10 CEO Stunts
By David Lidsky
During an early wave of public concern about
food safety, the ketchup king became
the first CEO to open his factory for tours.
The impact: Facility visits quickly drew 20,000
visitors annually, and Heinz kept using transparency to build consumer trust, promoting federal
regulation to transform the entire food industry.
Mrs. Fields, a 20-year-old baker, set a goal of selling $50 worth of cookies her first day in business.
She made $75—largely by offering samples, but
also because she set an ambitious goal for herself.
The impact: Fields was soon analyzing hourly
sales and building predictive forecasting systems
that would influence how chain restaurants run.
As a young milliner, Chanel first won business
by parading around Paris in a daringly small hat,
prompting women to want what she had.
The impact: Chanel replicated the stunt a decade
later by spritzing her new perfume in public. Her
lifestyle-branding savvy has been emulated by
Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, and social influencers.
At the live unveiling of the Mac, Jobs removed
it from a sack, stepped aside, and the computer
introduced itself, saying, “Hello, I’m Macintosh.
It sure is great to get out of that bag.” He earned
a standing ovation and even tears from the crowd.
The impact: No one had ever seen a tech demo
like it. The formula is still used today.
Wrigley decided to try to boost sales of his
chewing gum brands by sending free samples
to the 1. 5 million U.S. homes with a telephone.
The impact: The gambit worked, and Wrigley
invented direct marketing in the process. Today,
direct mail is a $42 billion business; search marketing, its digital equivalent, is almost as large.
The CNN founder stunned the world by pledging
$1 billion to the United Nations.
The impact: Turner made good on his offer by
2014, funding programs such as solar-powered
irrigation in Zambia and antimalarial nets in
Kenya. The gift also changed philanthropy, presaging Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge for billionaires.
When the cartoon mogul designed a new amusement park called Disneyland, he got ABC to fund
its construction in exchange for a Disney TV series.
The impact: The weekly anthology show, Walt
Disney’s Disneyland, was an amazing promotion
for the theme park, and it would air for 30 years.
Disney created modern entertainment synergy.
In the wake of a safety crisis weeks into Barra’s
tenure as GM’s CEO, she proactively sought
to compensate those who’d been hurt, hiring
the same attorney who administered claims to
9/11 and Hurricane Katrina victims.
The impact: Barra has restored GM’s reputation
as forward-thinking and trustworthy.
The Washington Post’s publisher risked the ire
of the U.S. government by joining The New York
Times in printing the Pentagon Papers—which
she didn’t have to do—before her company’s IPO.
The impact: Graham shared in a landmark victory
for press freedom, inspiring a media generation
to challenge power, while also elevating the Post.
Bezos turned Amazon’s search for a second corporate headquarters into a nationwide contest.
The impact: No winner has yet been chosen,
but Amazon scored invaluable data about each
of the 238 cities that applied, likely forever
altering how companies choose where to locate
and what concessions they ask of cities.
Illustration by Peter Oumanski
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