How Calm got “a ton of PR” that fueled its growth: 12 secrets of Calm’s PR success

… A case study of how one small app won a ton of buzz that helped it grow big – and 12 rules of PR and guerrilla marketing to help you do the same

[Long read: 35 minute-read] 

Baa Baa Land movie poster of sheep grazing in a field
Baa Baa Land, Calm’s eight-hour, slow-motion movie about sheep standing in a field, went viral and global, from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan and beyond. Poster design by Enes Alili. (We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .

 

When Calm, the sleep and meditation app, asked me to start working for them, in late 2016, their global empire comprised nine staff in a one-bedroom, San Francisco apartment. Their founders took phone-calls in the apartment stairwell and important meetings in the hotel lobby across the street.

Calm’s founders had approached me on the recommendation of a mutual friend and top San Francisco PR with whom I’d worked for a dozen plus years for Craigslist and Lulu.

Their problem, they told me, was that not enough people knew that Calm existed. What they needed was to raise their profile. 

Twelve months later, in December 2017, Calm was named Apple’s App of the Year, out of some two million apps. A year later, it became the world’s first mental health unicorn, with a billion-dollar valuation. Shortly after that, it became the world’s top-grossing health and fitness app. 

How did Calm achieve such transformative success in such short order? 

There are many answers, starting with the fact that Calm boasts, in the form of Alex Tew and Michael Acton Smith, two exceptionally smart and talented co-founders, whose talents include surrounding themselves with other exceptionally smart and talented people. 

For a more independent opinion, however, try the one given by Vinny Pujji, partner at the New York VC firm, Left Lane Capital, in his recent “Business Breakdown” podcast on “Calm: The Sleeping Giant”

Pujji asks: “What did [Calm] do that was really unique in the way they got this to become … a very well-known brand with hundreds of millions of downloads?” 

He offers two initial answers to his own question: 

The first was Calm’s brilliant name and branding. “[Calm] is a perfectly … and consistently branded experience. And as you scale further and further, brand really matters.” 

“The second thing they did was get a ton of PR”, says Pujji. They hired people whocould make sure they were getting in the news.” 

This ton of PR in turn delivered the profile and awareness that Calm had so wanted, along with growing trust, downloads and links. It also helped turn Calm into a buzzy, happening and talked-about brand that others – including Apple – noticed.

Calm’s PR Success – And The 12 Rules of Modern PR and Marketing

Even when I started working with Calm in late 2016, when it was still a meditation app rather than the meditation, sleep and broader mental health app that it has become, it competed in a hugely crowded space. 

I recall reading at the time – though never fact-checked – that even then there were some 2,000 rival meditation apps (compared to an estimated 5,000 plus now), including at least one, the market leader, with way more users, staff and funding than Calm.

Calm knew that it couldn’t outspend its biggest rivals, but hoped that it could outthink them. And that is what it did, in multiple ways. 

People sometimes contact me because they’ve been Googling things like, “Who did PR for Calm?” or “Who does Calm’s PR?” or similar and are wanting to learn more about it. 

This post therefore is about that PR.

It is, inevitably, a partial and subjective account of Calm’s PR. It’s based on my experience doing PR for Calm from 2016 to 2020 and intermittently thereafter but in particular until early 2019, when Calm announced the completion of a Series B fundraising round of $88M, at a valuation of $1BN and so became a unicorn.

It’s based mainly, in short, on how Calm won a ton of buzz before it had a ton of cash.

It also draws on various things that I already knew before I started working for Calm – from a dozen plus years of work for other startups – and then applied to generating PR for Calm … plus one or two things that I learnt in the process. 

It describes a total of 12 “rules” – sort of foundational principles – that I would advise following if you are wanting to generate a similar ton of coverage, profile and buzz yourself for an app, startup or, indeed, other brand. 

These are as follows:

1. There are two kinds of PR. Most startups only do one – but you need to do both.

2. “If there is no excitement ready-made, some must be manufactured.”

3. Creativity gives you more buzz for your buck: You don’t need a zillion dollars to win attention; you need a good idea.  

4. Lighten up. Silly PR is better than serious PR.

5. The never-ending launch: One lightning bolt is not enough; you need rolling thunder. 

6. “These days only two things win attention: Celebrities and ‘Weird’.”   

7. Celebrities can help a lot (but they don’t need to be alive … or even real) 
… and, if they’re not A-Listers, it’s better if they’re doing something offbeat. 

8. The best form of PR is content marketing – and the best form of content marketing is guerrilla content marketing.

9. Think Anglo from day one. 

10. Names matter. A snappy name can add huge value.

11. Join the cultural conversation – with reactive, opportunistic ideas that “newsjack” current events and the Zeitgeist itself.

12. The biggest limiting factor in PR is not the subject or the budget but the client, and what they’ll let you do.

So, let me expand on each of the above in turn:

1. There are two kinds of PR. Most startups only do one – but you need to do both

The two different kinds of PR each have various different names but the names that I use for them are:

1. Traditional PR – the kind of serious, grown-up and conventional “product-led” PR, that most startups do, if they do PR at all.

2. Non-traditional PR – AKA creative PR, guerrilla marketing and viral marketing, among other names – the sort of more indirect, under-the-radar, “consumer-led” PR, that few startups do, but which, done well, can be a secret weapon.

Among the things that Calm did better than its rivals was first to understand this distinction and then second, to do both kinds well, even though most startups only do the first.

Indeed, Calm wisely treated the two different kinds of PR as different things – and, from the start, hired different specialists to do each of them.

My responsibility, in both the US and UK, was non-traditional PR, mainly based on creative, quirky, offbeat and sometimes silly ideas, while the more serious, grown-up PR was handled in the UK by colleagues at my agency Think Inc and in the US by Morgan Oliveira, a highly talented independent PR, who played a key role in Calm’s PR success.

Both kinds of PR were vital in raising Calm’s profile but the quirky, offbeat kind was the kind that Calm’s competitors were simply not doing, and where Calm, as a result, was way ahead of the game.

Table of text showing how traditional and non-traditional PR compare

2. “If there is no excitement ready-made, some must be manufactured”

So wrote Silas Bent (1882-1945), the American journalist and author, in Ballyhoo, his celebrated 1927 book about newspaper practises.

Bent did not intend his statement as a compliment to newspapers and how they operated but it is, nonetheless, good advice for startups wondering how to get attention when they have nothing new to announce and no hard news to share – in short, the natural condition of most startups, most of the time.

The need and challenge for most startups is to KEEP getting attention, even when the launch is over and the latest announcement made and – unless you come up with something new and interesting – the media circus has moved on to the next big thing.

So, the question is: “Yes, the launch went well, but what do we do for an encore?” Or, “Now that we’ve launched, how do we avoid becoming last week’s news?” Most startups struggle for an answer.

Answering this question was a skill that Calm mastered, while rivals didn’t.

 

3. Creativity gets you more buzz for your buck: You don’t need a zillion dollars to win attention; you need a good idea

Or, to put this another way, the idea is the fuel in the car, the bullet in the gun, the jewel in the crown.

In our age of information overload and a constant tidal wave of marketing messages, it’s incredibly hard to win attention for your brand … except … when it’s easy.

And what makes it easy, when it does, is a good idea.

The idea is what counts – and, when it’s good enough, the idea is what turns base metal into gold and an ignored brand into the focus of sudden and compelling interest.

Meanwhile, the typical relationship between a PR person and a journalist involves the journalist either ignoring the PR or, if the latter’s lucky, telling them they’re not interested.

If you come up with a good enough idea, however, it turns this relationship upside down and seems like what physicists calls a polarity reversal, where everything suddenly flips the other way around. Instead of you needing to chase the media, the media start to chase you, asking with sudden new courtesy whether you might possibly be willing to consider granting even the briefest interview.

It’s a kind of magic.

So, for example, Calm wanted me to win coverage, profile and awareness for Sleep Stories, their new bedtime stories for grownups and an important new content strand.

One of the many ways we achieved this was by creating the world’s first bedtime story written by AI.

It was called “The Princess and the Fox”, also known as “The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale”.

Father and son looking at a computer screen listening to the Lost Grimm Fairy Tale
Creativity gets you more buzz for your buck. “The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale”, the first bedtime story generated by AI and first new Brothers Grimm tale in 200 years, won global buzz. Illustration: Kate Sutton. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

We created it by asking Botnik, a community of developers and writers, to input the complete works of the Grimm brothers into their predictive text algorithm and program it to replicate their style.

And then, with a bit of human collaboration on the editing front, voilà! – the first new Brothers Grimm tale in two centuries.

The result was over 1,000 pieces of coverage in over 30 countries, along with global buzz and praise.

There are loads of different names for what I do – everything from non-traditional PR to creative PR; from guerrilla marketing to viral marketing and viral brand-building; from stunts to news generation to “media neutral” ideas; and from buzz marketing to gonzo marketing.

I even like two other names that aren’t widely used but that each have a certain something: “Silly PR”, which one long-term client coined, and “guerrilla content marketing”, which I did.

But at the heart of what I do is a simple idea: Creativity gives you more for your money and a good idea can win attention that money can’t buy. Or, as Ed McCabe, a veteran American ad man put it, “Creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.”

This post, on the blog of a business called Majestic.com, is titled Getting Creative With PR: Calm.com shows the way and largely based on an interview with me.

Calm, it starts by noting, has managed to get ahead despite facing “cutthroat competition” from rival apps.

“Despite this intense competition … Calm has been absolutely crushing it, landing repeat coverage in major publications including The Telegraph, The New York Times, Adweek, The Weekly Standard, CNBC, NBC News, Fox News, Fast Company, and the LA Times.”

It explains that Calm does everything to “keep the ideas rolling”, before adding, “Calm have shown through their various successful campaigns that they yield better results by getting creative with their PR and not using generic techniques.”

It then quotes me summarizing Calm’s approach by saying, “It’s definitely helpful to have a decent budget and even more valuable to have know-how and contacts but often the most important element of all is having a good idea.”

 

4. Lighten up. “Silly PR is better than serious PR.”

Most startups take themselves and what they do seriously – sometimes too seriously, when they could get far more coverage and attention by lightening up a little.

I’ve worked with clients who responded to an idea that I’ve suggested by saying, “I LOVE that idea – hilarious”, but who then ruled it out because, “… well, it’s kind of silly, isn’t it?”

My advice is: Don’t knock “Silly”. Silly is good. Silly is your friend. Or, as one long-term client concluded, “Silly PR is better than serious PR.”

(My related advice, if you’re asking, is to spend less time worrying that potential users won’t take you seriously and/or think about you in precisely the way you want – and more time worrying that they aren’t thinking about you at all.)

The related insight that Calm grasped but rivals didn’t was that PR doesn’t all have to be straight and serious. It can also be playful and fun, if not downright silly – even if, like Calm, you’re ultimately tackling a serious subject, such as mental health.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, Calm was able, when it made sense, to have a twinkle in its eye and a smile on its face. When rivals were all po-faced, Calm felt able sometimes to be impish and irreverent.

Meanwhile, the silliest ideas of all that I did for Calm also tended also to be the most successful.

One of the biggest home runs was Baa Baa Land, an eight-hour, slow-mo movie about sheep standing in a field, doing nothing. We marketed it as both “the dullest movie ever made” and “the ultimate insomnia cure – better than any sleeping pill”.

This was another early attempt to raise awareness of Calm’s growing focus on sleep rather than just meditation. We launched it with an 87-second trailer and a poster paying an affectionate nod to the poster of La La Land.

The story went global and viral – everywhere from Bulgaria and Vietnam to Kazakhstan and beyond, as well the countries we were actually targeting, like the US, UK and the English-speaking world.

It got so much coverage that a few months later we took the risk of coming back for second helpings and staged the world premiere of Baa Baa Land on the red carpet of a central London cinema, where the sheep stars of the movie, dressed in (comfortably loose-fitting) tuxedos and evening gowns walked the red carpet for the assembled media and placed their hoof prints in cement (or, in fact, a tray of mud).

Baa Baa Land Movie premiere featuring sheep on the red carpet dressed in tuxedos and a dress
Sheep in evening dress and filmgoers in pyjamas graced the red carpet for the world premiere of Baa Baa Land, the dullest movie ever made. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

Reuters and Associated Press both sent TV crews to cover it, and the result, again, was global coverage – almost as much as when we first announced the movie, with just a trailer and poster.

Another silly idea that won loads of attention was Once Upon a GDPR – the world’s first and only bedtime story consisting of a long and snooze-worthy extract from GDPR, the EU’s new privacy law. It was first suggested by Dun Wang, a senior executive and all-round star at Calm, and launched as a Sleep Story on Calm the same week that the new GDPR law came into force.

We recruited Peter Jefferson, the esteemed former BBC announcer who read the Shipping Forecast on BBC radio for nearly four decades, to narrate it in his best bedtime tones.

The new story won not just lots of international attention but much acclaim, with Inc.com declaring, “Privacy Policies Are Boring. This Company’s Answer Is Brilliant.”

Screenshot of a tweet by Hannah Kuchler announcing Calm's GDPR sleep story
The revered former BBC announcer, Peter Jefferson, narrated “Once Upon GDPR”, Calm’s Sleep Story comprising a long extract from the EU’s new GDPR privacy law. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

We then won good coverage in the UK specifically for a Sleep Story called A Cure For Insomnia? Cricket Explained, which involved Henry Blofeld, a veteran cricket commentator and UK celebrity, explaining the rules of cricket …

This was a fairly silly idea, inspired by the observation of Groucho Marx, the best-known of the Marx Brothers, who declared of his first experience of attending a cricket match (in London in the 1950s), “What a wonderful cure for insomnia.”

Calm’s Sleep Story with Henry Blofeld explaining the rules of cricket paved the way 10 months later for another, featuring John McEnroe, the former bad boy and superbrat of world tennis, reading the rules of tennis, in an even sillier Sleep Story called “But Seriously, the Rules of Tennis”.

Released to coincide with Wimbledon, the new McEnroe Sleep Story won terrific coverage, not just in the UK but also in North America – far more than would have been likely to result from having McEnroe narrate something more mundane and less silly.

Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, may not work in marketing apps but has summed up this approach well. “‘Have fun’ is my message. Be silly. You’re allowed to be silly. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Indeed, done well, there’s a whole lot right with it.

 

5. The never-ending launch: One lightning bolt is not enough; you need rolling thunder

… Or, once the launch is over, it’s only just begun.

Product people in tech sometimes understand this rule better than PR folks, since it’s at the heart of the “lean startup” methodology of endless testing, tweaking and new iterations, which means that their job is never finished.

Some or many PR folks, on the other hand, still sometimes think more in terms of doing a one-off launch for something and then ticking it off their list.

Brands today need to be constantly in front of people – but few are.

The half-life of an idea is ever shorter. One idea is not enough. You need a production line and conveyor belt of new ideas that KEEP winning fresh attention, coverage and buzz.

Or, to switch metaphors … you don’t need one bolt of lightning but rolling thunder – marketing’s equivalent of Mao’s “perpetual revolution”, or what might be called a never-ending launch.

Some ideas might (to use yet another metaphor) deliver home runs and others merely singles but the key is to keep the ideas – large and small – coming.

If there’s a secret, perhaps it’s one that both Picasso and Shakespeare knew, despite neither ever having worked for startups: namely, that productivity and volume of output, coupled with a respectable batting average, matter more than stressing over trying to make every work a masterpiece and triumph, which you are, anyway, never going to manage.

And so we kept the production line for Calm’s PR rolling, generating one idea after another, including:

• A survey to rank the most bizarre insomnia cures ever. The winner was the medieval cure of smearing dog’s ear wax on your teeth. Everyone from Reader’s Digest to Parade and Shape magazine lined up to cover the story.

• Turning Britain’s “strange national lullaby”, the maritime “Shipping Forecast” broadcast daily since forever on BBC radio, into an eccentric Sleep Story for Calm. It got great coverage initially in the UK, where it was better known, but then gradually started to win coverage and interest in the US media too, as both a cultural curiosity and distinctive natural sleep aid.

A person asleep in a boat floating over a UK map with a radio beacon emitting the BBC Shipping Forecast
The maritime “Shipping Forecast”, Britain’s strange national lullaby, on BBC radio, became an eccentric new Sleep Story on Calm. Illustration: Emily Snape. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

• Creating a purpose-designed meditation to help fans cope with the special stress of watching a penalty shoot-out in football’s/soccer’s World Cup. This won coverage from everyone from the Press Association in the UK to Cheddar News in the US and others from Ireland to Asia.

• Getting widely syndicated coverage from a silly poll that voted golf the dullest sport to watch and best to cure insomnia.

While most of the ideas that worked best were in some way quirky or offbeat, we also had success with a few that were hardly quirky at all but still hinged on coming up with a good idea to win media interest when none was ready-made.

We commissioned a survey, for example, asking respondents which night of the week they found it hardest to sleep. The landslide winner was Sunday.

The result and the reasons for it got more coverage than we had even hoped – everywhere from the Daily Mail/ MailOnline to USA Today to Inc.com, which  got so excited that it ran two separate articles on our study within a couple of weeks.

Almost equally straightforward was our survey on the most common sleep myths that are also most widely believed. This got excellent coverage in the four countries – the US, Canada, UK and France – where we pitched it and even some, like Australia, where we didn’t.

Such ideas may not have been conspicuously quirky or creative but they were solidly journalistic, with enough substance and interest to deliver excellent ROI, while sustaining the rolling thunder and never-ending launch that we needed.

 

6. “These days only two things win attention: Celebrities … and ‘Weird’” 

When I was asked some years ago to raise the U.S. profile of Lulu.com, the self-publishing platform based in Raleigh, North Carolina, I needed to find someone on the ground in the U.S. to do the media relations and pitching. 

A friend recommended a top PR woman in New York, who sounded good.  

When I spoke to her and explained what I needed, she replied with audible doubt, “A self-publishing website?”. I sensed her shaking her head. “That will be tough. 

“These days”, she explained, “only two things get attention.” 

My ears perked up. 

“One of them is celebrities. And the other one”, she said, “is … weird.” 

I remember clearly that she used the word “weird” because it seemed, on the one hand, sort of ungrammatical but, on the other, vivid and apt. I knew instantly what she meant. 

I also remembered it because her comment and choice of words sparked an epiphany or lightbulb moment for me. 

I realised that what I did – what I do – was, is … weird … or, at least, what she called weird … but what I tend to think of maybe more as … quirky, creative, offbeat, odd, or silly and therefore amusing … but now that I thought further of it, yes, also weird … but weird in a good way. Weird and proud. 

The more I pondered her observation, the truer it seemed to me. It may not be 100% true, since there are also a few other, age-old things that still win attention, like conflict, scandal, human interest. 

But there was and is still an awful lot of truth in it. What’s more, I realised that if I had to pick just two modern things to win attention in the modern age, they would, indeed, be the two she named: celebrities and weird. 

What, however, if I could only pick ONE thing and so had to choose between celebrities and weird? Answer: I would choose weird every time. 

Why so? 

Well, the problem with celebrities is that they are in finite supply. They also tend to be expensive and sometimes difficult, or else have agents whose role it is to be demanding and limit what their clients will do for you, while charging as much as possible for the little that they will do. 

The advantage, on the other hand, of weird or quirky or offbeat or silly ideas is that they are in infinite supply – and that they don’t necessarily need to be expensive or to cost very much at all. 

In the event, I did not end up working with this New York PR woman but found someone else, even better. Together, we won Lulu a ton of PR and buzz, that helped it grow seven-fold in 18 months and expand from just the US and English to set up in six other languages. 

We did so with the help of no celebrities but lots of “weird”, quirky and sometimes silly ideas, executed on a fairly limited budget. 

So, what’s all this got to do with Calm? Well, a couple of things, at least. 

First, most of the ideas I did for Calm that generated the most coverage relied on “weird”, quirky and offbeat or silly ideas rather than celebrities. 

Second, as Calm grew, and was increasingly able to attract and afford celebrity talent to narrate and sometimes also create content … I had the dawning insight that there are, in fact, NOT just two things that win attention nowadays, but also a third thing, even more potent than either of the first two. 

And this third thing is … the sum of the first two things combined. So, not just celebrities OR weird … but both celebrities AND weird together. 

This third thing – celebrities plus weird combined – is better, and able to generate even more buzz than either of the first two things (celebrities or weird) on their own. It may, indeed, even be a secret sauce of how to get attention nowadays.

Take a non-Calm example first. If Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop brand launch a new candle with, let’s say, a floral scent … that’s, well, sort of interesting, maybe, but mainly due to the celebrity involvement of Gwyneth Paltrow. 

When, however, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop in fact launched a new candle called “This Candle Smells Like My Vagina”, this struck most of us as weird – and the partnership of Paltrow + weird duly generated huge buzz. 

Next, a Calm example. When Calm partnered with John McEnroe, the former enfant terrible now elder statesman of world tennis to narrate a Sleep Story, it could have asked him to read some traditional bedtime story, which would have been sort of nice and kind of interesting. 

Calm instead chose a weirder option and asked McEnroe to read a bedtime story called “But Seriously, the Rules of Tennis” and comprising him reading out … the rules of tennis. This was offbeat, unexpected and funny and won lots of international coverage. 

The conclusion is one that I outline more fully under Rule 6 below, where I talk specifically about celebrities – which is that, yes, celebrities and weird are both great ways of winning attention – but the one thing even better is both combined. 

Or, in even fewer words: celebrity + weird/quirky/offbeat/silly > just celebrity on its own.

 

7. Celebrities can help a lot (but they don’t need to be alive … or even real). And, if they’re not A-Listers, it’s better if they’re doing something offbeat

Enlisting celebrities as narrators, presenters and sometimes creators of its content has been a signature strength of Calm’s – particularly since it has become better known and funded and so better able to attract and afford star talent.

Hiring celebrities is expensive but can make a big difference, if not turbo-charge your PR. Even less stellar celebs can all add not just name recognition but kudos, credibility, lustre and pzazz, all helping to sprinkle Hollywood stardust on your brand.

When it comes to media value and interest, however, A-list celebrities are not just slightly more valuable than B- and C-listers but vastly, disproportionately so.

If, say, a less exalted celeb reads a Calm Sleep Story or other piece of content then that’s, well, nice – and users like it – but not generally the cause of great media excitement, especially if the celebrity concerned is unwilling to give media interviews.

When Matthew McConaughey, however, became the first A-list, U.S. celebrity to narrate a Sleep Story for Calm, that was big news, as it was when LeBron James partnered with Calm to produce a range of content promoting both sleep and mental fitness.

When Harry Styles then narrated a Sleep Story for Calm, that was so big that his fans crashed the app on launch day.

The media attention that you get from big celebrities, what’s more, does not end once you have first announced their contribution. There is also then an ongoing legacy – a sort of long tail – of intermittent but continued mentions for months or years afterwards.

Maximizing the coverage from big-name celebrities has been among the many important contributions to Calm’s PR made by Alexia Marchetti.

The celebrities concerned don’t even have to be alive. Calm has also won great coverage by enlisting dead celebrities, including the Brothers Grimm, as mentioned above, and Bob Ross, the late TV art instructor and now pop culture icon.

After Calm’s co-founder Michael Acton Smith spotted a book of Ross’s quotes in a second-hand bookshop, Calm repurposed the soundtrack of three episodes of Ross’s 1980s TV show, The Joy of Painting, into three new Calm Sleep Stories and won huge media coverage by doing so.

New York Times article about the Bob Ross Sleep Story showing Bob Ross at an easel
Calm won huge coverage by repurposing the soundtracks of three old episodes of the 1980s TV art show, presented by Bob Ross, the art instructor and pop culture icon. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

The celebrities not only don’t need to be alive, they don’t even need to be real; enlisting fictional celebrities can also work.

Calm also got great coverage from an idea of Alex and Michael’s for producing a Sleep Story that involved the droning economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off reading out the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, the classic 1776 economics tome by Adam Smith, the Father of Economics.

Along with the example above of having John McEnroe read out the rules of tennis, this also illustrated the added PR value of a quirky approach and the advantage of having celebrities doing something offbeat, weird or amusing, rather than just turning up and showing their face.

Even with a bigg-ish celebrity, if they’re only willing – or the brand only asks them – to show up and/or do something  routine and unremarkable, there can be a big “So what? Who cares?” factor, which brands, in their excitement at working with a celeb, sometimes underestimate.

Another case of using fictional celebrities to good PR effect was Calm’s Sleep Story series of Fairy Tales De-Stressed, which harnessed fictional big names names including Rumpelstiltskin and The Big Bad Wolf in such reimagined fairy tales as Rumpelstiltskin Learns to Meditate and The Big Bad Wolf Learns Anger Management.

This was also an example of adding PR value by having celebrities do something offbeat, weird or amusing, since this project involved both fictional celebs (Rumpelstiltskin and The Big Bad Wolf) and real celebrities (Nick Offerman and Game of Thrones star, Jerome Flynn) as narrators, in both cases doing something fun, unusual and surprising.

The takeaway from this and the other examples above might be stated as follows:

Dog bites celebrity is not necessarily news – unless it’s a huge celebrity (or maybe a huge dog).

But celebrity bites dog IS far more likely to be news – even it’s not a huge celebrity.

Or, in other words: celebrity + weird/quirky/creative > just celebrity on its own.

Three little piggies sitting on a drawing of the big bad wolf anouncing that he learns anger management
Calm’s Sleep Story series of “Fairy Tales De-Stressed” reimagined classic tales for modern times – with the help of celebrity narrators. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

8. The best form of PR is content marketing – and the best form of content marketing is guerrilla content marketing

The work I did for Calm went by the name of “PR” and came under the budget line for PR but most of it – and almost all that succeeded best – was, in truth, more a form of content marketing than of traditional PR. 

It involved generating buzz, awareness, traffic and links by creating content conceived and designed from the start to win coverage and attention – and then making every effort both to pitch it to earned media and share it on social media.

So, everything from Baa Baa Land, “the dullest movie ever made”, to The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale, the first bedtime story generated by AI, consisted of content, crafted with some effort to generate buzz. 

Since Calm was/is not just a sleep and meditation app but also a content app, we were mainly producing content – mainly Sleep Stories – not just for use on Calm’s blog and social channels but also on the app itself, for the consumption of its users. 

And that made it both easier and more fun. 

But did the content that we were creating – in collaboration with Calm’s content team – work first and best as content or as marketing? 

In some cases – like our version of the Shipping Forecast, the soothing, late-night maritime report, or the Sleep Stories narrated by Bob Ross, the iconic TV art instructor – it worked well, or maybe equally well, as both. 

In other cases – like the “lost” Grimm Fairy Tale generated by AI or Once Upon a GDPR, the Sleep Story comprising an extract from the EU’s lengthy new privacy legislation – it worked, in truth, better as PR and marketing than it did as content. 

But that was okay, both since it still worked broadly okay as content and since there was already so much other superb content on the app that Calm could afford to include the occasional item that added more value as marketing than as content. 

                                                                                              •

If this type of marketing was called “PR” then it was a case of, “It’s PR Jim, but not as we know it.” 

It would be more accurate to call it a modern mashup of PR and content/ guerrilla/ viral/ social and – given that some clients value it most of all for the inbound links it generates – SEO marketing. 

It also reflected the claim by Seth Godin, the godfather of modern marketing, that “Content marketing is the only form of marketing left”. 

What Godin means, I think, is that instead of using ads and press releases to declaim the wonders of their brand to time-poor and sceptical consumers, the only real way left for marketeers to win the attention of their target customers is now by creating content that interests and matters to them, to the extent at least that they want to consume it. 

In other words, the age of interrupting consumers to bombard them with commercial messages is over. Brands today instead must win the attention of their target audience by generating content that earns it. 

And so that’s what we set out to do. 

Walter Pater, a Victorian writer and critic, declared that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”.

If there’s a marketing equivalent of Pater’s observation then I’d suggest it should be that, “All marketing constantly aspires – or should – to the condition of content”. 

This might just be a way of restating Godin’s insight that content marketing is the only kind left.  

If so, I would not just match Godin but raise him … by suggesting a sequel or second part of this sentiment, as follows: 

If all marketing constantly aspires to the condition of content, then what all content marketing constantly aspires to – or should – is the condition of guerrilla content marketing, the highest form of content marketing.

We were aiming to deliver not just content marketing but what I call “guerrilla content marketing”, a niche variety or sub-category of content marketing, which I have defined elsewhere as follows: 

“Guerrilla content marketing is a form of marketing that involves creating unusual, unconventional, surprising and sometimes amusing forms of content for the purpose of using it to generate buzz and attention for brands via either traditional, social or other forms of media, both online and off.”

“It typically involves using creativity to win more buzz for your marketing buck, since at its heart is a simple idea: creativity makes your money go further and a good idea wins attention that money can’t buy.”

The term “guerrilla content marketing” is one that I invented (just in case the world needed another piece of marketing jargon). It would be an understatement to say that it is not widely used, since I am not aware of anyone else ever using it at all. 

Nonetheless, I think it is a useful term to describe an unusually effective niche type of content marketing and of marketing in general. 

Anyway, what we were doing for Calm tended, as I say, to be labelled PR but it was, in fact, content marketing and, to be more specific, guerrilla content marketing, the best kind of all.

 

9. Think Anglo from day one

Whether this rule makes sense for your own brand obviously depends on what you are marketing and to whom.

If, however, you are trying to win coverage and users for an English-language app with an international market, then why limit yourselves – as many do – just to the US? Why not try to generate ideas designed to appeal not just to the US market but also far beyond?

“Think global from day one” is the common advice for startup founders. But if you’re an English-language app, a better version of this advice might be, “Think Anglo from day one”, as in, think from day one of targeting at least the global Anglosphere.

Or, if you’re an app charging a subscription more likely to be affordable in more affluent countries, then target at least what might be called the “Western Anglosphere”, or perhaps the “WAnglo” for short.

So, the most practical advice when it comes to PR is to “Think WAnglo” – as in, “Think Western Anglosphere” – from day one.

The most practical way to do this is how Calm did it – by having PR folks on the ground and pitching your ideas in at least two key initial markets: both the US (but in fact pitching both US and Canada) and the UK.

What’s more and, indeed, crucial is that you can pitch the same – or essentially the same – idea in both North America and the UK. The ability to pitch the same idea in multiple markets in turn means that you spread the time and cost of executing the idea in question over more markets, which in turn lets you develop more ideas for the same money and invest more in any given idea.

For most English-language apps/startups with potential international appeal, the UK is likely to become their second largest market after the US. So, if you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of developing a good marketing idea, with potential international appeal, you might as well pitch it in not just the US and Canada but also the UK (and, if possible, Ireland while you’re at it.)

If you budget stretches to pitching stories beyond North America and the British Isles, then Australia should probably be your next market (and, if possible, New Zealand while you’re at it.)

The UK may be what one US politician recently called a “Tier 2” country but when it comes to international media influence it remains very much a Tier 1 country, punching far above its weight.

Just as London is a global financial centre, so is it also a global media centre – the most important in Europe. A story that originates in the London or UK media will often get picked up not just by the North American media but also travel the world.

UK media like the BBC, The Guardian, The Mail Online and The Financial Times all have sizeable audiences and influence in the U.S. and beyond.

Many founders of US startups fail to realise this. Perhaps because Calm’s founders were themselves from the UK, though based in San Francisco, they not only realised but acted on it – and reaped the benefits.

Appendix: The Western Anglosphere these days extends beyond countries where English is the mother tongue. A global language training company called Education First compiles an English Proficiency Index, ranking countries of non-native English speakers by their levels of English proficiency.

The Netherlands ranks first, while the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Austria and Singapore all make the top 10. If your target customers include Millennial and Gen Z citizens, who are even more likely than older citizens to have fluent English, then there may be a good case for also including all these markets in your definition of the Western Anglosphere.

Even without any marketing in or targeting Germany and the Netherlands, these two countries will often be in the top 10 markets for many English-language apps, while their top dozen markets may well include one or more Scandinavian countries too.

If you can afford to pitch stories in those countries too, they can easily become more valuable markets still.

 

10. Names matter. A snappy name can add huge value

Naming is power. In PR and marketing, a snappy name for something can add huge value.

There is not just power but also magic in naming.

The act of naming something previously unnamed also, in sense, creates or gives birth to it. It becomes a thing. And a new thing, if it sounds interesting enough, in turn becomes news.

Phoebe Smith, for example, is a terrific travel writer, an intrepid adventurer and one of Calm’s most talented, valued and prolific writers of Sleep Stories, with millions of listeners and fans.

She only started to earn the wider – global – media acclaim that she deserved when she started calling herself a “sleep storyteller-in-residence” and we then made it official and announced her to the media as Calm’s and the world’s first official “Sleep Storyteller-in-residence”.

Phoebe Smith Calm Sleep Storyteller
Phoebe Smith, Calm’s “Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence”, won global attention and deserved acclaim as “the Queen of Slow Lit”. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

We also coined the terms, “Slow Literature” (as in Slow Food or Slow Cinema) and “Slow Lit”, to describe the new literary genre created by Calm’s Sleep Stories. We then declared Phoebe both “the Queen of Slow Lit” and the “JK Rowling of Slow Lit”. All these new coinages further added to the buzz and media/social media interest in Phoebe.

It also helped that Phoebe was/is a great interviewee, whom the media loved. But what was the biggest help in winning so much coverage and buzz for her Sleep Stories and role for Calm was pitching her unique and intriguing job title, plus the various other names and nicknames we invented around it.

We again used the same technique, of generating media interest largely on the basis of inventing an intriguing new name for something not itself perhaps entirely new, when we coined the word “sleep-storming” to label a list of simple tips for coming up with ideas in your sleep and then published a Calm blog post asking, “Is sleep-storming the new brainstorming”?

The first tip was as simple, if not banal, as “Keep a notebook handy – and write down your dreams” – but “sleep-storming” as a whole sounded like some cool and funky new process, invention or life-hack and the media loved it.

The choice of Baa Baa Land as the name for Calm’s eight-hour, slow-mo movie abut sheep standing in a field doing nothing also played a key role in its success.

We had originally been thinking of calling it The Big Sheep, as in The Big Sleep, the classic Bogart movie based on the Raymond Chandler novel.

In retrospect, however, that would have been a mistake and a name that would have resonated with a smaller – mainly older, English-speaking – audience. It would also have also have worked worse internationally, since, unlike the play on  La La Land, a more recent movie, the word play on The Big Sheep would have been more likely to get lost in translation.

 

11. Join the cultural conversation – with reactive, opportunistic ideas that “newsjack” current events and the Zeitgeist itself

Calm has done this brilliantly on at least two recent occasions, for neither of which can I claim any credit.

The first was not strictly a PR idea but a marketing partnership that involved Calm sponsoring CNN’s coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election night coverage. Calm’s logo flashed onto America’s screens during CNN’s “Key Race Alert” coverage, simultaneously generating massive buzz for Calm, while ostensibly reminding viewers of the need to relax at a moment of peak stress.

Then in the summer of 2021, Calm harnessed both the news and Zeitgeist again, when tennis star Naomi Osaka announced on social media that she would be skipping all news conferences during the French Open to protect her mental health. When the tournament organisers fined her $15,000 and threatened further sanctions, Osaka asked for her fine be donated to charity.

Calm promptly stepped in to announce that it would do what the tournament officials wouldn’t and donate $15,000, equivalent to Osaka’s fine, to a French sports charity working to transform the lives and mental health of young people through sport.

It accompanied this donation with a social media campaign declaring that “Mental health is health” – and again won a heap of buzz and praise for putting its money where its mission was.

 

12. The biggest limiting factor in PR is not the subject or the budget but the client, and what they’ll let you do

The biggest obstacle to winning coverage for a brand, in my now long experience, is not the subject or even the budget but the client.

If the client will allow you, then it should be possible, without a huge budget, to win global coverage for a brand making anything from reinforced concrete to aluminium siding.

Calm, however, has been a wonderful client to work for, with an openness that many others lack to doing playful and sometimes silly things.

Michael Acton Smith, the co-founder to whom I reported, has great judgement and instinct for PR and is always fizzing with ideas himself. Both he and Alex Tew have a track record of repeatedly coming up with winning ideas.

It doesn’t hurt that Michael is also generous with praise. Indeed, he said to me at one point, “Alex and I consider you Calm’s secret weapon”.

This may have been because, with my help, Calm was able to leverage a type of PR, guerrilla marketing and buzz generation that rivals could not.

Then again, it may just have been flattery. But who was I to argue?

Summary/Recap: The 12 rules underlying Calm’s PR success

Let me end by recapping what I view as the main “rules” that helped Calm get a “ton of PR” – and which you might consider lessons or takeaways if you want to do the same.

1. There are two kinds of PR. Most startups only do one – but you need to do both.

2. “If there is no excitement ready-made, some must be manufactured.”

3. Creativity gives you more buzz for your buck: You don’t need a zillion dollars to win attention; you need a good idea.  

4. Lighten up. Silly PR is better than serious PR.

5. The never-ending launch: One lightning bolt is not enough; you need rolling thunder. 

6. “These days only two things win attention: Celebrities and Weird.”   

7. Celebrities can help a lot (but they don’t need to be alive … or even real) 
… and, if they’re not A-Listers, it’s better if they’re doing something offbeat. 

8. The best form of PR is content marketing – and the best form of content marketing is guerrilla content marketing.

9. Think Anglo from day one. 

10. Names matter. A snappy name can add huge value.

11. Join the cultural conversation – with reactive, opportunistic ideas that “newsjack” current events and the Zeitgeist itself.

12. The biggest limiting factor in PR is not the subject or the budget but the client, and what they’ll let you do.