Marketing the Unmarketable: The PineApple Case Study

Posted on May 7, 2016



How to market a mystery? That was the challenge faced by Nathan Newman and his team at TimeOverDistance (t/d), a UK social media PR company, earlier this year. Their task? To spread the word that Steve Wozniak, inventer of the Apple computer, had a new project, PineApple, which would launch on Apple’s 40th anniversary, April 1.

I worked as part of the team, drumming up interest in North America via social media. But it ain’t easy when you can’t actually tell people what it is you’re talking about. What’s PineApple? How did we spread the word? What roadblocks did we encounter on the way? What lessons can you learn from our experience? We had to market the mystery itself.

Here’s how it went down.

Everything was timed around the Business Rocks conference in Manchester, April 21-23 of this year. That was the actual client, and the actual goal: to drive media attention to the conference. “TimeOverDistance worked closely with Business Rocks to dream up a prank for April 1st that would involve the event’s headline speaker, Steve Wozniak,” said Nathan Newman, t/d director. “We also reached out to media outlets who were interested in collaborating and digitally workshopping ideas.”

The pitch? “On April 1st, the 40th anniversary of Apple, we would announce that Steve Wozniak was to launch a rival company named PineApple.” Who wouldn’t cover THAT story? Woz is always news, Apple is always news, and it would be easy to slip in the news that he’d be at Business Rocks, giving the keynote and presumably providing more info about PineApple.

“The goal was to punch through the April 1st noise on social media in partnership with Mashable and to make #pineapple trend. We wanted to play on Apple’s 40th anniversary and on Steve Wozniak’s personality – he just loves the lulz! – and put on a show through Twitter as a way of indirectly marketing the dates of Business Rocks 2016. At this point, Woz signed off on the prank and had agreed to send out 2 PineApple focused tweets,” said Newman.

You might think it’d be difficult to get hard news outlets on board with an April 1 prank. You’d be wrong. “We very quickly drummed it interest from big media outlets purely based on the opportunity to collaborate with Woz. Mashable, BuzzFeed and The Guardian all expressed strong interest (and even a degree of ownership) in our core concept.” April 1 is a big deal in media, and there is intense competition for which pranks get coverage and which don’t, but EVERYBODY loves Woz, and more than a few journalists are tired of the Apple fanboy culture, and looking to thumb their noses at it. PineApple gave them that opportunity. And the numbers were there. Newman tells me, “As an agency, we already have good relationships with online media outlets, broadcasters and newspapers. This has largely been built on previous campaigns that have gone viral that have organically drawn the outlets to our stories. This has been helpful in generating a direct reach of 150 million people in 4 continents in just 6 months.”

“Mashable agreed to be in on the prank but pulled out, feeling that they needed Wozniak himself to be in the fake launch video. As disappointing as this was, we were thrilled that The Guardian were happy to start having serious conversations about such a fun idea.”

Not being able to talk about the product was awkward, but at the same time, the intrigue itself is what sold PineApple. Was it a piece of hardware? Was it software? Was it an app? Was it a rival to Apple? It was THE great geek guessing game for some time, with the geekiest guesses hanging off the existing product, the wifi pineapple. Woz himself is an inveterate inventor, so it literally could have been anything.

“We had to be as mysterious, intriguing and as tongue-in-cheek as possible. We felt it was important to litter clues throughout the content on our Twitter and Facebook feeds, micro-site and animated teaser trailer.” The graphic design was slick; it had to be, to look real.

The team created a Facebook page and Twitter feed with a cool, professional look, and reached out to a few influential social media accounts t/d had worked with before, asking for shares and a bit of their social media cachet. With these agreements in place, the social media teams got to work. Rather than flooding the channels and risk looking spammish or desperate, the PineApple team kept mentions spare, playing hard to get. Judging by the number of questions about the project which I alone received, it worked. Rather than assume it was a prank, people assumed it was real; had we hammered the mentions harder early on, they might have had a very different impression, and written us off.

“Our strategy was to set off a chain reaction across Twitter, starting in the UK and Europe and rolling over the East to West coast of the US,” on April 1, said Newman. “Our lead media outlet to break the story was The Guardian and generally speaking, once they break a story, the rest of Europe, parts of Asia and South America pick up on their content, so we felt that we stood a really good chance of amplifying the story across tech focused media outlets and pranking a diverse online audience within a 24 hour window (taking time differences and the flow of news cycles into account).” It could easily have been a two day story, with this kind of rolling impact.

But there was a glitch. Of course there was a glitch. There’s always a glitch.

“We knew that we weren’t picking an easy battle-ground; social media is flooded with much smaller pranks that social media executives and directors have dreamt up in the 7 days running up to April 1st. The Guardian had concerns about Apple not providing sign-off on the prank. Based on our approach and the strength of our planning, it seemed somewhat feasible that perhaps Apple wouldn’t be too thrilled if their share price suddenly lost a quarter point or two; as pointed out by The Guardian. Other media outlets had some knowledge that a story about Woz was going to break and in total 9 online publications waited with baited breath for Woz to tweet the prank which would form the basis of a green light.”

We managed to drum up a fair amount of civilian ie non-media interest in PineApple as well, prior to April 1, and with the Guardian at least as a media partner, were in a great position to have THE defining prank on April Fool’s Day, at least in the tech and business worlds. How. Ev. Er…

April 1 arrives. The entire world is waiting (or at least, it felt like it to us). And…

“Woz didn’t tweet.”

Nope. “He was somewhere in middle America on a family vacation, without a consistent internet connection.” The celebrity on whom the entire project hung was incommunicado, missing in action, probably sitting in a restauraunt parking lot, checking his iPhone futilely for a signal.

We needed that Wozniak tweet, but it didn’t come, despite receiving his sign-off.

So what do you do when your carefully timed launch has an enormous wrench thrown into it? You soldier on, that’s what you do. “We launched our tweet storms. We launched our retargeting techniques. We launched our press releases and made our video content public. We watched as #AprilFools trended on twitter from 5 hours before midnight in the UK as we did everything to bond our media and prank partnerships. #AprilFools 748 Tweets; 1552 Tweets; 5000; 10000; up and up until the internet was saturated with content and journalists were publicly discontent about their inboxes in Twitter rants.” Amid all of that, PineApple was well-represented.

On Facebook alone, the WhatsPineApple page had a reach of 4,310,797, with 466 incoming messages. The Twitter feed topped 3,400 Followers with over 400 mentions and 22o rt’s. That’s a lot of engagement for something that never actually existed. It was a genuine hit, if not a genuine product.

Newman said, “There was a 50-50 balance of tweets believing that PineApple was a prank or that it was completely legitimate.” The dialogue between believers and non-believers aided the spread of PineApple as a concept. But again, without that tweet from Woz on April 1, the #PineApple campaign fizzled to a halt without, unfortunately, breaking (or even bruising) the internet.

Looking back, Newman is phlegmatic about the campaign. “We’ve architected many campaigns in the time that our agency has been running, but this was our first April Fools prank. Last year we had huge success in launching campaigns designed to raise global awareness around Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, to help the homeless alongside Manchester United’s Gary Neville (this recently turned into a ‘Hacking Homelessness’ event in Manchester), and in making the birth of a miracle cloned boxer dog puppy go viral from a biotech lab in South Korea. Generally speaking we have an ethical through-line in our work and carry out corporate and commercial campaigns all the way through to supporting international human rights causes.”

With Wozniak MIA on April 1, the campaign pivoted to divert attention directly to his keynote at Business Rocks. When people asked questions about PineApple, they were directed to the Business Rocks presentation; in this way, the conference benefitted not only from the lead up to April 1, but for twenty days afterwards, as those curious about PineApple became aware of the conference and interested in watching the livestream, following the events, and checking out the Hackathon competitors.

Without Wozniak’s participation (or at least permission) the PineApple campaign would have never gotten off the ground. This was a campaign sold on star power, fortuitous dates, and media reach. When it turned out he couldn’t participate on the actual day, the media bailed and the agency had to do some quick thinking to repurpose the project without crossing the line into lies or overpromising, while still directing attention to Business Rocks. All in all, a learning experience for everyone involved, and hey, maybe Woz could get working on a tiny satellite wifi router so next year, he can be online no matter where he is!