We Guerrilla Marketed Harvard with Empty Ice Cream Cones…And You Can Too

It’s not all fun and games here at the Harvard Innovation Labs.

But some days, it can be quite exciting.

To wit, we recently undertook a guerrilla marketing campaign to get Harvard students excited about the sixth annual Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge, a startup competition that will award $300,000 in grant money to student-founded early-stage ventures.

As part of our mission, we believe in “teaching by doing” in order to mentor and advise the next generation of impactful startups coming out of Harvard. And so, we embarked on a grand experiment aimed at informing the Harvard population of changes to this year’s President’s Innovation Challenge.

Our primary goal was to get the word out about the President’s Innovation Challenge by doing something different.

More importantly, we wanted to inform as many students as possible about a change to the application process. This year, we initiated something we called the “Participation Declaration,” as a way to engage with more budding entrepreneurs and innovators across Harvard. The Participation Declaration is not a full-blown application, but it is a way to implore potential participants to submit whatever startup ideas they may have — whether a fully-formed venture or just a percolating idea — to pique their interest in getting involved in the President’s Challenge. In early 2017, teams can submit their full business plans to be considered for the finalist round of the Challenge.

The challenge — pun intended — for us was finding a way to inform folks of this “soft” application as its deadline loomed.

During one particularly active brainstorming session featuring a large chunk of the Harvard Innovation Labs’ staff, we bandied about a multitude of ideas. Sponsor a tailgate at this year’s Harvard-Yale game? Posters? More posters? Rent a food truck? Give away cookies?

And then someone blurted out: “Why don’t we give out empty ice cream cones in the middle of campus?”

Boom. What better way to show how projects that are only half-baked — or ideas that are on the cusp of being incredibly impactful — are exactly what we are hoping to see in the President’s Innovation Challenge Participation Declaration?

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And then we were off. Next thing you know, we are having meetings about renting an ice cream cart, working on eye-catching designs, practicing our best ice cream vendor calls, and turning Radio Flyer wagons and unused boxes into ice cream cone holders.

But, as we prepared to actually go out to various high-traffic spots across Harvard’s sprawling campus, the realization hit us: Wait, we actually need to go out and hand out empty ice cream cones… and on a cold and windy late November day no less?

Banding together and overcoming uneasy feelings of putting ourselves so far out there, we overcame this bout of stage fright and deployed our team to the Kennedy School’s atrium, the Graduate School of Education’s library, the Science Center plaza, HBS’s Spangler Hall, and more.

Braving the cold at the Science Center plaza.

Braving the cold at the Science Center plaza.

The reaction?

It was amazing. We ran out of cones everywhere we went. We engaged in conversation with a wide range of students, from those who weren’t sure what the i-lab was, to those who didn’t think their business ideas were worthy of the President’s Innovation Challenge. (Not only were these great initial concepts more than ready to be part of the competition, but some could become ventures that make a positive global impact.)

It also worked. We saw traffic to the webpage for the Participation Declaration more than double the average number of visitors that usually access the site. The number of teams that have submitted their ideas has also ballooned to well over a hundred ventures since the marketing campaign.

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It was the most fun we’ve had promoting one of our initiatives. It’s also a good lesson to many of the companies being built across the Harvard Innovation Labs ecosystem: You don’t need a massive marketing budget to create engagement, just some ingenuity and the willingness to take a risk — and perhaps a decked-out Radio Flyer red wagon filled with chocolate-dipped, sprinkle-covered waffle cones.

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