The Super Bowl. The Royal Wedding. D-Day.

The analogies flew at Maloney & Fox the day Microsoft gave us the green light to produce “Operation B-FLY,” a stunt we created to promote and publicize the re-launch of Microsoft’s internet service, MSN and MSN Explorer.

We proposed dressing up teams of rollerbladers in colorful butterfly costumes to match MSN’s logo, and releasing these “B-FLY Bladers” into the streets of 10 major U.S. cities. The unbranded B-FLY Bladers would hit the streets pre-launch to build anticipation for the service. On the day of the launch, the B-FLY Bladers would identify themselves to the media and the public, wearing branded sashes, carrying MSN flags, and handing out branded software, hats and t-shirts, magnets and temporary tattoos, as well as, sweepstakes entries.


The stunt sounds simple, but as we began to get our heads around “Operation B-FLY,” we realized that we’d created a project of monumental logistical proportions… especially when Microsoft decided they liked the idea so much that they wanted to mount “Operation B-FLY” in 16 cities nationwide, rather than the 10 we’d initially proposed. 

16 cities. 125 rollerbladers. Dozens of van drivers and on-site representatives. Costumes, meals, insurance, weather, travel, media… and three weeks to accomplish everything, while keeping it all a secret. It was October 2nd. Our stunt was scheduled to launch October 23rd. Eight M&F B-FLY team members bid goodbye to families and friends and embarked upon an unforgettable three-week odyssey of endless nights, cold coffee and Oreos.


Certainly, “Operation B-FLY” needed to pique curiosity, convey MSN’s spirit of light-hearted fun, and cultivate an identity for MSN that would distinguish it from its competitors, AOL and Yahoo. But beyond all that, we needed to do everything we could without breaking (m)any laws to get MSN noticed.


While the charts told us to go after “those with some experience on the Internet” and “current non-MSN users,” we really wouldn’t have minded if ultimately we reached every breathing human on the planet (“Operation B-FLY” was simultaneously rolled out in Singapore, the UK and Spain). This was Microsoft, after all, and at the risk of stating the obvious, they do think globally.


With the clock ticking loudly, we researched those American cities with the greatest Internet penetration, cross-referenced that list with MSN demographic data regarding age and income levels of residents, and pulled together our 16-city roster. We then used the phone, the Internet and our own personal travel memories to identify the precise city locations to swarm, the best times to be seen, and the media we wanted to reach. We tracked down local rollerblading clubs and plied them for information regarding the skate-ability of outdoor malls, downtown financial districts and evening hotspots. By the time the stunt took place, we had our teams blading in the most visible places at the busiest times in some of the country’s most wired cities.


Given only three weeks to take our idea from concept to curtain, we adopted a plan-as-you-go approach by necessity. Our main challenge was to design and implement a program that would get attention, deliver messages repetitively and with frequency, and include a call to action that would prompt people to use the new MSN software. While the conventional approach would have been to break the planning up into bite-sized chunks, we didn’t have that luxury. Consequently, planning entailed simultaneous debates about macro issues like costume design and micro issues like whether to use dimes or quarters in Denver parking meters.


Microsoft’s RFP was informal and gave no specific creative direction. Fortunately, the re-designed MSN provided ample inspiration and a very functional Macguffin: the MSN butterfly logo. Given MSN’s stated desire to jazz up its image and reach those who tended to view Microsoft at a distance, we humanized the butterfly logo, creating an entirely new character: The B-FLY – a hip, happening individual who stands for all that the new MSN brings to the Internet. The notion of using “B-FLY Bladers” to take the new MSN to the streets of America was a natural extension of the core concept. 

We knew that offbeat-looking B-FLY Bladers cavorting through the streets of 16 cities would get a lot of attention … and we used that to our benefit. We sent the unbranded B-FLY Bladers out for two days prior to MSN’s mid-week launch, building lots of anticipation and curiosity. When launch day finally arrived, the B-FLY Bladers – now branded – hit the streets with software, MSN t-shirts, hats, and sweepstakes entries. All of this coordinated with a simultaneous national ad campaign that used a fluttering animated butterfly as its primary motif.


With the B-FLY Bladers as our messengers, we hit everything from our 16 cities’ financial districts at the morning rush and pedestrian malls at lunchtime to the World Series at New York’s Shea Stadium when local news channels did their live remotes. We provided support with one million specially designed postcards (dropped nationwide with sweepstakes information); we rented 16 vans, wrapped them in the MSN colors, and used them as “pods” to trail the B-FLY Bladers; we ran traditional radio promotions in select markets, and used the Theater Radio Network to play 30-second MSN spots to feature film audiences in 3,500 theaters nationwide. These activities tied in with a $10,000 grand prize sweepstakes while they delivered MSN’s key brand messages to people in unusual locations and raised awareness to a level that would have been unachievable through any other means. 


“Operation B-FLY” generated print and broadcast coverage in every one of our markets. We were featured nationally by such outlets as the AP, The Today Show – even The Weather Channel. The Bladers were picked up regionally by hundreds of newspapers, TV and radio outlets. And Microsoft reports that 900,000 new downloads of the new MSN occurred in the immediate aftermath of the stunt. This is quantifiable evidence of a successful event (see sample clips in enclosed presentation).
But trackable results notwithstanding, when you’re pulled over by a Boston cop and he’s NOT looking to give you a ticket, when people stop you on the street to tell you they saw you that morning on a local news program, when your own temporary employees offer to put in unpaid time on their blades just for the fun of it – that’s when you know your stunt worked.