About four years ago, a friend and I walked out of a metro station in Montreal with splitting headaches following a rather late and heavy night. We were both hungover, in terrible moods, and convinced that the only remedy for either was a large and unhealthy lunch. But our spirits were lifted almost instantaneously upon emerging from the station; in the blinding sunshine before us were a young man and woman, dressed appropriately for the freezing cold weather in huge hooded parkas, holding large homemade cardboard signs advertising Free Hugs.
The Free Hugs Movement was originated by Juan Mann upon returning to his hometown of Sydney after living in London. The experience was an acutely lonely one, as Mann describes on his website: “No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown… So I got some cardboard and a marker and made a sign.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, the Free Hugs Movement has gained popularity all over the world with people seeking to reach out and connect with their fellow man. That day in Montreal, a free hug brightened my mood and had a positive impact on the rest of my day. But might there be a way to harness the power of that warm emotional response for business use?
In New York City, on August, a group of five fashion models made their way through SoHo, Washington Square Park, Union Square, Times Square and Columbus Circle, giving out free hugs to anybody and everybody who wanted one. This was all part of an initiative by Shoptiques.com, a centralised outlet for local clothing boutiques, to garner consumer goodwill and strengthen brand visibility. The models were equipped with Shoptiques.com merchandise, and the event was publicised heavily through social media – the official Shoptiques Twitter account coined the hashtag #NYFREEHUGS, and individuals were even able to track the models’ progress online and “reserve” hugs if they only had a limited window of time.
Shoptiques.com CEO Olga Vidisheva explained the reasoning behind this unconventional marketing strategy; “We believe that ‘Free Hugs’ fits with our motto: Be yourself. Be different.” She went on to elaborate; “A hug is so innocent yet so powerful; hugs are about basic human connection and we want to connect with our customers. Giving hugs will show the city and our amazing customers how much we love and appreciate them!”
A number of popular websites like Mashable.com have weighed in to comment on the creativity and freshness of the Shoptiques.com marketing team, who instead of asking themselves “why?” seem to instead be asking “why not?” And on first reflection, the novel approach of showing love and appreciation to the people of New York City appears to have been a roaring success; the five models and their trek through Manhattan were met with an incredibly positive reaction from influential style blogs including Nubry.com, and requests are now flooding in for Shoptiques.com to plan further Free Hugs campaigns in cities across North America.
Of course, it is far too soon to be able to predict whether this strategy will continue to bear fruit once the initial novelty has worn off, but the consensus at the time of writing this would tend to suggest that “free hugs” are, for now at least, a perfectly legitimate and effective promotional tool. And even if lightning fails to strike twice for Shoptiques.com, the online boutique no doubt still left a lot of New Yorkers smiling that Friday in August.