s anyone in the Deep South knows, fire ants are puny but powerful little critters. Even though a single Solenopsis invicta is typically less than 0.25 inches long, it can deliver a venomous bite that burns like fire, and turns victims into running, flailing lunatics.
But one chomp from a random ant is nothing compared to the hellfire unleashed if you disturb an entire colony. Anyone that has inadvertently stepped in, or god forbid stood upon, a fire-ant mound understands that the true power of these swift, agile insects is their ability to swarm. Hundreds or even thousands of these little buggers can cover their target (be it your foot, a dog's paw, or even your derriere) in less time than it takes a squirrel to dash across the road in front of your car, change its mind, and dart back. Thus, while it's unlikely that you will ever even notice a single fire ant unless it bites you, a swarm of them will command your full attention.
So what do a bunch of insects have to do with exhibit marketing? It turns out that the fire ant's swarming technique is an effective marketing tool, or at least it was for Jacobsen, a Textron Innovations Inc. company.
At the 2013 Golf Industry Show, held Feb. 6–7 in San Diego, Jacobsen effectively employed the power of the fire ant to combat its biggest competitors, The Toro Co. and Deere & Co. Instead of focusing all of its attention on its booth, Jacobsen blanketed the GIS environs, plastering its name and logo on Dodge Chargers and pedicabs, employing brand ambassadors to act as roving concierges outside the convention center, and launching a wristband and T-shirt promotion that integrated attendees into its spreading swarm. By sprawling across the trade show like a stirred up mound of fire ants over an indiscriminately placed foot, Jacobsen not only generated massive attention for itself, and seemingly stole Toro and Deere's thunder, but also doubled its lead count to boot.
Jacobsen's clever attack strategy was born out of a hulking hill of brand-awareness challenges. Founded in 1921, the Charlotte, NC-based firm is one of the top three U.S. providers of professional turf-management equipment, such as fairway and greens mowers, aerators, utility vehicles, sprayers, etc. Its customers are the grounds crews responsible for everything from royal palaces and stadiums to legendary golf courses and even national monuments.
The fly in the ointment for Jacobsen, however, is that when the Average Joe and JoAnne think of turf-management equipment, they likely imagine red and green products, i.e., Toro and Deere, respectively. More likely than not, their mind's eye never envisions Jacobsen orange because it's strictly a business-to-business, as opposed to business-to-consumer, company.
"Ask any 10-year-old child to name two mower manufacturers, and they're going to say Toro and Deere — not Jacobsen," says Adam Slick, Jacobsen's public relations and communications manager. "That's because while Toro and Deere have a B2B presence in the turf-management industry right along with us, they've established enormous brand awareness via their consumer products. So instead of having to work hard to generate awareness in our industry, 'red' and 'green' can let their customers do the work for them."
To make matters worse, since Deere and Toro have both B2C and B2B offerings and thus generate more revenue than Jacobsen, they can afford to flood the market with their dealers and salespeople. Meanwhile, Jacobsen has struggled to compete here as well.
"A few years back, the typical golf-course superintendent may not have even known their Jacobsen rep nor where the nearest Jacobsen dealer was located," Slick says. So while prospects might have become interested in the company's products via its online- or exhibit-marketing efforts, the lack of nearby salespeople and dealers decreased the probability that they would actually make a purchase.
At GIS, then, Jacobsen typically had to peddle like the dickens just to keep pace with competitors who appeared to coast through the show, even though Jacobsen had been a mainstay of the exhibit hall since
the 1960s. While it employed smart, effective booth strategies to generate leads, and it established numeric goals and measured its success, the brand-awareness challenges carried over to the show floor. "We always worked harder and faster than our competitors, but we still weren't as visible as we wanted to be," Slick says. "Something beyond the show floor had to change."
That critical off-floor shift began to take root on Oct. 1, 2011, the day David Withers became the company's new president. A 25-year veteran of the golf- and turf-management industry, Withers also knew a thing or two about sales and marketing, and he realized the company couldn't increase sales without first addressing its awareness issues.
Starting in late 2011, Withers launched a company-wide campaign to generate more visibility for Jacobsen. "We went on a successful hiring spree for territory sales managers, and we brought in more dealers," Slick says. "The push was, and still is, about building relationships in the market. Simply knowing your representative and seeing the products firsthand goes a long way."
Come 2013, it was time for the marketing department to join the war, by touting the internal improvements Jacobsen had made and playing a more pivotal role in fostering brand awareness. "By the beginning of 2013, Jacobsen reps and dealers were available in more territories than ever before," says Sharon DeWolfe, Jacobsen's marketing communications event specialist. "So we wanted our trade show strategy to mirror the company's efforts. We hoped not only to deliver the message that Jacobsen is everywhere in the field, but also to create an exhibit-marketing plan that put Jacobsen everywhere at GIS."
Working with its exhibit house, 3D Exhibits Inc. of Elk Grove Village, IL, the marketing team quickly settled on an apropos theme — Orange Everywhere — and it set about the task of devising inventive and mostly off-floor promotional activities. In the past, Jacobsen had invested all of its efforts into its booth and the activities within it. "But when we started thinking about our 2013 strategy, we realized that most people are in our booth 20 to 30 minutes max, and the rest of their time during this two-day show is spent off the show floor," Slick says. "In San Diego, they would likely be enjoying restaurants and entertainment venues in the Gaslamp Quarter adjacent to the show, walking to the convention center in the beautiful weather, and so on. If we wanted to be everywhere, we needed to think outside the booth."
In addition to trying something different in terms of tactics, Jacobsen was also willing to go a little rogue when it came to metrics. "For the first time, we didn't set a lot of specific metrics regarding leads, because increasing leads wasn't the end goal, awareness was," Slick says. "And since we weren't so fixated on obtaining a certain number of leads, we could think more creatively and in different ways."
Granted, Jacobsen wasn't about to ignore its 60-by-110-foot exhibit and go cold turkey on metrics. "But we knew that if we could get some awareness going with a sort of shotgun approach this year, then we could refocus our efforts on leads, sales, and metrics in the future," says Jon Horn, creative director at 3D Exhibits. Thus, GIS 2013 became all about covering the show in Jacobsen's signature orange, ultimately using myriad tactics and people to create a swarm of brand awareness that would force attendees to take notice.
Stirring up the Mound
So how does one diminutive company create a marketing swarm amid more than 13,000 oblivious attendees? It uses its eye-catching orange hue to represent the brand, and it conjures unique off-floor activities to infest the trade show with its message. But to fully harness the power of the swarm, Jacobsen sought to convince 2,000 attendees to wear orange wristbands, thereby stirring up a whole new colony of avid supporters to help blanket the show with the company's corporate orange hue.
So prior to GIS, Jacobsen bought 2,000 orange, branded wristbands that it intended to hand out to attendees. To prompt them to wear the bands during the show — and thus grow its presence — Jacobsen would position roving brand ambassadors throughout the convention environs, where they'd distribute free "Orange Everywhere" T-shirts to anyone they spotted wearing an orange Jacobsen wristband. But before show goers could be tempted to wear the branded bracelets, Jacobsen had to first get them in attendees' hands. So the marketing team decided to use its hospitality event, held Feb. 5, the night before the show opened, as a key band-distribution point.
Roughly four weeks prior to the show, Jacobsen sent all of its U.S. dealers two tickets per salesperson. The 2-by-4-inch tickets, which were housed in white envelopes bearing Jacobsen's logo paired with the words "Orange Everywhere," invited recipients to a Gaslamp Quarter nightclub called Fluxx for "an unforgettable evening of entertainment."
Each Jacobsen salesperson then hand delivered invitations to two existing customers. This simple, personal act helped salespeople — many of which were new hires — establish or foster important relationships with key customers, who no doubt appreciated the fact that they'd been personally chosen to attend.
On the evening of the event, ticket-bearing Jacobsen customers made their way from their hotels, most of which were within walking distance of the event venue, to Fluxx. But before they even reached the club's front door, they were assaulted with Jacobsen orange.
First, they spotted the orange Jacobsen logo projected onto the exterior of the Hard Rock Hotel, positioned just inside the arched entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter. Next, guests' eyes were drawn to five orange Dodge Chargers that were parallel parked in front of the Hard Rock. Together with the logo, the cars, which were each emblazoned with Orange Everywhere logos on their doors and hoods, seemed to brand the whole district as Jacobsen territory.
Once customers dragged themselves away from the cars and to the entrance of Fluxx, Jacobsen staff in branded orange T-shirts exchanged attendees' tickets for orange wristbands and instructed them to wear the bands throughout the show to score free stuff from brand ambassadors, who would also be dressed in (yup, you guessed it) Jacobsen orange. Inside the venue, attendees discovered a contemporary yet nature-inspired theme and of course, the Orange Everywhere logos, which were, well, everywhere. Jacobsen projected the logo onto the walls and over the entrance area, branded custom napkins, and even specially crafted orange-colored drinks.
All told, 930 people — a truly remarkable 93 percent of those invited — showed up for the event, where they imbibed on free beverages and appetizers, danced the night away while a DJ spun tunes, and drank in the Orange Everywhere message. But as attendees exited the club, the orange theme popped up again. Ten Jacobsen-branded pedicabs, whose bike operators sported the now-recognizable wristbands and orange T-shirts, offered guests a complimentary lift back to their respective hotels.
So before the show floor even opened, several existing and prospective clients already had orange wristbands, creating a curiosity factor for those attendees not invited to the event. And adding to Jacobsen's own pre-show social-media efforts, which included Facebook and Twitter posts hinting at a coveted wristband and freebies, countless event attendees generated their own social-media posts featuring pictures of the pedicabs and Dodge Chargers. Thus, come Wednesday, Feb. 6, when the show-floor doors were flung wide, nearly 1,000 people had already joined the swarm, and thousands more were about to take notice.
Eye of the Swarm
The next morning, attendees roaming the show floor couldn't help but spot Jacobsen's behemoth orange booth. Not only was the 60-by-110-foot space chocked full of orange equipment, but a 72-foot-long boomerang-shaped banner in a similar hue was also suspended over one corner of the exhibit. Plus, attendees soon discovered that the space was practically crawling with orange-attired booth staffers. All told, Jacobsen brought 60 employees to this show (staffing the booth with 30 to 40 people at a time) to add to the swarm and communicate that Jacobsen is everywhere at the trade show and everywhere in the field.
Moving further into the booth, attendees were drawn to a central information desk that also served as the wristband-distribution center. The desk was covered with hundreds of orange wristbands, a handful of baseball caps for VIP visitors, and piles of Jacobsen-branded lanyards.
Here, staffers opened a conversation with everyone that approached the desk by asking them if they'd received a wristband yet. As they verbally ascertained visitors' needs, staff scanned their badges, gave them wristbands, and then instructed them to look for orange-clad brand ambassadors outside of the convention center who would be handing out freebies to those wearing the bands. Staff also explained that these ambassadors were locals who were hired specifically to assist Jacobsen clients and prospects with their travel and entertainment needs.
"Starting around noon the first day of the show, our 20 brand ambassadors not only looked for the wristbands and handed out orange T-shirts with the Orange Everywhere logo, but also acted as mobile concierges," DeWolfe says. "We told booth visitors they could ask these ambassadors for directions, restaurant suggestions, bar or nightclub tips, etc." In a sense, the ambassadors symbolized Jacobsen salespeople, who were now everywhere in the field and able to assist customers with all of their needs.
At the reception desk, staffers directed attendees to the area of the booth that best seemed to fit their needs. But before they left, staffers performed a little sleight of hand. They swapped out attendees' green, Deere-sponsored show lanyards for a Jacobsen-orange replacement. Voila. Instant colonization.
The rest of the exhibit basically worshiped Jacobsen's various products. "Our booth is almost like a giant car lot," DeWolfe says. "Normally, exhibitors don't want a ton of products littering their booth. But our golf superintendents usually only get to see a few pieces of equipment at a time, since a field representative typically brings only one machine to a field appointment. So once a year, we make sure they can see everything we've got to offer."
For those customers and prospects that wanted to actually test drive Jacobsen equipment, 3D Exhibits created a test track surrounding a two-story conference area in the back corner of the booth space. "One of the things that gives us a leg up on the competition is that we're the only one with a fully electric mower for this industry," Slick says. "And since trade show regulations forbid running combustion engines inside the exhibit hall, we're the only company that can offer mower test drives in our exhibit via our electric product."
Drawn to the booth by the test drives they witnessed and their own curiosity about the orange wristbands, attendees steadily streamed into the exhibit throughout the show's first day. In fact, Jacobsen handed out wristbands to approximately 500 booth visitors (and obtained badge scans from each one), bringing the number of Jacobsen-branded attendees to 1,500. But the swarm didn't stop there.
The Swarm Subsides
Exiting the convention center, attendees couldn't help but spot the 20 brand ambassadors outside the venue. While wristband-wearing people flocked to them for their free T-shirts and some advice on the area, scores of other attendees approached them to find out what was going on.
"If people didn't have a wristband, the brand ambassadors quickly explained the promotion, gave them a short overview of what Jacobsen does, and directed them to booth 2838 to get their wristband and learn more," Horn says. This simple tactic created ample awareness and drove people to the booth the following day.
When evening approached, the brand ambassadors repositioned themselves in the Gaslamp Quarter, as did 10 of the branded pedicabs. "When people entered the Quarter for a night on the town — and for various dinners and events sponsored by our competitors — Jacobsen was everywhere," Slick says.
While many of the ambassadors continued to offer T-shirts to wristband-equipped attendees, a handful offered Visa gift cards instead. "We stationed a few brand ambassadors in front of key restaurants in the area, where they intercepted people wearing our wristbands before they went inside," DeWolfe says. "They offered each person a $10 orange Visa gift card and said, 'Have a drink on Jacobsen.'" It was almost like Jacobsen turned "orange" into the new "green."
Particularly given the fact that Toro and John Deere had virtually no presence on the streets, Jacobsen seemed to own the night — and the next day. Once again, on the show's final day, ambassadors took their positions outside the convention center handing out swag and directing attendees to the Jacobsen exhibit. Meanwhile, booth staffers doled out more than 500 additional wristbands, bringing the total number distributed to a whopping 2,000.
"Every last one of our bands was handed out," DeWolfe says. "And in order to obtain each one, attendees also had to interact with us — whether that was with salespeople prior to the show or with staffers in the booth who also swiped their badges. We had 10 times more direct interactions with people at this show than we've ever had in the past." That success also carried over to Jacobsen's lead count. While generating awareness was the prime directive, Jacobsen actually doubled the number of leads it collected compared to the previous year — a fact the company attributes to the guerrilla marketing driving people from the streets to the booth.
"This campaign put us in front of people multiple times instead of just once when attendees stopped by the booth," Slick says. "That's a win in and of itself. But perhaps one of the best ways to measure the success of the campaign is to consider how it affects your competitors. During one of the evenings the pedicabs were in use, we spotted key executives from competing companies fuming because they didn't want to walk back to their hotels, and all they could find for transportation were Jacobsen-branded pedicabs."
So it just goes to show that smart marketing can outwit even the biggest competitors. And in this case, a swarm of fire ants not only captured people's attention, but almost brought a deer and a bull to their knees.