Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, was mad as hell, as he often is when his team gets beaten. So after the Mavericks lost to the Denver Nuggets on January 8, Cuban tore into the league’s head of officiating. “I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen,” he said, drawing a record $500,000 fine and the attention of the Minneapolis-based company’s communications professionals.
Cuban could have picked almost any company in America, but when he picked Dairy Queen, he created an opportunity for director of communications Dean Peters and his four-person communications team to create the first truly inspired publicity stunt of the New Year, one that has generated what Peters believes is about $10 million in earned media.
Peters was in Chattanooga, Tenn., along with representatives from Dairy Queen public relations agency Pierson Grant of Fort Lauderdale, handling the publicity for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, when he took a call from his boss, the company’s vice president of marketing. Peters was aware that Cuban had been feuding with NBA officials—there was nothing new about that—but he hadn’t heard that the Mavs owner had taken his company’s name in vein.
“We had gotten a call from, asking us what we thought about the quote and whether we liked all the free publicity we were getting,” says Peters. “He read me the quote and asked me what we should do.”
Peters was with Pierson Grant chief executive Maria Pierson, and the two of them quickly decided the company had to issue a statement.
“We decided we had to show that we were taking it with good humor,” says Peters. “We felt we had nothing to lose. If we didn’t issue a statement, we had nothing to gain beyond the one-time hit. We wanted to say three things: We were delighted with the free publicity, we loved the fact we were so top of mind with Mark Cuban, and we wanted to challenge Mark Cuban to come to work at Dairy Queen for a day to see for himself what it’s like.”
The company also noted that since Cuban matched the fines he paid to the NBA with donations to charity, and suggested he might like to make a donation to Dairy Queen’s charity of choice, the Children’s Miracle Network.
“We hoped he would rise to the challenge, but never in my wildest dreams did I think the story would get this big.”
Within hours, Peters started getting calls from reporters at major media including Reuters and CNBC, asking whether Cuban was going to take the company up on its offer. Cuban must have been getting the same calls too, because by the end of the day the Mavericks owner had issued a statement saying he had never meant to disparage the company, that he loved Dairy Queen, and that he would be delighted to don the distinctive uniform.
“They thought was disparaging Dairy Queen,” said Cuban. “Not at all. I didn’t want them to go out and hire a bad employee because that might reduce their standards.” He added that his favorite Dairy Queen had recently closed—emphasizing that he bore no grudge—and identified his favorite menu item: the blizzard, the company’s signature milkshake.
In some ways, the challenge was reminiscent of a classic publicity stunt of the early 90s, when the CEO of Stevens Aviation challenged Southwest Airlines chief executive Herb Kelleher to an arm wrestling contest to settle a dispute over the use of a slogan. Like Kelleher, Cuban is a CEO with a sense of humor who understands the value of publicity.
“I think he recognized this was a win-win,” says Peters. “He could use this as a platform to get his message out to a wider audience.”
Peters thought it would take several weeks to set up a time and venue for Cuban’s appearance, but working with the public relations team at the Mavericks, it soon became clear that the only day that would work was January 16—just six days after the challenge was issued. The two settled on a store in Coppell, Tex., close to Cuban’s office.
Cuban was an ideal participant. “We had hoped he would be there from 10 in the morning until about 2 in the afternoon,” says Peters. Instead, he turned up at 6.15 in the morning, in plenty of time for an interview with The Today Show’s Katie Couric. And he stayed until around 2.30, when “we finally told him he had to go home,” says Peters. “He was great with customers, who were lined up around the block to be served by him and to get his autograph, and he was great with the media.”
He also underwent Dairy Queen training, with a particular focus on the proper technique for making the trademark curl on top of the company’s cones, and how to make his favorite Blizzard.
Several other celebrities joined Cuban. Tom Arnold, host of ESPN’s The Best Damned Sports Show stopped by, as did Entertainment Tonight, while news helicopters circled the store. But the show was almost stolen by the store owner. “Perrish Chapman, the owner of the store, was a great media spokesperson for us,” says Peters. “He bought into the event 110 percent.”
More than 1,000 people showed up at the store, some of them waiting online for as much as an hour to be served by Cuban. The result was a blizzard of free publicity for Dairy Queen.
“We didn’t think so much about the messaging or spinning this just the right way,” says Peters. “Mr. Cuban told us in advance that if there was anything we wanted him to say from a messaging standpoint, he would be happy to oblige, but we really just wanted to have a good time with it.” Still, Cuban made sure the company got it’s name featured prominently: whenever he was in a camera shot, he made sure either the Dairy Queen logo or one of its products was in plain view.
Even before Cuban’s appearance, the company had enjoyed about $5 million worth of earned media attention, according to Joyce Julius & Associates, a research firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. The event at the Coppell store probably doubled the exposure.
The next challenge, Peters says, is building on the publicity generated by the Cuban incident. Dairy Queen has a tie-in with the re-release of 80s hit movie ET later this year, which will stretch Peters and his team again. They will have to do something really special to top their efforts in this case.