Parasite marketing: How to piggyback an iPhone launch

Piggybacking off the hype around an iPhone launch has become common fodder for marketing and PR people alike, with most Apple store line-ups now heavily populated by representatives of third-party businesses, but the sheen of these stunts may finally be on the wane.

Once again, the first person in Sydney's Apple store line-up for the latest iPhone launch is doing it purely as a PR stunt. So is the second. The third, however, seems to be a genuine Apple fan, but he doesn't seem to mind the other two.

It is now the norm for businesses to piggyback off the hype generated by a new Apple product launch in order to execute a marketing or PR campaign.

If the line-up outside the Apple Store on Sydney's George Street is anything to go by, this isn't going to change anytime soon, with Christian Ibrahim and Salvatore Gerace, both marketing coordinators for an e-commerce startup venture called Alphatise, claiming the first and second spots in the line outside Sydney's Apple Store.

They took their seats in front of the George Street store last Tuesday, and want to give away the first two iPhone 6 devices purchased in Australia — in fact, the world — to two lucky Alphatise customers.

"This is a massive PR stunt for the company, Alphatise," Ibrahim told ZDNet. "We devised the strategy with the creator of Alphatise, Paul Pearson. We've executed the plan, and project managed the logistics of it.

"We just wanted to be a bit different. As a startup, we want to help change the startup culture in this country. We want to be the pioneers of how Australia can become like Silicon Valley," he said.

However, this strategy is already an old idea, with Ibrahim and Gerace walking a well-trodden path that bears the footprints of companies such as Airtasker and OtterBox, along with dozens of other secondary companies that sell apps or cases for iPhones and other Apple products.

Alphatise guys at Apple
Alphatise marketing directors Salvatore Gerace (L) and Christian Ibrahim (R) outside Sydney's Apple Store. Image: Leon Spencer/ZDNet

In September 2012, the impending launch of the iPhone 5 saw Todd Foot , publishing manager for mobile phone comparison site mobilephonefinder.com.au, snap up the number one position in the line — ultimately resulting in him becoming the first person in the world to get his hands on the device.

He was joined by at least six of his colleagues in the line-up, and said at the time that his company would give away the first phone sold. Foot also said that he was there basically to promote his company's website — which is no longer active.

Meanwhile, Sydney-based online task marketplace provider Airtasker has taken a step away from using the event purely for marketing purposes, after paying former truck driver Steve Parkes almost AU$1,000 to stand in the Sydney store's iPad 3 line in 2012.

"He lined up for Airtasker, for the iPad 3, and also lined up again for the iPhone 5," Airtasker co-founder and CEO Tim Fung told ZDNet. "But that second time around, someone else hired him; it wasn't us."

Fung said that although Airtasker is once again posting iPhone line-up jobs on its website, this time the focus is on the product, not the publicity, and using the event as an entryway for customers to explore the company's broader offering.

"Everyone thought it was a great stunt, but what we noticed was that since then, more people have been using the iPhone queue for PR stunts, and people don't generally like it," said Fung. "So, this time, we're doing it more for the product offering, rather than the PR.

"We know that this kind of event is a good entry point," he said. "It's really now all about establishing that point of entry, and establishing the beginning of a life cycle for Airtasker users."

Airtasker is currently listing about 200 iPhone 6 line-up queuers, each with a price tag of between around AU$100 to AU$200. Fung said there will probably be at least 30 to 40 Airtaskers in the line-up at the Sydney store, come launch day.

"There's one guy who's got seven people lining up just for him. I expect about 50 percent of these line-ups to be happening," he said. "Last time, for the iPhone 5, we had about 40 people lining up."

Given Fung's forecast, there is a good chance that a hefty proportion of those in the line-up in Sydney tomorrow will not be there for themselves, but rather for somebody else who is paying them for the privilege of claiming a first-shipment iPhone 6.

As of mid-afternoon on Wednesday, there were only three people in the Sydney line, two thirds of which were present for Alphatise's PR campaign. By Thursday afternoon that number had swelled to about 70 queuers, diluting the PR stunt/Apple fan ratio.

Despite having Ibrahim and Gerace in front of him in the line, the man in third place told ZDNet that he didn't mind playing third fiddle to a marketing stunt.

"I don't mind at all," he said. "We're friends now. We've had lots of time to talk with each other."

It's certainly a far cry from the iPhone 3 and 4 launches, which saw crowds of people camped out in front of Apple stores long before crunch time, and it begs the question: Will there be any genuine Apple fans lining up for the next iPhone launch — whenever that may be?