Here's one for the annals of experimental marketing: On Wednesday and Thursday a white van carrying a stack of powder-coated Real Good chairs by Blu Dot, a Minneapolis design firm started by three college friends, will patrol Manhattan neighborhoods dropping the chairs one-by-one on the street. No promotional material or sales pitch will accompany the drop-offs. The chairs will be free for the taking. But what the adoptive owners won't know is that Blu Dot will be watching them.
It sounds like one of the unconventional strategies from the pages of Free, Chris Anderson's book about the unlikely new routes from product to revenue. In fact, the event was planned to mark the first anniversary of Blu Dot's Soho store, with a nod to freegan culture.
"The idea came out of the curb mining culture in New York and other cities," said Michael Hart, co-founder of Mono, a Minneapolis advertising firm that developed the project with Blu Dot. "What's the best way to get great design out to more people? You give it away."
Blu Dot isn't the first designer to follow that strategy. Three years ago Tom Dixon, the influential London designer, handed out 500 of his polystyrene chairs to a frenzied crowd in Trafalgar Square. The next year, in the same location, he gave away a 1,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs of his own design.
When Dixon handed over his goods they vanished forever into the world. By contrast, Blu Dot will be tracking its chairs as avidly as air traffic controllers. A video crew stashed in the van—the design world's version of Candid Camera—will capture passersby as they circle and inspect. Each chair will be equipped with GPS, so as soon as they're claimed the Blu Dot crew can begin tracking their whereabouts. The location of each chair will be shown in real time on a Web site. (It may also be projected on to the wall of the Soho store.) As if that weren't enough documentation, each chair will have its own twitter feed updating its movements.
If all goes according to plan, the video crew will use the GPS to find the chairs a few months from now. They'll knock-on doors and interview the owners—homeless people, Apartment Therapy readers, whoever they turn out to be—about why they took the chairs and how they use them. "Where does great design end up in New York? What sort of a person invites these chairs into their homes?" said Hart. "It's all an experiment, but in our experience consumers appreciate brands that come up with new ways of interacting."