to share it.

Source: SpaceX.

A Forbes article unpacks Musk’s public relations strategy. The author is right: advertising alone isn’t always the best strategy.

Once launched, headlines of newspapers continued to refer to Elon Musk, some quoting his reaction to SpaceX’s success.

There are probably a lot of people so impressed with SpaceX that their perceptions of Tesla will become highly positive, affecting Tesla purchase attitudes and behaviours.

Musk embraces the bizarre. His fantastically named Boring Company, while a personal hobby of sorts, is trying to solve traffic congestion by creating tunnels underground. Crazy? Sure. But yet another “surprise and delight” strategy at work.

Musk is among a number of brands thinking outside the proverbial square. Lush Cosmetics famously built a global brand with a zero dollar advertising budget and a focus on creating brand advocates and earned media. Krispy Kreme built a global brand using word-of-mouth marketing.

Our performance artists in Germany captured global headlines because they were newsworthy. A creative, feel-good activity that you can’t help but enjoy, and that you can't help but write about and report on because it's interesting and different.

The world is full of worthwhile, serious endeavours. Compassion fatigue is a thing; but I'm not sure people tire of laughing, do they? If you want to make a difference and get noticed, consider tearing a leaf from Musk or the German art project’s playbook and do something surprisingly delightful for a change.

Turns out, silly ideas can make a serious impact.

Keep believing,


Mark Jones is an author, speaker and brand strategist with experience over more than 20 years on both sides of media, first as a senior journalist at the likes of the Australian Financial Review and lately as CEO and Chief Storyteller for a multi-million dollar agency. He is a Certified Virtual Presenter for keynote talks, workshops and webinars. Buy a copy of his debut book, 'Beliefononomics: Realise the true value of your brand story' here.

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