Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Smart PR and Distribution Via Starbucks Power Cranium

Brain Game's Eureka Moment Happened in the Coffee Line

By Published on .

It seems almost a freak anachronism that, while 100 million Americans were snapping up gaming consoles and discovering the joys of joystickery, two guys in Seattle created a board game --
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
distinctly touchy not techie -- that has become the fastest-selling ever. The success of Cranium is no accident, however, but rather a textbook example of a smart idea married to smarter marketing.

Grown-up games
Cranium was the brainchild of Richard Tait and Whit Alexander, two Microsoft millionaires who hatched the idea in 1998 when they, like most erect-walking mammals, were meant to be plotting their way to dot-com dreamland. The story goes that Tait and his wife were in the Hamptons one weekend with another couple and he became frustrated because they kept too-easily defeating their (artistically challenged?) friends at Pictionary, but could not provide a meaningful challenge to these linguistic maestros when it came to Scrabble.

Problem: uneven match-up. Solution: Cranium, a game offering activities at which everyone can shine.

The two spent $100,000 of their savings building prototypes and testing them. When they were happy with the product, and following conversations with some PR pros, they identified their initial target audience -- that influencer 25-35 demographic that they

Cranium's eureka marketing moment happened in Starbucks.
called "educated, affluent, dating yupsters."

The Starbucks eureka moment
But by this time they had missed the winter window for selling games to the big distributors. As they were discussing this hitch over coffee in a Seattle Starbucks, it dawned on them that the audience they were looking for was standing right in front of them waiting in line for their lattes. (They don't claim they were also savvy enough to think of being stocked in Starbucks as equivalent to buying an expensive, national outdoor campaign in an unusually uncluttered environment. My guess is that they were well aware of this.)

The guys tapped into their network of friends who worked in the senior ranks at Starbucks. At first they worked to surround CEO Howard Schultz, inviting some of his key managers to play the game over dinner, creating word-of-mouth buzz in the halls of Starbucks HQ. Eventually they snagged a meeting -- and a few rounds of Cranium -- with the big man. By November '98, Cranium was in 1,500 Starbucks outlets.

Knowing they couldn't afford a Mattel-size ad-based launch, Tait and Alexander turned to PR shop Wham Communications (now owned by Edelman). The firm, borrowing heavily from tactics employed in the launch of Trivial Pursuit, embarked on a massive media relations program.

'Creative distribution'
At the core of this program -- and costing just $15,000 -- was an effort to persuade radio jocks on 110 stations to read out Cranium questions and give the game away to those who called in with the right answers. Celebrities were given the game, Julia Roberts and Al Gore mentioning it on air. Events were held at Starbucks to get people playing the game. The "word of mouth" effect took hold, and it is this -- along with "creative distribution" -- that Tait credits for Cranium's success.

Two new versions of the game are due out soon, Cranium Turbo and the card-based Cranium Ziggedy. The existing versions have already sold more than 5 million units. Last year Cranium Cadoo was the best selling children's game and Cranium the second best-selling game for adults behind Trivial Pursuit.

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