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case study


e show appreciation every day. Good service at a restaurant generally elicits a 15-percent tip. Decent grades on a report card are often rewarded with hugs and a few dollars in recognition of a child's academic achievements. And nearly every cheerleader knows the rhyme, "Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate?" Why? It's simple. When someone does a good job, he or she likes to hear about it.

Helping hand out those atta-boy moments is what O.C. Tanner Co. does best. The Salt Lake City-based company has been in the employee-recognition business since 1927, initially providing little more than tie pins, plaques, and gold watches. But in 2002, the company moved beyond the nuts and bolts of rewards and began offering a comprehensive suite of training and research to help human-resource (HR) managers implement customized rewards programs. With nothing similar on the market, this new development represented a definite industry innovation. But despite O.C. Tanner's enthusiasm about its new offerings, the HR industry still seemed to think of the company like a gold watch: a reliable standby, but nothing worth writing home about.

"Since our launch in 1927, we were known as being conventional," says Cordell Clinger, convention manager for O.C. Tanner. "Now we wanted the company and its new offerings to be thought of as innovative."

To change this conventional perception, Clinger and his team set out to unveil an all-new O.C. Tanner at the 2008 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) show in Chicago. His goal: Lure more than 2,000 of the show's roughly 15,000 attendees to visit the company's redesigned booth and sit through a five-minute presentation designed to rebrand O.C. Tanner as an innovative player in the industry.

The Old Gold Watch


Enhancing O.C. Tanner's image was as difficult as updating any entrenched brand. In 2002, at SHRM, the HR industry's biggest show, the company brought the same basic booth it had trotted out since 1984. Clinger says that old booth's 19-year existence was as dependable and uninspiring as the company's image on the SHRM trade show floor. The 10-by-30-foot in-line exhibit featured neutral colors, tasteful signage, and the kinds of building materials that would look at home in a bank. Fancy display cases showcased the shiny gifts handed out to sales-contest winners and employees who stuck it out for 20 years at the same desks.

That booth fit in at SHRM like a pea in a very green pod. In an industry filled with companies touting the latest in how to combat sexual harassment or workplace accidents, it seemed everyone at SHRM wanted to project that old dependable look, meaning O.C. Tanner's conservative corporate exhibit was doing little more than blending into the background. "There are a lot of message-driven exhibits," Clinger says. "Sometimes it can be pretty boring: benefits, background checks, and lawsuits. It's all serious and business-like topics." What O.C. Tanner needed, thought Clinger, was a booth that would break from the status quo and announce the company's new offerings in a big way.

Clinger found an ally in 2002, when David Sturt was appointed executive vice president of O.C. Tanner. While Sturt didn't mind the company being regarded as dependable, he agreed that its new recognition and training programs gave the company a suite of services previously unseen in the industry.

Sturt tasked Clinger and his creative team with shaking things up a bit to focus on O.C. Tanner's innovative offerings. Beginning with the 2003 exhibit at SHRM, the company trotted out a succession of increasingly larger island booths - starting with a 20-by-20-foot exhibit and slowly building to a 20-by-40-foot booth. As the exhibits grew, the focus slowly switched from products and display cases to the company's key message of innovation. Each successive exhibit featured a theater where attendees would hear about the latest offerings or services from O.C. Tanner and be rewarded with a premium gift, such as a leather portfolio, after sitting through a five-minute presentation. "The problem was," Clinger says, "we just weren't giving enough focus to our innovation."

So while attendees now listened to an exhortation of the latest O.C. Tanner offerings rather than just looking at shiny gifts in display cases, the message was still the same: "Here are our products and our services," rather than, "Here's our culture of innovation within the industry." And the fact that the new booths still carried the same aesthetic of an office-building lobby didn't help matters.
Bottom line, the slow and subtle evolution of O.C. Tanner's exhibit wasn't enough to break down clients and prospects' preconceived notions about the company.

Study of Appreciation

In 2007, O.C. Tanner rebranded and changed its old tagline of "The Recognition Resource" to simply the word "Appreciate." Along with rebranding,
the company created a new line of collateral literature to promote its innovative ways of thinking about appreciation and employee recognition That literature - a fun and sometimes whimsical collection of collateral to be handed out at trade shows - proved to be the inspiration for an entirely new corporate exhibit.

At the core of that rebranding effort was a concept called "appreciateology," a study of appreciation, and an idea that the company invented and promoted in its literature. The word represented O.C. Tanner's research into the employee-reward industry. Unfortunately, Sturt and his creative team felt the new booth designs from 2002 through 2007 still fit in a little too well on the show floor at SHRM. In their minds, O.C. Tanner needed an exhibit design that screamed - not whispered - "innovation."

And, if the booth was part of the problem, a new designer seemed like a logical part of the solution. So O.C. Tanner sought out Mauk Design Inc.

Using the "appreciateology" concept as inspiration, Mitchell Mauk, the firm's principle, began developing a new exhibit for O.C. Tanner to bring to SHRM 2008. His overriding objective was to design a space that would immediately communicate that O.C. Tanner was no longer your grandpa's employee-recognition company. In fact, Mauk wanted to make sure that no one would be able to look at the company's new exhibit without thinking that O.C. Tanner was out there pushing the envelope a little.

Gone were the display cases filled with physical samples of recognition - the tie pins and gold-plated plaques. Also gone were the solid, neutral colors, and the look of an office-building lobby. In their places came interactive touchscreens that showed off the O.C. Tanner merchandise, a DJ station with a
DJ spinning tunes, and carpet tiles alternating between five colors that matched the palette from O.C. Tanner's "appreciateology" brochures.



With the exhibit's focus now off the products and services, something new needed to capture attendees' interest and hopefully their imaginations. For that, Mauk took the idea of "appreciateology" - a word that implies a certain scientific approach - and created a Mr. Wizard-like exhibit where the fun and whimsy of the company's new booth literature would be brought to life.

"We find that when we have an exhibit that's not static, we get more attention," Mauk says. "The eye is attracted by the motion. People are just drawn to it. And an exhibit in constant motion seemed to be a good metaphor for what O.C. Tanner was doing, keeping clients' workforces moving through positive motivation."

So to add that kind of metaphorical movement to the space, Mauk created a series of kinetic sculptures designed to draw attendees' attention while focusing on the key messages right out of O.C. Tanner's new brochures. "It's not very often where this happens when you look at a company's collateral and derive honest-to-goodness inspiration," Mauk says. But the new corporate brochures provided an established color scheme and personality that Mauk adopted as the foundation of the space. Plus, tying the exhibit so tightly to the collateral literature kept O.C. Tanner's corporate presence integrated and on message.

One sculpture, for example, featured a large moving arrow with the words, "What Goes Around Comes Around," reinforcing the message from O.C. Tanner's own literature that treating employees right means employees will do the same for their boss. Another sculpture featured two giant arms moving to slap their hands together next to the words, "The High Five," meant to symbolize the recognition of teamwork on the job. The silhouettes of people rising from an oversized flowerpot next to the phrase "Grow Your People" emphasized the importance of promoting from within. And another sculpture that resembled a paper airplane was accompanied by the phrase "Fly Air Thanks," emphasizing the need to show appreciation to employees.

But a whirling, twirling exhibit is little more than an attention getter without a presentation or sales pitch that hammers the key messages home. So Mauk conceived a way to tie the exhibit components directly to O.C. Tanner's in-booth presentation: All the mechanized gizmos were attached to a giant blade switch - the kind Igor would throw at Dr. Frankenstein's command - so the movement could be stopped with a presenter's flip of the switch. Instead of the words "on" and "off," this switch was labeled with the words "with" and "without," symbolizing how a workplace with recognition moves like a well-oiled machine, while a workplace without recognition screeches to a grinding halt.

"When I saw that the new design would lead with ideas rather than just showcasing the same products we had displayed in previous exhibits, I knew we'd hit the right chord," Clinger says. After all, a gold watch is a gold watch. But O.C. Tanner was offering attendees an entirely new approach to appreciation.

Appreciation in Motion

Amid the staid and stale looks of the other booths at the 2008 SHRM show, attendees found the O.C. Tanner exhibit, a 30-by-40-foot island filled with moving, rotating sculptures that communicated the idea of "appreciateology." At the center of the exhibit, surrounded by those moving figures were seats for attendees to watch the five-minute "appreciateology" presentation. The plan was to get attendees to listen to the company's message about innovation, then reward their attendance with a giveaway - a canvas bag filled with the very collateral literature that inspired the booth and presentation they'd just seen.

While the company had been giving in-booth presentations since 2003, this one was different. Rather than focusing on new products and services, the 2008 presentation featured O.C. Tanner's clients speaking about the importance of recognizing employees, the tangible benefits of showing appreciation, and how O.C. Tanner had helped them achieve their goals of employee satisfaction.

During the presentations, the sculptures all did their whirling and twirling, representing the momentum of a company full of happy, committed employees. Toward the end of each presentation, the speaker asked attendees to watch what happened when employees didn't feel appreciated. Suddenly, the presenter threw the switch from "with" appreciation to "without," and the moving sculptures all came to a dramatic stop.

"When you pull the switch down and all of the kinetic sculptures stop, it's a light-bulb moment for the crowd," Clinger says. "Appreciation changes everything. When you recognize good work, good things come. That's why when you flipped the switched to 'without,' all the movement stopped, representing the drop in productivity and forward momentum that accompanies employee frustration and burnout."

With the motion of the kinetic sculptures, and the fun and dramatic presentations, getting attendees to sit for five minutes was never a problem. In fact, O.C. Tanner enjoyed about four overflowing crowds per hour all through the show. "As far as results, they were pretty mobbed," Mauk says.

Appreciating the Results

Hoping to attract 2,000 attendees to its booth, O.C. Tanner's unique and innovative exhibit caught the attention of more than 3,000 prospects who sat through at least one of the five-minute presentations. That marked an impressive 50-percent increase over previous years.

What's more, the new un-booth gave O.C. Tanner such a different look and feel than the rest of the exhibitors on the trade show floor that attendees were left in awe of the exhibit and its creative, kinetic sculptures and presentations, which of course influenced their perception of the company - something O.C. Tanner's previous booths failed to do.

"One attendee that I've known for years walked into the booth and mouthed, 'Oh, my gosh,'" Clinger says. "She was amazed at how visually appealing our booth was. It was obvious that we were doing something different - something innovative."

Another attendee who visited the exhibit summed up the company's success nicely, remarking to Clinger, "This isn't the O.C. Tanner that we have seen in the past." And that response, more than anything, was exactly the kind of recognition the company was looking for. E

Charles Pappas, senior writer; cpappas@exhibitormagazine.com

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