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Rock of Gauges
By turning water heaters into band members and inviting attendees to live out their rock-star fantasies, Grand Hall USA creates an exhibit program that doubles its lead count and proves that it's only rock-'n'-roll, but they like it.
By Cynthya Porter
hile it might not be so in Third World countries, having hot water at the turn of a tap in the United States is a convenience so commonplace that most people view it is a necessity. For companies that sell water heaters, then, holding the reins to our hot water is an enviable position – they make it happen, and we can't live without it.

The downside of that equation is that since every home and business needs a water heater, most already have one, and it might be 15 years before an owner is looking to buy again. Jockeying for top-of-mind position to snag that purchase when the time comes is paramount among the marketing goals of any water-heater manufacturer, but how to make a model stand apart in a sea of similar products is a challenge.

It would seem that having a unique product would be a blessing in a market overrun by sameness. But it is actually both a blessing and a curse, for while there is no direct competition, there is also no native understanding of the product among consumers, many of whom may assume all water heaters are pretty much the same.

For Grand Hall USA, a manufacturer of gas-related products like grills and water heaters, education is half the battle in marketing its Eternal Hybrid water heaters. With a blend of the best of two water-heating technologies to create an energy-efficient, continuous flow of hot water that doesn't lose pressure when multiple taps are turned on, Grand Hall believes the Eternal Hybrid stands alone as the only true hybrid. But the company knows that it must capture and hold a potential customer's attention long enough to explain the difference for its revolutionary product to revolutionize the industry.

Dream Weaver
The International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR) is a massive show that moves to a new city each year and attracts 1,900 exhibitors and 55,000 attendees. It is the perfect place for Grand Hall to interact with its target market: licensed contractors that install, service, and sell water-heating systems. But as a smaller manufacturer among some titan corporations, Grand Hall must create a larger-than-life presence to get attention on the sprawling trade show floor.
Exhibitor: Grand Hall USA
Creative: Grand Hall, Garland, TX, 866-946-1096, www.grandhall.com
Production: ShaBang Exhibits Inc., Dallas, 214-343-2854, www.shabangexhibits.com; Walton Stout Productions, Grapevine, TX, 214-415-4452, www.thewaltonstoutband.com
Show: International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition, 2013
Budget: $70,000
Collect more sales leads than Grand Hall received at the 2012 show.
Persuade two dozen attendees to take tours of the Grand Hall facility.
Generate more media mentions than the previous year's show.
Obtained 409 leads, an 85-percent jump over the 2012 show.
Enticed 25 attendees to tour the Grand Hall factory during the show.
Increased media mentions by 47 percent compared to 2012.

Each year, Grand Hall marketing communications manager Kari Yeh and her team come up with a different theme to personify models in the Eternal Hybrid line, believing that while Grand Hall can't "out-exhibit" its competitors in terms of booth size, it can definitely do so with personality. To wit, when the show was in Chicago in 2012, the booth's theme was the ChiTown Showdown, pitting Frank "The 50-Gallon Tank," which represented the older, standard water heaters, against Eternal "The Hybrid" Kid. The title-match theme was replete with boxing gloves affixed to the display models in the exhibit, and show goers learned how the Eternal contender would knock out the competition with its new design and capabilities. "In our industry, not a lot of people do themes; they are very product focused," Yeh says. "Our exhibit has an element of fun, and it sets us apart from the big companies around us that are very corporate."

Welcome to the Jungle
In 2013, AHR was in Dallas near Grand Hall's headquarters, and Yeh wanted to do something exciting that would bring the company more attention than it had ever received before. Combined with success capturing leads and media mentions on the show floor, Yeh wanted to entice attendees to board a van and take a tour of the Grand Hall offices 30 miles from the show. But with a booth location tucked away on the lower level of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center (formerly the Dallas Convention Center), attracting attention at the show was going to be hard enough. So getting people to leave the show and visit the Grand Hall offices was a lofty goal indeed.

Yeh contemplated what would appeal to Grand Hall's target market of contractors – a predominantly male audience – without resorting to the cliché and often female-offensive booth-babe tactic. While watching TV, a trailer for the movie "Rock of Ages" gave Yeh her Sizzle-Award-winning idea: rock and roll. "Who doesn't love rock and roll?" Yeh asks. "It's fun, it appeals to men, and it's not offensive to women who attend the show."

The plan that emerged was as simple as it was clever: Turn each of the three Eternal Hybrid models into a band member, and make the show in Dallas part of the band's world tour. And, paying homage to the Def Leppard-esque era of rock music, the Hybrid Hysteria Tour was born.

Back in Black
Yeh's first step in the theme-planning process was a visit to a graphic artist at Grand Hall. An epic band tour was going to need a memorable logo and tour T-shirt, and what emerged from the design process was a logo that would have made any of the Monsters of Rock jealous. T-shirts, which were destined to become a coveted giveaway at the show, were in the requisite concert-T-shirt black, with bold orange and silver lettering emblazoned across the front that simply said, "Hybrid Hysteria Tour 2013." On the back, the Eternal logo and product name spread across the shoulder blades, making it unmistakable which company had come up with all that T-shirt coolness.

It was not a coincidence that black and orange were the company's corporate hues, making them an effortlessly appropriate color scheme for the Hybrid Hysteria theme and all of the accompanying promotions.

A band isn't a band without a music video, Yeh decided, so she approached The Walton Stout Band, a Dallas-based group with a distinctive rock- and-roll flavor, and contracted it to record two songs touting the benefits of the Eternal Hybrid systems. Yeh wrote the lyrics for one of the songs, and band members wrote the lyrics for the other, while a graphic designer at Grand Hall created an animated video that showed the three hybrid water-heater models riffing a guitar, pounding drums, and fist pumping to the raucous rock and roll beat while product information scrolled in a sidebar on the bottom of the screen. Two additional videos featured The Walton Stout Band with headbands, ripped T-shirts, and fishnets rocking out the Eternal Hybrid songs in the Grand Hall warehouse, surrounded by pallets of the water heaters.

The lyrics all embedded key product information into the music, but on the live-performance videos, the band put on such an authentic, engaging performance that one might not realize they were listening to a commercial. "I'm efficient, I am tough, once you take me home, you can't get enough..." a female singer belts out in one video while her band mates play with the fervor of a Whitesnake concert. In another, a male singer with Bret Michaels star appeal leans over a microphone wailing, "Digital display and no carbon footprint; if you ask me it's worth every cent ?"

Shake, Rattle, and Roll
About two months before the event, Yeh began teasing attendees with information about Eternal's "world tour," sending out a direct mailer that drove people to a microsite set up specifically for the company's Hybrid Hysteria Tour 2013. That site, dually branded with the campaign theme and the Eternal logo, looked like any good band's fan page should with profiles of band members, tour dates, and set lists the audience could expect to hear the band play.

Profiles created for each Eternal Hybrid model read like tongue-in-cheek band-member biographies, such as "Co-lead guitarists GU195S and GU195M work the crowd into a frenzy as they deliver up to 98-percent efficiency and 195,000 BTUs," and "Lead singer, the GU100, joined the band in 2012 and has taken the group to a whole new level. Its presence on stage is remarkable, and the half-inch gas line capacity will blow you away." Features of the water heaters became catchy song titles like "I'm a Hybrid," "Ultra Low NOx," and "Too Hot to Quit," the convention center in Dallas was written up like a concert venue, and attendees were invited to come meet the band in booth 5501.

Rock-'n'-Roll Fantasy
Yeh also used the microsite to unveil a promotion intended to appeal to the rocker in everyone – the chance to smash a guitar Jimi Hendrix style. Attendees could register two ways: before the show via the microsite, and at the show in the booth. Those who entered both through the website and during the show would have their names placed in a drawing each day. The person whose name was drawn could smash an electric guitar on a makeshift stage set up inside the Grand Hall booth.

Ads in three pre-show newsletters sent out by AHR promoted the Hybrid Hysteria theme, and two print ads in industry publications during the month prior to the show amped up excitement for the band's appearance at AHR. Yeh drove the promotion further with an email blast a few weeks before the show, and by the time AHR commenced in late January, the fan frenzy was well underway.

Despite Grand Hall's out-of-the-way location in the show hall, attendees piled into the booth hoping for a Hybrid Hysteria T-shirt. Staffers, who had also donned the tour T-shirts and looked more like roadies than booth staffers, used that opportunity to scan badges for leads and invite attendees to register for the guitar-smashing contest as well as for the facility tours Grand Hall was conducting during the event.

Booth visitors also got Eternal promotional items like hats, pens, and notepads, and members of the press received Eternal-branded pen holder/clock sets along with an invitation to a special press luncheon with a new product announcement to be held in the booth during the show.

The remainder of the 20-by-30-foot exhibit was structured to evoke a rock-concert aura with a small stage and Eternal water heaters mounted high on stands to resemble speaker stacks. Edgy black carpeting with a single orange stripe leading to the stage added drama to the space, and even the storage closet, which was labeled as a dressing room, supported the theme.

Good Vibrations
Dozens registered for a chance to smash a guitar, and each day of the show, passersby paused to watch the spectacle of a goggled winner pounding a guitar to smithereens on a floor pad in the center of the booth. In addition, video footage and photos of the event were later posted on the Eternal Hybrid Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Over the three-day event, 25 people participated in factory tours, boarding one of two van shuttles that Grand Hall had running between its facility and the show. Sizzle Awards judges were impressed by attendee reception to the tours. "A lot of companies would have missed this opportunity," one judge said.

"A factory tour is a great way to spend a lot of time with key attendees because they are literally a captive audience. The fact that they got 25 people to do this during a busy trade show is pretty incredible."

But Grand Hall's success didn't stop there. The company nearly doubled the number of leads it gathered, capturing 409 leads and trouncing the 222 leads collected in 2012. The microsite logged 859 visits, something Yeh credits for driving traffic to the booth and raising awareness of the promotion. And the media gobbled up the Eternal Hybrid new product announcement, with 22 outlets publishing the information compared to just 15 in 2012.

Still today, Yeh says, staffers get asked about the tour T-shirts, and attendees have been spotted wearing them months after the show ended. Judges understand why. "This is a very blue-collar audience, and this theme was a perfect fit for them," said one judge. "You can't get more mundane than a water heater, but this promotion was genuinely entertaining. It's a very creative way to generate traffic and bolster top-of-mind memorability for a product."

For Yeh and her team, the bar is raised for 2014, when AHR will move to New York and a new theme will be on deck.

Such an iconic city no doubt has limitless thematic possibilities, but given the success of the Hybrid Hysteria Tour 2013, Grand Hall may find its fans wearing their T-shirts and clamoring for a band reunion.

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