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Exhibitor: Cisco Systems Inc.
Creative: Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Culver City, CA, 310-280-2200, www.ogilvy.com; Sparks Marketing Group Inc., Philadelphia, 215-676-1100, www.sparksonline.com
Production: AV Images, Livermore, CA, 800-801-1500,
Show: RSA Conference, 2009
Budget: $200,000
Gather roughly 700 leads despite a projected 25-percent drop in show attendance.
Earn more show-related media mentions than in 2008, along with coverage in prominent general-interest publications.
Build pre-show buzz and generate Web traffic to The Realm microsite.
Collected 700 leads at $285 per lead in 2009 versus 908 leads at $771 per lead in 2008.
Amassed 150 media mentions, including stories in prominent publications such as PRWeek and The Wall Street Journal.
Generated more than 38,200 clickthroughs to its microsite, two-thirds of which were first-time visitors to www.cisco.com
hen times get tough, the downtrodden masses look for a hero to save the day. From Superman to Wolverine and every Spandex-wearing, caped crusader in between, it's the super-charged, super-powered set that wipes away our insurmountable troubles and makes us feel everything will soon be A-OK. So it should come as no surprise that when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges at the 2009 RSA Conference, Cisco Systems Inc. turned to its own set of superheroes to save the day.

The first of Cisco's obstacles for the show was a slashed budget: While the company spent $700,000 at RSA in 2008, it had allocated only $200,000 for its exhibit in 2009, a decrease of more than 70 percent. As a result, the company faced the secondary challenge of maintaining a powerful presence with 700 fewer square feet of booth space, down from a 40-by-40-foot exhibit in 2008 to a 30-by-30-foot booth in 2009. And with an expected 25-percent decrease in attendees at RSA, the company needed something, anything, to generate buzz and draw prospects to its booth.

Further complicating matters was a shift in corporate strategy. For years, the company had been targeting C-level attendees at the show. But in 2009, Cisco decided to instead target the network-security professionals who actually use its solutions on the job. After all, while C-level types typically make the ultimate decision when it comes to investing in network-security solutions, the new target audience of tech-minded end users are the primary influencers who recommend products and services similar to those offered by Cisco.

Cisco worked with well-known cartoonist Mike Mayhew to imbue each superhero with characteristics of the product that superhero represented.

"Our new strategy was more focused around getting out there in front of our end users again," says Marie Hattar, vice president of security and network systems solution marketing at Cisco. "We decided to invest some time to reconnect with and engage those technical decision-makers."

Cisco knew developing awareness among a new target group of attendees would be difficult in and of itself. Add the aforementioned challenges to the mix, and it seemed tantamount to leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

To overcome its obstacles and emerge victorious, Cisco needed something super-powered. Something heroic. Something capable of saving the day at RSA.

Comic Concept

With so much working against Cisco at the 2009 RSA show, the company sought the help of creative agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide of Culver City, CA. The company's overarching objective at the show was to generate a critical mass of industry buzz in an effort to maximize its downsized budget and get the most brand-awareness bang for its exhibiting buck.

The Adventures of The Realm
Cisco created a microsite where visitors could watch four Webisodes starring each of The Realm heroes.
To view the Webisodes, visit www.ExhibitorWebLinks.com.

Episode 1: Deja Vu
Trace overcomes a botnet attack, then notifies his team that Synocorp is facing an imminent threat.

Episode 2: Look Closer
Wall fights off malware and spam attacks, which are ruining Synocorp's productivity. He calls for backup.

Episode 3: Warning
Vixa battles to keep Synocorp's encryption key intact while saving the fictitious company's CEO.

Episode 4: Virus
Jux sends Vixa, Trace, and Wall to extinguish more threats and restore order to the network.

"Originally, Ogilvy & Mather came to us with a number of concepts, from the conservative to the bizarre," says Christine Canepa, marketing manager for security at Cisco. However, after Canepa looked at a few concepts that she describes as Cisco's same-old marketing efforts, Ogilvy & Mather pitched a striking concept for a promotional theme called The Realm.

At the center of the concept was a band of comic-book superheroes that personified Cisco's products and services. The concept was primarily inspired by research into the company's new target audience of network-security professionals that indicated an overwhelming appreciation of - and borderline passion for - comic books and science fiction.

Leveraging that love of the graphic novel, The Realm would tell Cisco's story through a series of dramatic Webisodes. The Spandex-clad heroes of this animated series would be a quartet of network-security saviors that would protect the fictitious "Synocorp," a corporation whose computer network comes under attack.

"Marie Hattar saw potential in the superhero concept right away," Canepa says. So with Ogilvy & Mather's help, Cisco began bringing to life the four superheroes it hoped would come to the company's rescue and help accomplish its exhibit-marketing objectives.

Cisco's Superheroes

The centerpiece of the campaign was a microsite that featured four Webisodes chronicling the adventures of The Realm. Each video clip ran between one and two minutes in length and featured four superhero characters - Trace, Wall, Vixa, and Jux - battling comic versions of real-life network-security threats such as botnets, malware, and spam.

The Realm's graphic-novel-inspired artwork appealed to Cisco's new target demographic. Meanwhile, the story - in which security threats come to life as animated evildoers - rang true with the kinds of problems those targeted network-security professionals face in the real world but with a decidedly dramatic flair.

When people visited The Realm microsite, they got their first glimpse of Cisco's superheroes, along with the text, "Welcome to the Digital Era on Earth. In this new era, there exists a new class of criminals. To stop them, a select group of Cisco engineers have been appointed to develop a state-of-the-art security force." Following the brief introduction to The Realm characters and the company's comic-themed key messaging, visitors could view one of four Webisodes.

Beginning with an undercurrent of dramatic music, each Webisode told of an attack on Synocorp, and how the team of Cisco superheroes handled the threat. In the second Webisode, for example, malware and spam - in the form of arachnid-inspired robots - threatened productivity at Synocorp. Enter Wall, the burly firewall-inspired superhero who narrated this particular story, fighting the robots and communicating with his teammates when he needed help. At the end of the Webisode, Jux, the team's mastermind, called Wall, Trace, and Vixa back to base, declaring ominously, "I know what they were after."

To add authenticity to its characters, Cisco worked with the project's artist, well-known cartoonist Mike Mayhew, to imbue each superhero with characteristics of the product that superhero represented. For example, since Trace fought to protect Synocorp's e-mail systems, the slim, speedy superhero needed to be shown reacting quickly, like an e-mail filter would. Wall, on the other hand, was drawn to be large and strong, like a good network firewall.

In addition to the Webisodes, the microsite also featured profiles of the characters and information on the products they represented, information about the engineers who developed the products, and extras such as The Realm-inspired desktop wallpapers and instant-messenger avatars.

The Battle Begins

With RSA scheduled for April 20-24, The Realm Webisodes debuted in early February with a new video posted to the microsite roughly every three weeks. The last of the four Webisodes actually debuted to the media at the show, making sure industry scribes would see The Realm and giving them a news peg on which to hang their stories.

Models dressed as Trace and Vixa were on hand to interact with attendees, many of whom pulled out cameras to take photos with the dynamic duo.

To build interest in The Realm, Cisco plastered welcome ads and banner ads on industry-related Web sites such as Network World and Computerworld. The company also took advantage of social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to promote the Web comics. A pre-show e-mail and a link on Cisco's main corporate Web site helped direct additional pre-registered attendees and members of the company's target audience to The Realm microsite.

While some of the ads featured all four of the superheroes alongside the Cisco logo and the tagline "Cisco Presents An Exclusive Four-Episode Engagement: The Realm," others featured images of individual superheroes in action alongside related key messages such as "Comprehensive Malware Protection" or "World-Class Firewall Technology." By clicking on the ad, Web surfers were taken directly to The Realm microsite.

Cisco tracked the performance of those ads on industry online publications such as Tech Target, Computerworld, Network World, Tech Republic, SourceForge, and CSO. The ads generated 21,869 clickthroughs to the microsite. Cisco also earned campaign exposure from another 16,393 visitors who clicked through to the microsite from ads on non-industry sites such as YouTube, Google, and ComicBookResource.

In total, The Realm microsite welcomed more than 80,000 visitors during the eight-week launch period. With 64 percent of those visitors finding their way to the Cisco corporate site for the first time, it was clear The Realm had harnessed the kind of buzz the company had hoped for. Best of all, the majority of the clickthroughs were originating from network-security Web sites that were awash with Cisco's techie target audience.

Welcome to The Realm

With The Realm's first three Webisodes released prior to the show, Cisco's first order of business at RSA was to debut the fourth and final Webisode at a press conference it held during the show's media day. The press conference, attended by 37 media members the day before the show's public opening, focused on The Realm and how Cisco's products played a part in the animated superhero cartoon. Combined with the 70 industry analysts who were briefed before the show on Cisco's RSA efforts, and the individual meetings the company held with 24 additional media reps after the press conference, a total of 131 writers and editors heard Cisco's message.

Booth staffers wore The Realm T-shirts and distributed 300 branded shirts to attendees.

When the show finally opened, Cisco's exhibit was awash in artwork and messaging right off the microsite. The company's exhibit house, Sparks Marketing Group Inc. of Philadelphia, infused the visual tone from the comics into the booth, with clean, polished materials reminiscent of The Realm's fictitious Synocorp. Meanwhile, life-sized light boxes featured the characters from The Realm. The 7-foot-tall light boxes from AV Images of Livermore, CA, were accompanied by information about the Cisco security system that character personified.

Cisco also brought two of its superheroes to life, dressing a pair of models as Trace and Vixa, complete with form-fitting red and yellow suits, respectively. Attendees took their own pictures with the crusaders, giving the Cisco booth the feeling of a ComicCon event on the RSA show floor.

But the comic-inspired excitement didn't end with the photo-op. Trading cards, T-shirts, and posters of The Realm's heroes were handed out as attendee giveaways, all with additional brand-building promotional power and information about Cisco's own superpowers.

Those keepsake trading cards, for example, featured messages about the Cisco solutions each hero represented, giving attendees a way to remember not just the cool characters and the comic-inspired Webisodes, but also details of how the company's security products could help them do their jobs.

Cisco even invited 35 of its current customers to a VIP luncheon where artist Mike Mayhew signed legal-pad-sized posters of his The Realm artwork. The luncheon, held on the third day of RSA, was intended to show those customers a little appreciation for their continued business, while simultaneously reenergizing that existing client base with an awareness of and excitement for Cisco's products.

Collectable trading cards featured the four superheroes and information on the Cisco solution each character was meant to represent.

Superheroes to the Rescue

Cisco hoped that The Realm Webisodes and related paraphernalia - the trading cards, posters, T-shirts, and live appearances by Trace and Vixa - would build ongoing buzz among its new target audience of network-security end users. But unless they had psychic superpowers, Canepa and her team couldn't have possibly imagined just how much buzz the quartet of comic stars would generate.

Cisco experienced its tale being told in a variety of places, from glowing write-ups in PRWeek and All Things Digital to an article in The Wall Street Journal. All told, The Realm campaign generated more than 150 media mentions. Compared to the handful of stories written about Cisco at the 2008 RSA Conference, The Realm effectively vanquished the company's hurdles of a slashed budget, smaller booth, and decreased show attendance.

In addition, Cisco gathered 700 leads at its exhibit. Granted, that marked a 23-percent drop from the 908 leads collected in 2008. But considering the 25-percent decrease in total RSA attendance, the quantity was on par with Cisco's recalibrated goals for the show. Thanks to the company's tightened budget for RSA 2009, the cost for gathering each of those leads dropped more than 60 percent from $771 per lead in 2008 to a thrifty $285 per lead in 2009.

Over and above those measurable objectives, the comic-inspired campaign was both appropriate to the company's new target audience, and extremely well integrated into its key messages for the show. "These superheroes were directly connected to Cisco's products and messages," said one Sizzle Awards judge. "The characters and their stories were interesting and engaging, making them far more memorable than any promotional videos or literature I've ever seen. And since you couldn't forget the superheroes, you couldn't possibly forget Cisco, its key messages, or the products it was promoting at the show."

The Realm effectively vanquished the company's hurdles of a slashed budget, smaller booth, and decreased show attendance.

Another judge seemed prophetic when adding, "The campaign clearly has legs post show. I'd be really interested to know what they did to follow this up."

Well, five weeks after RSA ended, the microsite registered an additional 10,000 post-show hits despite the fact that the banner ads directing Web surfers to the microsite were no longer active. That result, Canepa says, has inspired Cisco to invest in new Webisodes and additional content to extend the campaign into 2010.

That means The Realm and its now iconic superheroes won't be hanging up their Spandex suits anytime soon. Instead, Trace, Wall, Vixa, and Jux will continue defending Synocorp against the evils of Digital-Era criminals. And with this heroic team on the job, Cisco can rest assured that everything will be A-OK.  E

Brian Todd, staff writer; btodd@exhibitormagazine.com

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