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Exhibitor: Switch: Liberate
Your Brand
Creative/Production: Switch: Liberate Your Brand, St. Louis, 314-206-7700, www.theswitch.us
Budget: $89,000
Collect 75 high-quality leads.
Set up business appointments with 30 new prospects.
Generate two media stories.

Secured 94 leads.
Arranged business appointments with 31 new prospects.
Generated two media stories.

ike most exhibitors at EXHIBITOR2009, Switch: Liberate Your Brand had a concrete marketing plan. Unlike most exhibitors at the annual trade show and conference for exhibit and event managers, however, the St. Louis-based experiential marketing firm's plan was to get kicked off the show floor by the second day. "That's how we could tell if we were really successful," says John Burns, the company's vice president of business development.

The company's bad-boy attitude was the impetus for an integrated marketing strategy that was more smart than smart ass, however - especially for a small, upstart business with less-than-zero name recognition among its target audience. A wet-behind-the-ears newbie at EXHIBITOR2009, Switch felt the show's 5,800 pre-registered attendees offered a buffet of influential exhibit, event, and C-level marketing prospects. The company thought it could build a pipeline of new business thereby creating an exhibit and experience that attendees would find utterly unforgettable.

But in a show with 300 other exhibitors and where booths in years past have included Disney World-like extravaganzas such as Derse Inc.'s exhibit in 2007 with walls of packing foam and poplar that gleamed with "2001: A Space Odyssey"-style lighting, or Exhibitgroup/Giltspur's 2006 booth with remote-controlled blimps and a genie's lamp large enough to fit a grown man inside, the 30-year-old company worried it was walking into an O.K. Corral shootout armed with a squirt gun.

Despite a double-barreled roster of clients that included Atlanta-based United Parcel Services Inc. and Duluth, GA-headquartered Primerica Financial Services Inc., Switch's brand identity - an agency that could liberate you from the imprisoning blandness of traditional marketing - was still somehow unknown.

Partly it was a problem of history: The company launched in 1980 as Busch Creative Services Corp., when it planned and executed meetings and events for the Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. After the beer behemoth sold off the marketing company to three of its managers in 2002, some potential customers couldn't rise above the conceptual hump of viewing it in any capacity other than working with events that involved brewskies, Clydesdales, and theme parks. Then, there was also a problem of nomenclature. The company morphed from its original handle to The Spark Agency Inc. in 2002. Then, due to a legal squabble in 2007, it had to shed that name and take on its third moniker in just five years - Switch: Liberate Your Brand.

Changing titles so often made it more difficult to gain traction and mind share. With the deck stacked against Switch, it's no wonder the agency's level of brand awareness stayed as flat as an open can of Bud Light come Monday morning. "If you want to convince people to give you money, you have to have a track record they're aware of," Burns says. "But the customers who would be at EXHIBITOR Show had no sense of us. We had to somehow show them that we were different."

Making the challenge more problematic was a pocket-change budget of $89,000. Trying to compete with other exhibitors on a dollar-to-dollar basis would be like trying to compete with a Michael Bay movie using a Flip Mino camcorder. So the company did what any outnumbered force, from Bolshevik revolutionaries to Greek insurgents, has done throughout history: It appropriated the language and look of guerrilla war, along with guerrilla marketing tactics, to liberate its image and defeat a larger enemy with deeper pockets and more resources.

And that's why, at the ragged end of an exhausting brainstorming session one late Friday afternoon two months before the show, Burns and the rest of Switch's management concluded the best barometer of acceptance at EXHIBITOR2009 would be rejection - getting forcibly booted out. It was a tongue-in-cheek idea, but the sentiment was real. "We wanted to be the bad boy of the show," Burns says, "because the bad boy stands out, and that's who you're most likely to remember."

The Blogs of War

From Tom Paine's printed broadsides bashing the British, to the Zapatistas' Internet indictments of Mexican authorities, every guerrilla movement has used the media of its era to alert the world of its presence. Switch attacked with a sophisticated, blended approach of the conventional and the cutting edge.

In full-page, back-cover, and half-page ads placed in industry publications, Switch teased readers with images of a junked television and the word "Liberate" scrawled in black, graffiti-like text across the defunct set's screen. Along with the tagline "Liberation Begins 3.23.09" - the date the show's exhibit hall opened its doors - and a call to action to come to its booth, the ad also included two dots. Looking like orange and blue paint splotches, the dots would later become one of the company's signature guerrilla-marketing tactics at the show.

Inspired in part by artist Shepard Fairey, whose posters depicting Andre the Giant with the puzzling admonition to "Obey Giant" became a cultural meme, Switch's ads kept any explanation about the imminent liberation campaign to an intriguingly mysterious minimum.

The conventional print advertising was just part of Switch's multi-pronged offensive. The magazine ads also contained the URL of the agency's Web site. Once readers went there, they were directed to "The Liberation Begins" blog, where Switch wanted them to get a deeper glimpse of the creative soul beneath its corporate shellac. The 1,130 unique visitors attracted to the site found links to news articles about the company, as well as videos and slide shows highlighting its clients, such as Major League Baseball (MLB), NCR Corp., and Anheuser-Busch.

Visitors also found the brand's manifesto on the site. Because, like a Che Guevara poster, no self-respecting rebels worth their berets can be without a public declaration of principles. "Advertising of yesterday is dead today," read the proclamation, which resembled a weathered call-to-arms poster from the Spanish Civil War, "and we just have one thing to say about that. It's about freakin' time." And there again, like a graphic signature, were the two orange and blue circular blemishes, which Switch was using as a trade-mark signature, the same way Greek agitators in the 1960s scribbled and scratched the letter "Z" - signifying a slain martyr - in the dark of night on any surface they could to represent their cause.

Next, Switch turned to the subversive power of social media, and set up an account on Twitter. One of the most popular of the online tools, Twitter has the capacity to undermine the marketing status quo that's as huge as the 140-characters-long messages on it are short. Savvy marketers (including Zappos.com Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.) understand that using Twitter is like walking into a cocktail conversation: You observe before you blend in, and you blend in before you act. (Chairman Mao's very definition, by the way, of guerrilla war.)

One month before the show debuted, Switch began following the Twitter feeds of other companies who were registered as exhibitors or attendees at the upcoming expo. Reading others' tweets and posting on other accounts quietly established the agency's presence. Then slowly, surely, the audiences for those accounts - as well as others directed to Twitter by the liberation blog and the company's weekly e-mails to registered attendees - started following Switch's Twitter feeds themselves. By show time, the company had recruited 150 followers.

Up Against the Wall

At first Switch had considered doing nothing more outrageous in its exhibit than hanging banners with case histories of its work printed on them, then populating the booth with client evangelists who would rabble rouse show attendees on the virtues of Switch. But in the end, the company knew if it was going to make an indelible impression on its audience, it needed to be so far off the deep end that it couldn't see the diving board anymore.

What curious attendees ultimately encountered when they approached the 20-by-40-foot space was a post-apocalyptic mashup between the highways from "Mad Max" and the streets in Russia's October Revolution. Their curiosity had been incited by the coordinated "notes from the underground" pre-show messaging via e-mail, the liberation blog, and Twitter messages that promised the exhibit would make the other booths feel as lame and predictable as an episode of "Scooby Doo."

Switch delivered on that pledge, too: Attendees' eyes immediately riveted on the center of the booth, where a rented Nissan Frontier truck looked liked it had just smashed through a wall of tumbled cinder blocks with the velocity of a senior citizen veering into a farmer's market. Inspired by the Berlin Wall as a symbol of the creativity-crushing authority (i.e., traditional marketing) and its later fall as an equally potent symbol of liberation from that rigid despotism, Switch arranged about a dozen real cinder blocks, weighing nearly 30 pounds apiece, at the foot of truck. The rest of the wall, which cut through the middle of the booth and reached 6 feet high in places, was constructed with wood that a scenic painter weathered to mimic beat-up stone and worn-down mortar.

Arrayed around the imposing wall and the exhibit space were 10 TV sets from back in the day when there were only three channels to watch. Borrowed from a collector who packratted them in his Missouri barn, the timeworn sets represented the antiquated media and marketing that are as out of date as the Brylcreem on "Mad Men."

Hanging from a truss about 10 feet above the coarse walls and the busted TVs were six two-sided, 4-by-6-foot banners that depicted Switch's work for several clients, including Primerica and Anheuser-Busch. Slogans on the banners urged attendees to "Engage" and "Liberate," while their flip sides displayed the colored dots that were becoming as synonymous with Switch's marketing as the repeated use of a stylized letter "A" has been with anarchists over the decades.

Drawing on the propaganda signboards whose geometric shapes, outsized heroic faces, bold-capped slogans, and Sherwin-Williams colors helped topple the Romanovs from their throne in Russia almost 90 years ago, Switch composed five different posters that captured the coiled power of this primitive but potent social media.

Harking back to its magazine ads, Switch's creative and art directors distressed the posters until they looked as battered as Keith Richard's face. But they also updated them with modern typefaces and a snarkiness ("Old Advertising Methods Make Great Flower Pots" read a slogan on one) that riffed off the works of Shepard Fairey once more, as well as the English graffiti artist and satirist, Banksy.

Here again, the orange and blue dots logo appeared on all the posters - on a flag in one and as flower petals in another. With a dozen copies of the posters positioned around the exhibit, the battered-looking placards urged visitors to "End Old Media Oppression" and "Liberate Your Brand." Like their revolutionary ancestors in Russia that matured into collectors' items, the gorgeously crafted posters became popular giveaways, with Switch handing out nearly 200 copies to attendees.

Power to the People . and Paintball

As slick and engaging as its pre-show ads, tweets, booth design, and graphic elements were, Switch's whole revolutionary marketing buzz wouldn't have lasted much longer than Woodstock if it didn't integrate the theme with its staff. The company outfitted its 12 employees in proletariat-plain cargo pants and shirts. Entirely black, the outfits linked to the marketing campaign with the dots logo imprinted on the shirts' breast pockets.

Switch designated five staffers as engagers, who scanned badges, qualified leads, and then passed on top prospects immediately to one of four presenters. Using laptops connected to any of four 20-inch plasma screens located on the booth's walls, the presenters showed prospects how Switch helped other companies relieve themselves of the ancient regime of obsolete marketing ideas.

Everyone from tire kickers to prime leads was invited to play a version of paintball inside the booth. Originally, Switch had debated driving attendees out into the desert where they would blow up old TVs and radios into piles of smoking junk. But the company ultimately settled on the less explosive activity. Shooting the balls with paint the color of the dots logo at an old-timey test pattern on an ancient television allowed Switch staffers to chill with the visitors, make small talk, and fortify the company's message of brand liberation yet again.

But paintball wasn't the last touchpoint for Switch. Before the show, the company supplied each staff member with 200 stickers portraying the dots logo. From the moment Switch landed in Las Vegas until the hour it departed, staffers stuck more than 2,000 of the jack-o'-lantern-orange and sky-blue logos on any surface they could find, stationary and nonstationary alike - chairs, tables, walls, floors, and even urinals and people's backs when they weren't looking.

Viva La Revolución

"The first duty of a revolutionary," the antic 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman once said, "is to get away with it." Hobbled by a brother-can-you-spare-a-dime budget and an awareness of the brand that would make the Invisible Man stand out by comparison, Switch got away with it, so to speak - and more. By maintaining a uniform visual identity (e.g., the posters, the repetition of "The Liberation Begins" mantra, and the ubiquitous colored dots) that stretched from print and the Web to stickers and staff uniforms, it created a clear message that, like the best propaganda, worked because it was as consistent as it was relentless.

That's why, despite its bad-boy intentions before the show, Switch never really tried to get kicked off the floor. It didn't have to, because the company's marketing strategy brought it more results and attention than it dared dream.

For starters, the booth received EXHIBITOR2009's Best New Exhibitor Award. But that was just the cherry on top of the Peanut Buster Parfait. The company had wanted to qualify 75 prospects for post-show follow-up; it qualified 94, besting its target by more than 25 percent. Switch hoped for two media interviews resulting in articles covering the company; it met its goal, with three interviews and two stories. Looking for 30 new business appointments within 120 days of the show, it booked 17 in that time, and racked up 31 by the time this story went to press. Above and beyond those targets, Switch sold one new project and has three now waiting for clients' approval in 2009, plus one in 2010.

For all of Switch's turn-the-world-upside-down actions, its battle for brand awareness is more of a gradual evolution than an abrupt revolution. Post-show surveys showed 93 percent of visitors were intrigued by Switch's booth and its marketing message. "The Liberation Begins" blog evolved into one called "Liberate Your Brand," and now draws an audience of approximately 70 visitors per day. The company currently has almost 400 followers on Twitter, and is optimistic it will reach a goal of 15 new business proposals by year's end.

It's that kind of imaginative moxie that prompted one Sizzle Awards judge to comment, "If I were a customer needing someone to fight for me and to fight for something creative for my program, I'd hire this band of revolutionaries." E

Charles Pappas, senior writer; cpappas@exhibitormagazine.com

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