Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.
– Seth Godin
Without promotion, something terrible happens….. nothing!
– P. T. Barnum
In the 1970s, Robert Craig Knievel, epitomized and embodied what it meant to be a daredevil. Evel Knievel was his stage name, but that would be like describing Beyonce as simply a singer. Evel Knievel became an iconic term, a thrilling mix of danger and stardom. It was a franchise as recognizable as Barbie, a $125 million dollar industry, equating to nearly a half-billion today. For young boys, being labeled an Evel Knievel became a badge of honor and a nightmare for their parents. Mr. Knievel’s career spanned an incredible 15 years, remarkable for his death-defying feats, yet exhaustive, watching a man continuously stare down his own death. Nearly every time Evel Knievel went to work, there was a record to be broken, and on many occasions, history to be made. Like in the Snake River Canyon Jump, a feat that had not been tried or imagined by anyone on planet earth.
He was a big time performer, who reveled on the grand stage. In the time before cable, the internet and hand-held entertainment devices, television was one of few entertainment options, and maintained a limited number of choices. But to those who craved superstardom, it was the perfect medium, as there was less competition, since we all watched the same shows. The marketing blitz leading up to the jumps, were paramount to the promotions of a world heavyweight bout, consolidating all belts. A new line of Knievel merchandise would hit, then fly off department store shelves. With the 24-hour news cycle not yet in existence, and social media not invented, and before the term paparazzi arrived in America, the media outlets would set up their tents and all eyes were on him.
“Seventy percent were real fans who wanted to be there to see the jump. Twenty percent wanted to come and if there was an accident, they wanted to see it. But they didn’t want to see me get killed. Then there’s 10 percent of the population that were looking for blood and/or death.” — Evel Knievel
Raising the bar became a game within itself. He cleared 13 cars in 197o, set a record with a spectacular 19 car jump in 1972; and in 1973, he delivered a see-it-to-believe-it performance, making history once again in the process, with a mind-boggling 50 car jump. As the legend grew, the marketing machine grew stronger. Each successive event, would be bigger and more outrageous than the one before. Marketing is designed to sell a product, to convince the people of what they want. Hype is often sold, far before a movie is finished shooting, and within the Industry of Evel Knievel, clearing cars was no longer enough, and marketing history became grandiose (remember the Caesar’s Palace jump). But unlike Superman or the Caped Crusader, who were never actually in real danger, and while Evel Knievel was billed as a superhero, in reality, he was a man named Robert, but with nerves of steel.
The magnitude of his injuries is a subject by itself. But it was not the 400 broken bones he suffered that brought down his career. Interest would wane because he reached the limit of how high and far, he and his motorcycle could fly. He would unintentionally rebrand himself – from that of a daredevil – to an all or none, history-seeking moment. Eventually, even successfully clearing whatever obstacles were placed in his way, the slightest imperfection would label the performance a flop (He cleared 13 London Buses, but complaints were made because they were not double decker).
I admired Mr. Knievel as a kid for the heart-stopping moments he provided back then. I admire him today, but for a very different reason. He had to know that each jump was a risk, at best chance, 50-50 of win or fail. And each “failure” placed his larger than life persona in jeopardy. But Mr. Knievel, must have been humbled by the number of times he returned to history’s door.
The marketing of oneself is a delicate balancing act of continuous self-promotion, sincere interest in your customers and a driven focus, that we possess something that people want or we are led by a desire to give. We must always do our best, give our passion everything we’ve got, so that win, lose or draw, we can hold our head high and walk away with no regrets. A lesson learned in marketing from Evel Knievel. But I still want to be like him anyway (big smile)
– written & edited by Kendall F. Person