We love a mystery. We’re told there is a bizarre creature in the woods, a treasure buried in the earth, something in the night sky that we can’t identify—and we yearn to discover what these things are. Here’s how three businesses used mystery to grow and get attention.
If you create a mystery about your product, services or business itself, people just might flock to it like detectives to a crime in a mystery novel.
It’s as if the compulsion to solve a mystery is built into our DNA.
Just to be clear, the definition of mystery is “something strange or unknown which has not yet been explained or understood.” (Cambridge Dictionary)
Let’s look at how three businesses used a mystery in their promotions to attract attention and grow their bottom line:
Name Change Made Customers Hop to It
On June 4, 2018, IHOP (International House of Pancakes) tweeted this message: “For 60 pancakin’ years, we’ve been IHOP. Now, we’re flippin’ our name to IHOb. Find out what it could be on 6.11.18. #IHOb.”1
Ultimately, the internet exploded with news about the name change. If you googled this phrase today “ihop changes name,” you would come up with 184,000,000 results. The tweet generated thousands of reactions on Twitter, speculating what the “b” stood for in the name change. Much of the speculation consisted of tweets laced with negative jokes. It didn’t matter.
2018 was IHOPs highest revenue year ever, topping out at $3.39 billion in sales. The name change specifically increased its sales of burgers by four times. Mystery over. Yes, the “b” in IHOb stood for “burger.”2, 3
Later, IHOb changed its name back to IHOP. The mission was complete. There’s little doubt they never intended to really change their name in the first place. They only intended to create a mystery to help their bottom line.
The Most Monstrous Package Ever Delivered
On May 30, 2018, Amazon drove around the Los Angeles area before delivering a 40-foot-long box with air holes and the Jurassic World logo to The Grove shopping mall. They announced that the contents of the box would be revealed on June 2.
The delivery of the unusual package lit up the internet with speculation over its contents. News of the event spread online; many articles were written. On June 2, the box was opened. Something wonderful and extraordinary was let out of the largest box ever delivered in Amazon’s history: a giant dinosaur replica to promote the Jurassic World movie.4
One of the Most Profitable Movies Ever
In 1997 two young directors (Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick) made a movie—total cost, a whopping $60,000 (peanuts). Ultimately, the movie made $297 million. Was it the best movie ever? Hardly. The scariest? Not by a long shot. Was it the most mysterious movie? Maybe. One thing is for certain: the promotion that preceded the movie release might have created one of the most intriguing mysteries ever. And this had everything to do with the success of The Blair Witch Project.
If you never saw it, The Blair Witch Project is the story of three student filmmakers who investigate reports about a supernatural legend known as the Blair Witch in the town of Burkittsville, Maryland. The trio disappear into the Black Hills with their equipment to search for the witch and are never heard from again. A year later, their footage is discovered and pieced together to reveal what they found.5
The Blair Witch website had posted a detailed list of scary and mysterious events going back to the 1700s that had prompted the filmmakers to set out on their journey. The list was entitled “A Timeline of Major Events in the History of the Blair Witch.”6
The scenario sounds delicious, doesn’t it? What happened to the filmmakers? Did they encounter the Blair Witch? What would the lost footage reveal?
Word-of-mouth about the film had spread like an apocalyptic plague. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the website to learn of the mysterious Blair Witch. Millions flocked to theaters to see the film.
Although many factors ultimately led to the success of The Blair Witch Project, the most fundamental was that the promotion created a craving in people to solve the mystery about the witch (did she exist?) and the three filmmakers that disappeared (what happened to them?). The craving could only be satisfied by seeing the movie.
Undoubtedly at the time, many people thought that the Blair Witch was real, or at least as real as Bigfoot. She wasn’t. The film was purely fiction.
Nothing Gets Attention Like a Mystery
On June 25, 1978, L. Ron Hubbard wrote an article entitled “COME-ON DISSEMINATION” in which he discussed the importance of having a mystery to attract prospects.
The dictionary definition of come-on is “something offered to attract or allure; enticement; inducement.” (World Book Dictionary)
Definition of dissemination: “the act of spreading news, information, ideas, etc. to a lot of people.” (Cambridge Dictionary)
This is what Mr. Hubbard said: “One should gear one’s dissemination to the come-on and keep the prospect’s appetite for knowledge and mystery well stimulated and channel the person right along . . .”
In the case of your business, you would channel the person right along to (insert name of your business).
So, how can you use the concept of mystery to attract attention to your business? One could argue that IHOP and Amazon already had big names, and that’s why their mystery campaigns worked. But what of The Blair Witch Project? Who had ever heard of that?
Granted, to be successful with any type of promotion, you must have an audience to promote to; but using come-on and creating an alluring mystery in today’s internet age will also help build the audience you need.
Certainly if you sell something like socks, creating a mystery around your product may be a challenge. But then again, perhaps not as difficult as you think. No matter what your business, remember that fiction is available to you. How about creating a fictional character called “The Sock Thief”? Then create a campaign to reveal the mystery of where all the stolen socks end up.
On a more practical side, if you sell information, such as a consulting service, you can always promote your “Secret 6-Step Formula for Rapid Income Growth.”
You get the idea. The key is to “keep the prospect’s appetite for knowledge and mystery well stimulated.”
As stated earlier, solving a mystery seems to be in our DNA. Not only can a mystery help make your business more profitable, it can be fun.
Tobin, Ben. “IHOP Tweet Hints at Changing Name to ‘IHOb’ Starting June 11.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 7 June 2018.
Lock, S. “IHOP: Restaurant Sales US 2009–2018.” Statista, 9 Aug. 2019.
Lucas, Amelia. “IHOP’s Fake Name Change Helped It Sell 4 Times More Burgers.” CNBC, NBCUniversal, 7 Feb. 2019.
Tode, Chantal, and Erica Sweeney. “Amazon Delivers Giant ‘Jurassic World’ Box in Cross-Channel Marketing Stunt.” Marketing Dive, Industry Dive, 1 June 2018.
Davidson, Neil. “The Blair Witch Project: The Best Viral Marketing Campaign of All Time.” MWP, MWP Digital Media, 5 Aug. 2013.
“Mythology.” The Blair Witch Project, Lions Gate Entertainment, 1997.
- Quote from L. Ron Hubbard: Article of 25 June 1978, “Come-On Dissemination.”