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tility knives are not the most coveted tools on a builder's belt. After all, their sharp blades are cheap and disposable, and the little gadgets don't even come with an electric horsepower rating. So when utility-knife maker Olfa Corp. first brought its premium blade system to the International Builders' Show (IBS) in 2003, the response was less than enthusiastic, a fact reflected in the low number of leads Olfa collected that year. Still, the utility-knife company had high hopes of growing its market share in the construction industry, which it viewed as a whole new niche full of blade-buying potential.

While Olfa has been making utility knives since 1956, the company has never been a major player in the construction industry, despite manufacturing the blades of choice in other disparate industries ranging from quilt making to window tinting. From 2003 to 2005, Olfa languished at IBS, hoping to carve out its share of the construction-industry pie. Carl Cottrell, Olfa's trade marketing manager, peppered the company's meager 10-by-10-foot booth with stations where visitors could get hands-on with the blades, using them to cut through various construction materials. Still, the company didn't seem to be making any significant inroads in the market. "No one at IBS even wanted us to scan their badge," Cottrell says. "They'd say, 'Well, you're just a utility knife,' and 'I have plenty of those.'"

Knowing he needed to step up his company's lead counts or axe IBS from his annual calendar, Cottrell took the "if you build it, they will come" approach and doubled the size of his previous 10-by-10-foot booth space for the 2006 show in Orlando, FL, adding more staffers and blade-demo cutting stations so attendees could try out the knives for themselves. Unfortunately, in Cottrell's own words, "We built it, but they still didn't come."

So with time on his hands and skeptical attendees walking past his now 200-square-foot space, Cottrell conducted a little market research at IBS 2006 to determine if and how he could make Olfa's exhibit a success in 2007 - or whether the company should just abandon the show altogether.

"As we demonstrated the product, I asked people, 'How many years have you been coming to IBS?'" Cottrell says. "Then I asked, 'Who makes purchasing decisions for your company?' - and my big question - 'How familiar are you with the Olfa brand name?'"

Cottrell's in-booth inquisitions allowed him to obtain some valuable insights about IBS attendees, most of which, he learned, had been coming to IBS for five years or more. He also learned that the buying power for tools on a job site rests with the contractors, which comprised the majority of IBS attendees. But the biggest lesson learned through his inquiry was that despite Olfa's four-year history of exhibiting at IBS, almost none of the attendees even knew the company's name.

With that obstacle in mind, Cottrell left the 2006 show with a plan to generate awareness from the ground up in 2007. He wanted attendees to walk away from IBS knowing that Olfa offered a premium utility knife with the best blade performance on the market. And the only way to achieve that goal, he reasoned, was to put an Olfa blade into the hands of as many attendees as possible, building the company's brand recognition one impressed attendee at a time.

The Names Game

After years of gathering 300 to 400 leads per show, Cottrell set the bar astonishingly high, aiming for 5,000 leads at IBS in 2007. "It seemed so impossible to hit," Cottrell says. "But I wanted to demonstrate that the marketing efforts we poured into this show could be a success."

To earn this more than tenfold increase in leads, Cottrell asked internal management to more than double his $40,000 budget from 2006. "If it didn't work, it wasn't going to be for lack of trying," Cottrell says. "We needed to get attendees into the booth, get them to recognize our name, and get a cutter in their hands."

In the months leading up to the show, Cottrell decided he was tired of simply setting up a booth and hoping attendees would pay a visit. So he bought 3,500 names from the IBS pre-registration list and added 1,500 names purchased from a major construction-industry publication whose demographics matched that of the ideal Olfa construction customer.

Mailing lists in hand, Cottrell sent each person a direct-mail invitation to visit Olfa's booth at IBS. The mailer, which featured the company's black and yellow corporate colors along with 1950s-style pop art and the phrase "Best made cutting tools in the world," included a map to the Olfa booth, and asked attendees to bring the card to the exhibit for a free "x-treme cordless power tool."

The 1950s theme of the card, Cottrell says, was meant to emphasize Olfa's history in the utility-knife industry, while the mailer itself was intended to offer an "x-treme" premium giveaway that would hopefully appeal to the company's target audience.

But Olfa's appeal to IBS attendees didn't stop with the mailer. Cottrell contacted the Orlando, FL, airport, which allowed him to set up a kiosk in a spot where deplaning passengers would pass during peak flight hours. At the kiosk, two female models handed out maps to the Olfa booth while standing under a flashing sign that welcomed attendees to IBS on the company's behalf.

Once the map- and mailer-wielding attendees arrived at the convention center, they trekked, en masse, to Olfa's exhibit, which was designed to reinforce the 1950s theme of the direct mailer. A black-and-white checkerboard floor set the scene along with a pair of counter tops reminiscent of a '50s-era diner. Chrome diner stools gave attendees a place to sit at the counter top cutting stations where old-time straw dispensers held Olfa utility knives. Attendees could test the blades on several common building materials available at the stations. Beneath the Olfa logo on the back wall of the 10-by-20-foot exhibit ran the text "Est. 1956" along with the same pop art from the pre-show mailer.

To drum up even more Olfa-brand buzz, a pair of models dressed as 1950s carhops roamed the exhibit hall putting one of four different stickers on attendees. The stickers again used the pop-art style from the mailer and included Olfa's booth number and clever '50s-inspired phrases, such as "Feeling Spiffy?" and "Are Ya Yella Fella?" with a call to action to visit the Olfa booth to correct attendees' spiff-lessness.

Like the mailers, the models told attendees to visit Olfa's booth to receive an "x-treme cordless power tool," while also encouraging them to wear their stickers for the duration of the show, as once an hour one of the models randomly selected a sticker-wearing attendee to receive a $50 American Express gift card. According to Cottrell, Olfa distributed 13,000 stickers.

Once at the exhibit, attendees who scanned their badges were promised a free utility knife that would be mailed to them after the show. Then attendees could step up to the cutting counters to feel the power of the Olfa blades firsthand.

"Cottrell is a genius at pulling a thread through everything," says Christina Hackel-Canellopoulos, sales and marketing manager with Extreme Exhibits and Logistics Inc., the company that designed Olfa's booth. "Prizes, mailers, booth theme: He made it a whole presentation from before the show to after the show with follow-up."

Making the Cut

From the mailers to the message at the airport to the constant mention of the company's name in the booth, Cottrell hoped he'd achieved the goal of getting attendees to remember Olfa. In all, Cottrell and his team scanned 5,407 names at IBS in 2007, giving the company hope that it would have a whole new market into which it could slice. To make the most of its IBS haul of leads, Olfa sent each of the 5,407 attendees just what it had promised, an x-treme cordless power tool, better known as an Olfa utility knife.

Olfa sent the knives in the kind of individual toolboxes used to house premium power tools, a metal case with a carrying handle on top and two latches on the side. The box, in Olfa's yellow and black colors, contained the Olfa utility knife in form-fitting foam. The box also contained a gift card for a free replacement blade at Lowe's, a big-box retailer that had recently begun to carry Olfa's knives.

"We had a 10-percent redemption rate on the blade payback," Cottrell says of the Lowe's gift card promotion. Not only does that mean at least 10 percent of Olfa's leads from the show turned into customers, but according to Cottrell, the high redemption rate within a few months of the show's end also helped the company demonstrate to Lowe's that Olfa's customers preferred its high-quality knives over the competitions' cutters.

But leads and redeemed gift cards were not enough for Cottrell, so Olfa conducted a focus-group study of contractors to determine the company's next course of action. The study showed that contractors don't see snap blades - what Olfa produces, as opposed to the trapezoid blades that rule the utility-knife market - a heavy-duty tools for serious work. So Cottrell decided that while the 2007 show was all about generating brand awareness and sales leads, IBS 2008 would be about getting attendees to understand why Olfa's knives are the highest-quality product on the market.

A Snappy Comeback

In the run-up to the 2008 show, Cottrell again intended to drive traffic with a pre-show invitation. Wanting to attract new attendees and reinforce Olfa's message with attendees who visited the booth in 2007, he created a mailing list of 7,500 names, 30 percent selected randomly from the previous year's mailing list, 3,000 new names of pre-registered contractors, plus 1,500 names of retailers who had registered for the 2008 IBS show. The inclusion of retailers on Olfa's pre-show list reflected the company's desire to find additional retail outlets to sell its knives and blades while also attracting end users to purchase them.

Cottrell then adopted a new theme for the 2008 show, trading pop art and diners for pigskin and tight ends. The new football-themed mailer, sent to those 7,500 prospects, billed Olfa's knives as "Heavy-duty blades for heavy-duty work," and included the phrase "It all starts with a snap!" referring simultaneously to Olfa's snap blades and the promotion's football theme.

At the 2008 show, the booth reflected the sporty theme with all the trappings of gridiron action. There was a tailgate party - featuring cutting counter tops wrapped in fabric printed to make them look like the back ends of pickup trucks - complete with a back wall that looked like the inside of a crowded stadium. There were referees - crowd-gathering young ladies in eye-catching black-and-white striped referee shirts, black shorts, and thigh-high athletic socks - to attract the attention of the mostly male crowd of contractors and pass out stickers with Olfa's snappy message and booth number. Other staffers wore jeans with black and yellow jerseys that had the number 56 - for 1956, Olfa's founding date - on their backs.

Similar to Olfa's 2007 strategy, roving "referees" handed out stickers and told attendees to keep them on for the opportunity to win a prize. Every 15 minutes, one of the referees walked the show floor until she found someone wearing an Olfa sticker. That attendee won a certificate for a tailgate barbecue package - a grill and cooler combo great for a pre-game beer and brat - that they could bring to the booth to redeem for their prize. According to Cottrell, Olfa distributed 125 of the Olfa-branded prize packages during the show.

Other game-day giveaways included footballs designed to look like the limited-edition balls used at the Super Bowl but with Olfa's logo, football-shaped coosies, and Olfa blades, which were stored in two large coolers positioned between the two faux truck beds. To get these giveaways, attendees had to swipe their badges, which helped Cottrell continue to build a database of booth visitors as thousands of attendees stopped by the exhibit to claim their swag and try out Olfa's knives.

But attendees weren't the only ones interested in the activities in Olfa's exhibit. With a crowd gathering constantly at the booth, Olfa also caught the attention of a film crew from Home & Garden Television (HGTV), which was filming a segment for their show covering IBS. The HGTV segment ran on May 18th of last year and featured footage filmed in the Olfa booth. "We did a media kit for the press," Cottrell says, "but the crowd is what really stopped them. They're people, too, and after seeing a bunch of excited attendees wearing the stickers and crowding around our exhibit, they've got to wonder what's going on." Olfa collected a whopping 6,511 leads in 2008, more than 16 times its 2006 total. Among the leads, Cottrell found 75 resellers who are being pursued as possible sales outlets for Olfa products. Of the rest, roughly 2,000 attendees were repeat visitors from 2007, meaning Olfa had established itself as a must-see exhibit on the show floor, Cottrell says. The remaining 4,500 names represent potential new end users of Olfa's snap blades.

"Cottrell took a 10-by-20-foot booth and turned Olfa into the life of the party," Hackel-Canellopoulos says. "Before, no one knew who the company was or what it did. Now, when it comes to IBS, Olfa is like the popular kid on the block."

That popularity seems to be evident off the show floor as well. Since 2007, Olfa has seen a 7-percent increase in sales of the replacement blades that go with the Olfa utility knives - meaning the knives are being used, and the users are staying loyal to the company. "One gentleman, in particular, approached us at IBS in 2008 and told us how he bought 95 cutters to keep in his truck," Cottrell says. "He hands them out to his contractors because the blades are so sharp that they speed up his contractors' completion times."

With two years of success under his tool belt, Cottrell plans to continue using his successful strategy of integrated exhibits again - including pre-show mailers, promotional stickers, female booth models to attract the male audience, giveaways, etc. And while he's unwilling to spill the beans on possible future themes, you can bet they will all be a cut above the competition. e

A Cut Above
From 2006 to 2008, Olfa Corp.'s evolving strategy at the International Builders' Show led to a big increase in its budget for the show and a monumental increase in its lead generation. Not only did lead counts increase by a factor of 30, but Olfa's cost per lead decreased from more than $108 per lead in 2006 to only $15.36 per lead in 2008.
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