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or a tech company, exhibiting at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a no-brainer. With 150,000 attendees and 2,700 exhibits filling 1.6 million net square feet of Las Vegas exhibit-hall space, it is the king of consumer-electronics events, and everyone who's anyone is there. But being noticed at CES, where tech giants swagger in with the most cutting-edge products in the world, can be a bit of a challenge.

For D-Link Systems Inc., a supplier of networking-, broadband-, digital-, voice-, and data-communication tools, CES provides a critical dais for building brand awareness and launching new products. D-Link is well known for its routers, but that success has also created a shadow over its other innovations. "We're seen as a home-network provider that just sells routers," says Dan Kelley, D-Link's associate vice president of marketing. "So we rely on CES as a stage, a launch pad, for our other products. It's an opportunity to show that we sell more than routers."

The company shook the "router only" misconception slightly in 2010, winning Best In Show at CES for its Boxee Box, a groundbreaking device that allows users to stream things normally watched on a computer to a TV. But in the world of technology, one can't rest on such laurels for long, as the next great invention pushes the last out of the spotlight faster than information on an Ethernet cable.

But that same year, D-Link's North American revenue had dipped to represent just 23 percent of the company's overall sales, and execs were grappling with how to grow a brand in a market where competition was rising and consumers were clinging to their money in post-recession doubt. Rather than curl into a business fetal position to wait out sluggish sales, D-Link believed the answer was to diversify its product line, and it came out swinging in 2011 with a whole new lineup of offerings.

That meant the company had more riding on CES in 2011 than ever before. D-Link was counting on its exhibit to generate enough visibility to introduce a new suite of home-technology products for gaming, entertainment, home monitoring, and enhanced wireless capabilities. But since home networking lacks a certain seductiveness when it's down the aisle from gesture-control gaming or the biggest television screen on the planet, D-Link knew it had to come up with something clever if it wanted to attract attention. "CES is so massive and very flashy with so much noise and communication overload," Kelley says. "Companies have to put a large amount of focus on standing out. Getting attendees to even notice your products is truly a challenge, especially for the home networking business. So we decided to go bigger than we've ever gone."

Meet Mr. Heat Seeker

D-Link went to the exhibit drawing board with DisplayWorks LLC, an Irvine, CA-based exhibit builder, and its integrated marketing division, Brand B Marketing. "D-Link was competing against huge names with the sexiest products at CES," Brand B creative director Bryan Ventura says. "Creating any kind of buzz at the show is hard because of the information overload, and getting people's attention is very difficult. D-Link has great products, but a router is not exactly sexy. We had to come up with a way to create excitement on the show floor."

The challenge was clear, albeit daunting: Somehow this team had to brainstorm a way to make home-network technology the belle of the CES ball, sexy enough to build the buzz they needed to get people into the booth. Then they had to design an exhibit engaging enough to keep attendees there for a sufficient amount of time to learn about D-Link's new products. The question was how.

What emerged from the brainstorming session was not exactly a belle, and he wasn't exactly sexy, but Mr. Heat Seeker would prove to be an engaging figure as he traveled from the coldest place on earth to the hottest - D-Link's booth at CES. "We created a character that people could identify with as he started this journey to get warm and connected," Ventura says. "And we decided quirky humor was the best way to get the high visibility we needed." And with that, Mr. Heat Seeker was born.

The comedic character was first introduced via an e-mail blast sent to past D-Link booth visitors and a purchased list of preregistered CES attendees a month before the show. Pictured mostly shrouded in an enormous fur hood on a frigid landscape, Mr. Heat Seeker was identified only as being from the coldest place on earth and just beginning a 15,000-mile journey that would land him at CES. "What compels a man to embark on a solo voyage from the comfort of his bitter cold home to Las Vegas? For this man, it's more than his primal need to get warm. He wants to get connected - to friends, to entertainment, and of course, to free prizes," the e-mail blast said. Recipients were invited to follow his quest via a Twitter account (@MrHeatSeeker) and an online travel blog (www.dlinkCES.com), and were promised, "His followers shall be rewarded."

Thinking Inside the Ice Box

To build the comedic character's following in the weeks leading up to the show, D-Link not only employed e-mail blasts, but also used Mr. Heat Seeker's Twitter account to track the show's hashtag (#CES) and engage individuals who were tweeting about CES. Daily tweets and blogs posts established the Mr. Heat Seeker character as something of a "Big Lebowski" throwback who was broke, cold, and clueless about technology. "From his life of cold and lonely solitude he heard about this hot spot with great technology and was going to make it to CES no matter what," Ventura says. "His humorous blog posts and tweets about adventures along the way were entertaining enough to attract attention and garner followers."

The pre-show communications contained marketing messages that touted D-Link's new products and prizes that would be given away in the booth. They also hinted that attendees would get to meet Mr. Heat Seeker if they visited the D-Link exhibit, and challenged them, "No matter where your journey to CES begins, make sure it ends up at The Hottest Spot in Vegas - the D-Link booth."

As CES drew near, the color scheme of the travel blog changed from wintery blues to warm oranges and yellows, and Mr. Heat Seeker announced that he had arrived at the show and would be moving in. "I came from the coldest place on earth to The Hottest Spot, and I'm staying," a second e-mail blast told attendees. "Now I'm warm and connected - to friends, entertainment, and of course, free prizes." He invited people to come visit him at his new home in the D-Link booth to win prizes and promised, "You can't miss me!" And really, they couldn't.

He Came, He Thawed, He Conquered

Dressed in a Pittsburgh Penguins T-shirt, pants, a bathrobe, slippers, and a fur hat with flaps, Mr. Heat Seeker was living in an 8-foot acrylic cube on the upper deck of the D-Link exhibit when attendees arrived at CES. Kicked back in an easy chair, Mr. Heat Seeker had a full complement of technology gadgets to entertain himself in his new home, all of which would be given away as part of a grand-prize drawing at the end of the show.

Designed by DisplayWorks, the structure was D-Link's first double-deck booth. "We were working with the theme of making your home the hottest spot, so we decided to create a home-like atmosphere for the products to show how they could do that," senior designer Jeff Spitler says. The 50-by-50-foot lower deck was divided into sections representing different areas of a home, each with different colored walls, home-furniture props, and D-Link products from the new line designed to be used there.

For example, an area with a magenta-colored wall and baby-changing table contained D-Link's new remote camera system. Meanwhile, a fireplace mantle in a teal-hued area showed off routers, a green-hued area featured a bar and the company's home-entertainment equipment for streaming content, and a bright orange space with a comfy beanbag chair emphasized D-Link's gaming products. Each of the five rooms also contained learning stations with product demos and D-Link staffers available to answer attendees' questions.

Upstairs, booth visitors could interact with Mr. Heat Seeker living inside his acrylic box. Jutting out from the main 20-by-20-foot deck area, the cube was positioned on an 18-foot-diameter semi-circle and bordered by a walkway, providing 360-degree visibility of the man and all of his gadgets. Above the box was a Vegas-style marquee with chasing lights that announced this was "The Hottest Spot." Styled after graphics from the e-blasts, the sign provided high visibility and immediate recognition for attendees who received the pre-show materials.

Ice Breaker

D-Link didn't just create a spectacle out of the man in the box on the second floor; it used him and his new home as an entertaining presentation space that kept visitors in the booth and educated them about D-Link's products.

An emcee worked the crowd near Mr. Heat Seeker's tiny abode, flanked by a D-Link product specialist who played the straight man during exchanges. Mr. Heat Seeker, who was actually a professionally trained comic, fueled the interactive presentation with witty banter and questions about the technology he was using in his new "home." That equipment included a TV, laptop, and gaming system, along with a host of D-Link's home-networking equipment that works with those items.

Curious, playful, and mischievous, Mr. Heat Seeker traded witty barbs with the emcee and the crowd, and peppered the D-Link product specialist with off-the-wall queries about products that opened the door for key messages. During one exchange, for example, Mr. Heat Seeker held a D-Link network cam with dual antennas and asked, "Is this a rabbit sculpture?" A D-Link product specialist explained that it was actually a network cam that allows users to monitor their homes via computers or mobile devices while they're away. "So I could see all the way back to my iceberg monitoring station?" asked Mr. Heat Seeker. "Yes, you could, as long as you have an Internet connection," responded the product specialist, noting that the latest model is even available with night-vision capabilities. "So I can see zombies?" asked the man in the box, eliciting laughter from attendees as the emcee wrapped up the humorous exchange with, "I think the cold's gotten to his head. How many of you out there have a network cam? Who wants to win one?"

Every 15 minutes, the emcee gave away one of D-Link's new wireless home-monitoring cameras to the attendee with the fastest correct answer to a D-Link trivia question. Through his @MrHeatSeeker Twitter account, the man in the box also periodically gave away cameras and D-Link Boxee Boxes to the first attendees who visited the booth and repeated the secret phrase, "I am the chosen one."

Between presentations, Mr. Heat Seeker would occasionally brandish a map and point to where he had come from, and he answered most questions posed by the emcee with "Sarah Palin." It was, in Ventura's words, just plain fun. "This was a great way to deliver lots of good product info in a manner that kept people engaged, laughing, and wanting to hear more - as opposed to a one-sided speaker on a stage lecturing a silent audience," Ventura says. "Mr. Heat Seeker was unpredictable, which kept the presentation light and improvisational. It was a stark contrast to the typically dry, rigidly scripted stage presentations you sometimes see at trade shows."

Whether they viewed the second-story presentation or not, all booth visitors were invited to fill out entry cards for a grand-prize drawing, the winner of which received a laptop computer, a flatscreen TV, a gaming system, and an array of D-Link home-technology products. The entry cards were a key component of the campaign, intended to aid in capturing leads, contact information, and attendee comments while simultaneously incentivizing attendees to explore D-Link's array of offerings. To complete the cards and be eligible for the drawing, attendees needed to have them signed at two D-Link product areas on the main floor of the booth. That meant if attendees wanted to win, they first needed to learn about D-Link's new products and, in the process, see for themselves that the company offers much more than routers.

Increased Exposure

"We had Mr. Heat Seeker essentially squatting in our booth, and it created a bit of a spectacle," Spitler says, "kind of like a reality TV show." But a reality show is only successful if viewers get to know the contestants, and despite D-Link's pre-show efforts to introduce attendees to Mr. Heat Seeker, the company knew that not everyone roaming the aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center had been exposed. So in a brilliant move to drum up additional on-site awareness for the company, the character, and the hottest-place-on-earth theme, D-Link set up a second exhibit, a 10-by-20-foot booth, in a high-traffic hallway outside the exhibit hall on the second floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall. There, staffers introduced attendees to the character of Mr. Heat Seeker, invited them to participate in an activity, and directed them to the company's larger exhibit on the show floor.

D-Link's second exhibit space was staffed with booth babes donning polar-themed attire: electric-blue wigs, white bomber jackets, and tall fur-trimmed boots. Set against a back-wall graphic that carried the campaign's Hottest Spot theme, including the marquee imagery from the main exhibit, the staffers enticed visitors into the space with an ice-fishing game in which they cast a D-link branded fishing pole into a small swimming pool in an attempt to win a branded faux ice cube with a blinking LED light inside. Though it was a simple game with a relatively small prize, attendees lined up for a chance to win, while scores more stood around and watched.

That captive audience gave booth staffers the opportunity to hand out maps to the main D-Link exhibit, as well as additional entry cards for the grand-prize drawing. After the show, the winner of the drawing was announced in a follow-up e-mail, which also provided recipients one last chance to win a prize by completing a post-show survey that asked for feedback about the trade show and D-Link's products. The company used the information provided to target all survey respondents with customized follow-up messages packed with information on the products that most interested them.

Click here to watch a video about the campaign

Cold Hard Results

According to Kelley, the integrated campaign was a springboard that launched D-Link's new products far beyond the company's expectations, making the $72,000 investment in the booth and promotion seem miniscule by comparison. More than 2,500 people entered the grand-prize drawing, and D-Link increased leads by 45 percent over the previous year's campaign. "We received an overall jump in leads, our measured press exposure saw a significant uptick, and our e-mail response rate was higher than last year," Kelley says. "But the biggest measurement stick is, of course, the return on investment after the show. And the sales impact ultimately proved to be our biggest success metric."

The suite of home products, which had zero presence in the consumer market prior to CES, has grown to become a powerful player since, with more retail-shelf space being devoted to D-Link devices daily. Final sales totals are not yet in, but Kelley is confident the quirky campaign will end up paying for itself many times over. "Moving to a two-story structure was a significant investment for D-Link, but when we look back at 2011 as a whole, with CES kick-starting the year, we're quite pleased. The campaign was a huge success." And the secret to that success, D-Link found, is that sometimes thinking outside the box means thinking inside the box - especially if it's acrylic and big enough to house a man inside. E

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