Is Your Marketing Campaign Risky Enough?

Earlier this year, Leslie Hearne, owner of a company called Cow Wow, approached our agency about doing something really different on a modest budget to promote her liquid compost product made from dairy cow waste. Ms. Hearne calls herself the Grand Poobah and is an enthusiastic believer in the “power of poo” and, after seeing her Poop Loop and hearing about the very green aspects of her product, our team was ready to go. Ms. Hearne’s only guidelines were to do something fun and engaging.

Inspired by a Texas gubernatorial election in which one of the candidates is known for his hair, our team came up with the idea to create a mobile tour with two 6-foot clay heads with the likenesses of the candidates, Rick Perry, the Republican incumbent, and Bill White, the Democratic challenger. Both heads would feature hair of ivy — nourished with Cow Wow, of course. People could interact with the heads at events and then go online to interact with the Cow Wow brand and cast their votes for the guy with the better “hair.” (People could also text their votes.) We developed a budget and a calendar and a plan to transport the 250-pound heads for a couple of months to parades, fairs, music events and rodeos. Ms. Hearne, a modern maverick, loved that the proposed campaign dared to be different and was gung ho — but also, at times, a little nervous.

Truthfully we were nervous, too. Something fresh, new and untried is always a risk. It puts butterflies in your stomach and gives you the big eye at 3 a.m. After thinking about the campaign over the weekend, Ms. Hearne came by the office to say she had had second thoughts. Would the hair grow? Could we guarantee people would find the mobile tour interesting? Would it drive sales to consumers and commercial landscapers? We talked through her concerns and addressed her doubts. She signed off on the project.

A talented and intrepid team at Blue Genie Art, headed by Kevin Collins and Chris Coakley, took on the challenge of doing something that perhaps had never been done before, crafting giant clay heads that would grow “hair.” We consulted with an Italian landscape artist who has fashioned sofas and jackets of growing grass. The heads were 80 percent complete when Ms. Hearne, after meeting with her team, reconsidered and halted the project. While she believed in the concept, her business partner just didn’t get it, and she felt it was too big of a time commitment for her small company.

We were disappointed, but we understood. It’s her brand, her money and her risk. But people who came in contact with the idea kept championing it. From the guys at Blue Genie who were trying to find an afterlife for the almost complete heads to our social media strategists and the Keep Austin Weird faction (a movement started by locals who felt the city was losing its unique brand of quirkiness). After the idea languished for a couple of weeks, we approached Ms. Hearne with a modified version of the project. We suggested that the heads should make fewer campaign appearances, but reside in a very public space and include some virtual components in addition to Facebook and Twitter pages, like a Web site where people could vote. Ms. Hearne gave the go-ahead and we went to work developing the site, the social media components, the giant heads and the marketing collateral.

In the months that followed, we were right there in the trenches with Ms. Hearne. These were some of my more stressful days at work. What if the idea failed? What if it didn’t deliver? I kept asking myself this question: If it were my money — about $25,000 plus lots of sweat equity — would I put it into this campaign? And my gut, albeit with flutters and gurgles, always answered, “Yep.”

The Vote Cow Wow Heads of State campaign began on Sept. 20, introduced at a rally in the shadow of the Texas State Capitol. Political stickers and fans were handed out encouraging people to join the Moovement and directing them to go online or text their votes for the candidate with the better hair. Kinky Friedman — humorist, author, musician, Texas’s favorite bad boy and a former gubernatorial candidate himself — was there to deliver a few remarks and give “the boys” their first trim with giant hedge clippers. Over the years, Mr. Friedman has had much to say about Governor Perry’s hair. In fact, he has said it’s written in his will that when he moves on to other pastures, he’s to be cremated and his remains tossed into Governor Perry’s famous locks.

Since the debut, the heads have been trailered around Austin and Central Texas making appearances and news, at farmer’s markets, street fairs, hardware stores and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which drew nearly 200,000 people. The boys made lots of fans there and smiled for thousands of close-up photos with festival-goers (photos that show how quickly many of us revert to our fifth-grade selves, with people most often posing picking one of the gubernatorial noses). Ms. Hearne has been interviewed for print, radio, TV and blogs and has gotten product inquiries from around the country. Cow Wow now has a portfolio of national media write-ups to put in its sales kit, and it’s been a great door-opener for sales calls.

The takeaway here, I guess, is that taking calculated risks can pay off. It’s getting harder and harder to differentiate your brand, and the essence lies in being different. Our goal was to create awareness and connect positive brand attributes with Cow Wow, and that’s what happened. “It’s amazing the business that’s coming our way,” Ms. Hearne said. “The really positive part is being able to brand in a memorable way — no one who saw the heads will forget them. We’ve defined our brand as engaging and memorable. This campaign proved to me that you have to grab consumers’ hearts first and then the rational parts of them will listen and act.” That’s especially true, she said, when you are selling cow poop.

Phew!

By the way, heading into the election, the Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll had Governor Perry with a 10-point lead. Voting results for the candidates on the Vote Cow Wow site tell a different story, however. In the race to determine who has the better hair, Mr. White is leading with 60 percent of the votes.

Is Your Marketing Campaign Risky Enough? – NYTimes.com

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