Photos: Global Experience Specialists Inc. (GES)
Jenna Harris is a key player in positioning Bell Textron Inc. as an aerospace technology company. After beginning her career with Bell in 2011, Harris, who holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in management from West Texas A&M University, accepted a position managing the newly formed brand experience team in 2016. In this role, Harris is responsible for protocol and etiquette, experiential marketing, branded environments, and other duties.
In a perfect world, any employee who hits a record-setting home run and wows management would be able to throw his or her hands up, graciously accept the honors and accolades of the company's top brass, and take the rest of the day off. But in the real world of exhibit marketing, when Jenna Harris, Bell Textron Inc.'s senior manager for brand experience, knocked it out of the park at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), she received the equivalent of a pat on the back and an edict to do it all over again – but better – the following year. For some, that challenge would be intimidating, even paralyzing. Yet it was her talent for replicating success that won Harris praise from this year's All-Star Awards judges, who admired her critical foresight and described the fruit of her labor as "a terrific demonstration of strategic planning that generated successful results."
To explain why Harris' bosses wanted an encore of her performance, you need a quick bit of back story that began when Franklin Roosevelt was president. For the last 85 years, Bell has revolutionized aviation technology, with corporate milestones ranging from successfully executing the first-ever U.S. indoor helicopter flight to debuting the original tiltrotor aircraft that lifts vertically like a standard helicopter and then flies like an airplane. Bell continued to evolve cutting-edge products, because that groundbreaking spirit is part of its DNA. Then, around 2016, the Fort Worth, TX-based company, guided by its new CEO, decided to push the envelope and take the brand to new heights. It began transitioning from a traditional, if industry-leading, rotorcraft manufacturer to a company also developing high-tech automated airborne vehicles. Part of that evolution – and where Harris comes into the picture – was the desire to make a skyrocketing debut at CES 2018 to showcase its autonomous flying taxi. CES was far outside Bell's usual trade show circuit of, for example, Heli-Expo and the Association of the United States Army's annual expo, and its appearance there would be the first by a major helicopter manufacturer in the show's 52-year history.
The company racked up 2,361 press mentions, exceeding its goal by about 300 percent.
But how in the blinking, buzzing, whirring landscape of 4,000 exhibitors spread out over 2.7 million net square feet could Harris make the aerospace manufacturer stand out? Working with Global Experience Specialists Inc. (GES), Harris and Bell created a virtual landing pad of the future. Large LED walls were combined with virtual-reality "pods" to showcase videos and other content, creating a "Minority Report"-like peek into the future of autonomous aircraft. Visitors rode an "elevator" that created the illusion of ascending to a high-in-the-sky verti-port, where they then climbed into mock-ups of a futuristic airborne taxi whose sci-fi contours resembled a metal wasp. Once secured inside the visionary vector, participants donned VR headsets and seemingly flew into the wild blue like Aladdin on a magic carpet of steel and silicon.
The result was a smooth landing for Bell's debut at CES. The company exceeded its various objectives by 20 to 50 percent, tallying 7,000 interactive experiences in the booth, 300 million online impressions, and substantive coverage by way of more than 500 stories that appeared in Wired, USA Today, and Mashable, among many other high-readership media outlets. Those results set the bar so high for Harris that only an actual flying taxi might be able to reach it again.
To help surpass its debut at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Bell Textron Inc. positioned a prototype of its flying taxi – called the Nexus – in its 4,800-square-foot booth at the 2019 expo. With its black stealth-jet-like exterior and frequently activated rotors drawing them in, intrigued visitors lined up by the score to sit in the cockpit and get a glimpse of aviation's high-flying future.
While no one would ever accuse Harris of taking a self-glorifying victory lap, she would nonetheless probably appreciate the hard truth behind what the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote, that "Nothing wilts faster than laurels that have been rested upon." The true price of success, more than just the hard work and the required sacrifices that go along with it, may be being asked for an instant replay of that achievement. For her own bravura performance, Harris was tasked by Bell management to surpass the inaugural exhibit's success for CES 2019. "'Alright,' they told me, 'what do you have up your sleeve for next year?'" Harris says. "My response was, 'Challenge accepted.'"
When she began planning for CES 2019 the summer before it opened, Harris took a look backward. That is, she revisited the strategy that made 2018 a triumph to see if there were any lessons that could help her devise a new campaign. She and her team of eight assessed the main ingredients they felt had contributed to their year-one success. To begin with, there was the novelty of Bell being the first helicopter manufacturer to ever exhibit there. But appearing at the show would not be unique anymore, obviously. Second, the 2018 exhibit had essentially worked like a movie trailer, a teasing highlight of how cool the final flying taxi would eventually be. And like any trailer that whips up expectations, it had to be followed by a full-length feature that fulfills its tantalizing promise.
Further complicating things, the skies had become jammed with other companies – a competitive scrum that included the likes of Boeing Co., Airbus SE, and Hyundai Motor Co., to name a few – trumpeting their own plans to launch similar flying chariots.
Given that Bell couldn't simply redeploy the previous year's strategy, Harris concocted a modified approach. In her words, "The key to CES 2019 was to differentiate Bell from all of the other potential players in the air taxi race."
Bell Textron Inc. scored approximately 1.36 billion online impressions at the International Consumer Electronics Show, a figure 680 times its initial goal.
Even armed with a nearly 50-percent budget increase over her CES 2018 allotment, Harris had her work cut out for her in trying to distinguish Bell from a veritable air force of competitors. Teaming up with GES for a second time, Harris wanted to start off by building pre-show anticipation among the media and attendees so that both would know the company was not simply cutting and pasting its 2018 effort, thereby giving them a reason to visit the booth again. Specifically, that meant displaying not a stylized, speculative model of the aircraft, but the real thing – called the Nexus – at CES 2019.
Taking the flying taxi to the show would be a canny move on Harris' part. Indeed, it was well-suited for an event like CES because the tech world is keenly, almost obsessively, alert to companies that ballyhoo products but never deliver them to the market, causing those hyped items to be snidely dismissed as
"vaporware." Next, in addition to the air taxi, Bell would exhibit supplemental technologies underscoring that it is more than a one-trick pony and far ahead of other competitors that might be promoting similar vehicles.
Further, Harris wanted to establish Bell as a thought leader at the show, a tactic meant to tightly connect the company with flying taxis, much like how Intel Corp. is almost reflexively linked with microprocessors. Last, she sought to compile data on how users would actually handle the Nexus' interface, which would allow the company to consequently improve the ship's controls, making them more intuitive and user-friendly while simultaneously putting even greater distance between Bell and its rivals.
Bell's flying taxi may be relatively petite by aviation standards – it's small enough to touch down on a 40-by-40-foot landing pad and weighs a comparatively svelte 6,500 pounds – but the company's goals for the show were the size of a Boeing 747: generate 600 media stories and host 10 on-site interviews with what it deemed top-tier publications. Moreover, the exhibit would have to generate 2 million online impressions in order to be considered by Bell's upper management as a back-to-back success. So while Harris watched the opening date of CES 2019 draw near, she couldn't help but wonder whether her revised strategy would soar to the heavens or send her crashing back down to earth like Icarus and his melted wings.
The Whirly Bird Gets the Worm
Harris' strategy began to take flight several weeks before CES when she and her team flew media reps from key tech-industry publications such as Aviation Week, Flight Global, and Vertical Magazine to the company's Texas headquarters to get an insider's look at the Nexus and other related innovations. From one-on-one interviews with its designers, engineers, and executives to VR demonstrations of the Nexus and associated technology, the attending writers, editors, and influencers would ideally evangelize Bell's approach to creating the future of aviation and, consequently, put the exhibit on the must-see list for CES showgoers.
As a result, nearly 500 stories appeared in publications – an impressive roster that included Popular Science, Wired, and The Drive – before the show floor had even opened, effectively stoking the interest of the tech world in general and CES attendees in particular.
Once the show got underway, Bell swamped it with experts in several off-the-show-floor efforts. This tactic included placing executives such as Scott Drennan, a vice president of engineering innovation, and Michael Thacker, an executive vice president of technology and innovation, on panels discussing urban air mobility and future transportation, respectively. Bell also sponsored an "influencer activation" dinner attended by industry leaders ranging from members of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to reps from Skyward, the drone-operations software division of Verizon Wireless. Adding to the media blitz was content written by Bell's public-relations team that ran on local news stations and in tech and aviation trade publications during the show.
If the panels and dinner were an informational appetizer of sorts, the exhibit itself was the main course. Its cornerstone was a prototype of the Nexus that Harris knew would act as the 60-by-80-foot booth's main attraction. The thousands of attendees passing by could not help but be intrigued by a glimpse of the aircraft that resembled something the Empire might launch against the rebel fleet in Star Wars. Once showgoers caught sight of the mesmerizing vehicle, looking like an arachnid with a gleaming, sable-hued body flipped over on its back, they eagerly began lining up for a chance to sit in the cockpit five at a time and eyeball the high-tech console that would control it either automatically from afar or manually by passengers.
Demonstrating it was zooming ahead of its competitors who were planning versions of the air taxi, Bell brought full-sized models of its autonomous pod transport, a cargo container that will soon drop down from the sky to deliver goods. Attendees could also experiment with different Nexus interfaces in a virtual-reality simulation that whisked them above a simulated Las Vegas Strip.
A few moments in the futuristic cockpit might have been an intriguing enough experience to convey Bell's leadership in flying vehicles, but Harris smartly added to the short sojourn in the Nexus with what the company dubbed the Executive Showcase. Three to four times a day, staffers activated an elongated string of intelligent lights placed on a circular truss several feet over the aircraft. The crimson illumination blinked on and off to indicate a presentation was about to start. Then, for approximately 20 minutes, a staffer held a tablet armed with an augmented-reality app in front of the Nexus. The tablet's screen depicted the aircraft with a variety of exterior hues that lent a splash of color to the otherwise Batman-dark prototype. The AR app also portrayed the Nexus completing the leisure, medical, and logistical missions on which it could someday embark.
With the push of a button, the Nexus' six 9-foot-diameter ducts then began to rotate, adding a kinetic allure to the autonomous taxi as if it were about to ascend to the convention center ceiling. But even this bit of showmanship had a strategy behind it. While most helicopters – they're the closest analog to a flying taxi – operate at roughly 90 ear-splitting decibels, the Nexus utilizes a hybrid electric power system that enables it to function at a comparable whisper. As such, the tactic demonstrated that the Nexus is but a little louder than attendees' ground-hugging cars. The Executive Showcase also did double duty as an effective line-management tool, enthralling and informing a nearly nonstop bottleneck of visitors who encircled the Nexus while they queued up to enter the aircraft.
One essential difference between the 2018 and 2019 exhibits was the addition of more advanced aviation technology, suggesting that Bell was rapidly moving ahead in developing a suite of aerial products. Tucked into a back corner of the space were two life-size models of its autonomous pod transport (APT), a kind of self-driven cargo pod that can take off and land vertically with propellers and a set of biplane-style wings. Nearby, a 10-by-40-foot video wall ran looping content about the Nexus and the APT, which one day soon might drop down from the sky to deliver everything from Amazon packages on Black Friday to emergency supplies following a natural disaster.
Opposite this area was an interactive engagement called Future Flight Controls, which addressed another of the company's needs. Knowing that today's tech-savvy generation is accustomed to video-game and smartphone interfaces, Bell wanted to get a sense of how they might react to the Nexus' own dashboard. With prospective test subjects at CES potentially numbering in the hundreds, Bell encouraged many of the booth's visitors to try their hands at the Future Flight Controls.
Participants relaxed in any of three chairs, donned VR goggles, and used joysticks and foot pedals to steer the virtual vehicle through a scenario in which they zoomed down the Las Vegas Strip in flights lasting as long as 30 minutes in cyberspace. Whizzing past replicated landmarks such as the Fountains of Bellagio and the Paris Eiffel Tower, users could navigate the craft via either the Nexus' current interface or two alternative versions. With more than 700 attendees taking part, Bell acquired a sizeable database packed with information on how these potential flyers of the future would navigate the Nexus, as well as how intuitive participants found the current interface to be.
Up, Up, and Away
In the end, Harris smashed her goals and set stratospheric records at the show. The company racked up 2,361 media stories, exceeding its pre-show goal by about 300 percent. That metric included all 10 of the interviews with heavy-hitting media outlets it had aimed for while at CES, a powerful array that included CNET, Wired, Forbes, and the "Today" show. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the flood of online impressions – roughly 1.36 billion, or a stunning 680 times the company's initial goal.
But just as noteworthy as the numbers for the 2019 show are by themselves, they become imposing, even extraordinary, when compared to the results from CES 2018 – the one whose success Harris was charged in no uncertain terms with bettering. In a year-to-year appraisal, she and her team nearly quintupled the number of media stories on Bell and exceeded the volume of social-media impressions by almost 400 percent. In fact, a subset of the company's social-media outreach – the number of Twitter followers it reached – skyrocketed from 10.7 million in 2018 to 63.1 million in 2019, a prodigious increase of very close to 600 percent.
When putting Harris' achievements in context, dry and cold numbers can only do so much to illustrate her back-to-back tours de force. Her triumph is deserving of a coda more lyrical than mathematical. "If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing," Coco Chanel once said. Taking on a daunting challenge at CES in 2018 and then surpassing her own success a year later, Harris grew wings that let her soar and, so far, never come down to earth. E