Masquerade Marketing

Opinion piece. What can no-frills treasure hunts teach us about customer engagement?

In 1978 (yes, before I was a twinkle in my father's eyes) Kit Williams, a scruffy British writer-illustrator, was challenged by his publisher to do something 'different'.

Before you can say, 'disruption' (please don't) Williams devised a plan that would help his book make a dent in the myopic children's book market.

To stand out, he sparked a treasure hunt by concealing clues to find a special golden hare in his book's illustrations. The golden hare was buried somewhere in the English countryside. The winner would have to interpret five pictures to unearth the pattern that would lead them to the hare’s location.  

He called it, quite aptly, Masquerade. It was wacky; like Terry Gilliam in Wonderland, or the film Labyrinth. This was not a conventional kiddies story.

Hundreds of thousands of grown-ups bought the book. So popular was Masquerade that it became a hit in the United States, Australia, Germany and as far out as Japan. National newspapers ran stories of failed attempts. It was only until 1982 when the Golden Hare was found by a churchyard. Recently it sold at an auction for around £50,000.

Up to that point, Williams was receiving hundreds of letters a day. Fans wanted to know more; to have their suspicions confirmed. This is a children's book that had fully-grown people guessing for four years.

I was thinking about this in a marketing context, especially for non-essential/luxury products. Adults went out and bought a children's book because it promised a challenge, and offered real-world value. The by-product was international attention.

Pokemon Go did this; exposing VR's capability for treasure hunting. Nissan offered an Altima in 2015. But these are all mobile-first tactics. None of these are long-term. Neither caused a buzz for more than a few months.

How many people bought something by the end of Pokemon Go? And who do you know that owns a Nissan Altima?

Buzz is necessary after a product launch, or when entering a saturated market. To my mind, buzz is Challenge x Value - the ensuing financial gain lies in building loyalty and repeat purchases.

The Challenge could be a Treasure Hunt, like with Masquerade; but it can also be in releasing small batches of product. Fashion brands do this best: have you noticed the queues in Soho when a streetwear brand has announced an illusive 'drop'? Customers covet what they can't have.

Value (in none-financial terms) is the feeling of success or validation when we beat the challenge. It's why people collect Rolex watches or Supreme hoodies. You accomplish brand loyalty by inviting the customer to play a long-term game of Challenge x Value.

Once engaged, they will be hooked.

Maybe there's something to be said about making customers work harder. It sounds like a risk, but the results might be long-term purchase and attentiveness.

Our marketing textbooks would beg to differ, and it's certainly not what our clients want to hear.

But it's a tactic worth considering. To truly 'disrupt', Masquerade teaches us that treating consumers like adults, and not VR-crazed kids, we'll create the type of experiences that keeps everyone going four years later.

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