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Photos: Tillamook Cheese Inc.
Company: Tillamook Cheese Inc.
Event: Tillamook Loaf Love Tour
Objectives: Increase brand recognition and market share, generate media attention, and support a 10-year growth plan.
Strategy: Create an umbrella event concept under which ancillary media and consumer events can flourish year after year.
Tactics: Take the cheese-tasting experience on the road, targeting grocery-store executives, consumers, and the media to drive sales and awareness.
Results: Hosted 650 events that reached more than 548,680 consumers, generated hundreds of articles and press mentions, drove a 25-percent coupon-redemption rate, and garnered a market-share increase of almost 5 percent during the tour.
Creative Agency: Henry V, www.HenryVEvents.com
Production Agencies:
Bread & Butter Public Relations,
Volksfab, www.volksfab.com
Budget: $1.9 million
f you live in the Pacific Northwest, chances are that you've not only heard of Tillamook cheese, but you've even got a brick (or more precisely a "loaf," to use a Tillamook term) of medium cheddar in your refrigerator. Manufactured by Tillamook Cheese Inc., a 100-year-old, farmer-owned co-op, the Tillamook loaves are to the Pacific Northwest what Zapp's chips are to the Deep South.

But if you hail from the Southwest or way off yonder and East of the Rockies, the term "Tillamook" probably sounds more like a hearty Alaskan sled dog than something you'd serve with a stout merlot. Even if you've heard of the brand, you're more likely to consider it a gourmet product as opposed to an everyday staple. And therein lies the rub for Tillamook Cheese.

While the company takes great pride in its Oregon heritage and locally produced, all-natural ingredients, that pride hasn't been enough to propel this regional mainstay into national markets. In fact, outside of the West Coast, where it enjoys up to a 50-percent market share, it often scores a meager 2-percent share. By the beginning of 2009, a century after farmers formed the Tillamook County Creamery Association (today's Tillamook Cheese Inc.), most consumers had never heard of, much less tried, Tillamook cheese.

However, thanks to Tillamook's award-winning Loaf Love Tour, a series of 650 mobile tasting events (including VIP and media-related junkets) in eight states, more than 548,680 consumers have sampled a Tillamook loaf, setting the stage for the company's continued growth.

Breaking the Mold
Spurred on by its centennial anniversary - and the appointment of a new senior director of marketing, John Russell - Tillamook decided that 2009 was prime time to lay the groundwork for expansion. Starting in 2010, it hoped to spread its cheese beyond the Pacific Northwest.

To that end, it developed five- and 10-year growth plans, using live events as the main marketing vehicle. While it initially planned to target key growth markets in Texas, California, Utah, and Colorado (expanding east over the next 10 years as Tillamook awareness gained momentum), the company hoped to increase brand recognition, generate media attention, increase its online/social-media presence, and ultimately initiate and increase sales nationwide.

That same year, Tillamook also brought in Henry V, a Portland, OR, event agency, to head up the crux of its marketing strategy: face-to-face
events. "We know from our own research that people think all cheese pretty much tastes the same," Russell says. "But when they taste ours, they realize there's a difference. So we knew that the key to growth was getting cheese into mouths."

When Tillamook approached Henry V in 2009, its orders were simple and event focused. "Tillamook told us, 'We want to expand nationally, and that will mean getting people to taste our cheese at live events. That's it. You figure out the rest,'" says Katja Asaro, managing director of sales at Henry V.
Teaming up with Tillamook's existing PR and creative teams, Henry V quickly tossed out several concepts, all based around live events that supported Tillamook's slogan "It tastes better because it's made better." One concept, called the Loaf Love Tour, hit the nail on the head. According to Russell, it "accurately displayed the playfulness, quirkiness, and honesty of the Tillamook brand."

Tillamook Cheese Inc. customized '60s-style VW mini buses, dubbed "Loafsters," which made their way to more than 500 Loaf Love Tour stops in eight states.

"Our idea was that we'd create an umbrella event - a multicity extravaganza that would bring the product to the people and allow for similar events targeting various markets to springboard off of it," Asaro says. "The Loaf Love Tour would bring Tillamook cheese samples and coupons to grocery stores in eight states, allowing people to try the cheese right outside of locations where they could buy it - thereby driving immediate sales and demonstrating the sales potential of the cheese to grocery-store owners. Plus, we'd offer locally appropriate recipes and product information to educate people about why the cheese tastes better and give them new and inventive ways to use the product."

In keeping with the unique flavor of the Tillamook brand, Henry V envisioned the tour's own loaf-themed icons in the form of five "Loafsters" - custom-altered, '60s-style VW mini buses. Featuring the Tillamook name and cheddar-orange corporate color on the exterior, the buses would be cut down to a "loaf-like" length of 10 feet and a height of 5 feet 9 inches. The 42-horsepower Loafsters would serve as the perfect, product-centric visuals to not only generate attention for the events but also add a bit of memorable wit and whimsy to the tour.

The Loaf Love Tour, however, wouldn't exist in a vacuum. Straight out of the blocks, Henry V envisioned a series of targeted events held in conjunction with and in support of the tour. The complementary events fell into two loose categories: 1) VIP, "headquarter" events, targeting grocery-store chains and paving the way for the Loaf Love Tour, and 2) focused tastings, typically held in conjunction with existing events or at popular attractions, to generate media attention and consumer awareness among specified groups.

These events would use much of the same imagery and equipment as the main Loaf Love Tour (and yes, those lovable Loafsters) thereby integrating the overall campaign - a factor that wowed Corporate Event Awards judges and prompted them to honor Tillamook's entire year-long marketing campaign, as opposed to a single event. "This kind of mass event integration is way beyond what the food industry is doing," one judge said. "Combining a single, clever theme over several types of events and marketing it to various audiences and the media is wildly smart, making for a success story that is far bigger than one single event."

Buttering up the Big Cheese

In late 2009, then, Tillamook began laying the groundwork for the Loaf Love Tour by planning a series of seven VIP "headquarter" events. "Several chains had already granted permission for us to bring the Loaf Love Tour to their stores," Asaro says. "However, we still needed a handful of major grocery-store chains to allow the tour to visit their stores, help us promote it, and ultimately purchase enough product to accommodate the tour."

Held at grocery-store headquarters such as Brookshire Brothers Ltd. in Lufkin, TX, and the Raley's office in West Sacramento, CA, the seven VIP events held in 2010 also sought to help Tillamook forge stronger relationships with these key chains. "We didn't want to create yet another sales pitch to grocery-store executives," Russell says. "We wanted to bring the essence of Tillamook to their headquarters, teach them why our product is better, allow them to sample our cheese, and demonstrate how our marketing and product quality can actually help them make more money via sales in their stores. Ultimately, the goal was to build relationships and make our brand top of mind."

A prime example of these VIP events was held May 12, 2010, at The Phoenix, a historic banquet facility in Cincinnati - strategically located less than a mile from the headquarters for The Kroger Co., one of the largest retail food companies in the United States. Roughly four weeks prior to the event, Tillamook salespeople personally invited each Cincinnati-based Kroger executive to the VIP event. In addition, starting two weeks before the event, Tillamook parked one of its couldn't-miss Loafsters outside of Kroger headquarters to generate interest for the upcoming event.

"This was a personal VIP experience, not a cattle call, so we didn't want to send mass e-mails or blanket invitations," Asaro says.

Courting Kroger

The day of the Kroger event, company executives simply walked over to the venue, where they found yet another Loafster parked outside, clearly identifying the place as Tillamook territory. Once inside the ballroom, executives discovered four vignettes, each of which was meant to be experienced at their leisure - accompanied by a glass of wine and some cheese samples, of course. "The whole idea was to recreate a little piece of Oregon inside this venue," Asaro says. "But at the same time, each vignette communicated a distinct message we wanted the Kroger executives to hear."

To appeal to food buyers at major grocery retailers, Tillamook arranged VIP events that featured cheese tastings and showcased the company's entire product line.

One vignette represented the company's heritage, and offered a cheese-tasting process similar in style and format to that of a wine-tasting experience. Two waist-high desks held several large blocks of cheese. Here, a head quality-assurance employee from Tillamook taught attendees to use a specialized corkscrew-like device to pull their own cheese "plug" from the center of a block. As Kroger executives nibbled, she explained the cheese-tasting process, including what to look for in a quality cheese, how to taste it, etc., and described the Tillamook cheese-making process. Behind her, two graphics-covered walls featured a mixture of black-and-white and color photos of Tillamook's history, including some of the first Tillamook delivery trucks, a current photo of the Oregon headquarters, and images of real farming families and their dairy cattle.

A second vignette displayed Tillamook's entire cheese line, along with a few butter products, in a traditional grocery-store-style refrigerated cooler. White walls accompanied both sides of the cooler, and while graphics on one wall called out the fact that the company had just been voted the World's Best Medium Cheddar in 2010, the other wall featured a colorful bar chart demonstrating how Tillamook cheese is well-suited to Kroger's particular customer base. "In this section, we had Tillamook salespeople offering hands-on purchasing advice," Asaro says. "They explained what products sell best in various areas of the country and within different demographics, giving executives an insight into how to stock their stores."

A five-panel wall nearby comprised the third vignette touting the Loaf Love Tour. "At its core, the Loaf Love Tour promotes Tillamook cheese sales," Asaro says. "So in essence, the tour promotes sales in stores. That means, this gigantic tour is a value-added benefit to any store that stocks our product and allows the tour to visit it."

The panels also featured images of the iconic buses, promotional graphics used in conjunction with the tour, a list of cities the tour would visit, and the tagline "Tastes better because it's made better." A monitor inset into one panel also offered videos of the Loaf Love Tour in action. Meanwhile,
Russell and various other Kroger executives were standing by to explain how the tour was represented on the company's website, and to tout the tour's promotional activities including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr.

Finally, the last vignette was a test kitchen with a chef who whipped up sumptuous dishes specific to various regions of the country - ultimately demonstrating how to incorporate Tillamook cheese into several recipes. And of course, the chef encouraged attendees to sample the dishes, and the cheese, throughout the event.

Lasting roughly 90 minutes, the leisurely event culminated in a presentation from Harold Strunk and Jay Allison, Tillamook's CEO and senior vice president of sales and marketing, respectively. The pair explained why the tour should visit a multitude of the company's stores and how Tillamook could help increase in-store sales. At the conclusion of the presentation, which included PowerPoint slides projected onto 15-by-30-foot screens mounted over two vignettes, staffers handed out gift bags to departing attendees. Containing a Hot Wheels-like recreation of the Loafsters, a brochure on the Loaf Love Tour (including a map of planned stops), info on the entire Tillamook product line, and wheels of Tillamook's extra-sharp, vintage, white cheese that was specially crafted to celebrate its centennial anniversary, the bags offered attendees a sample of the marketing prowess behind this Oregonian brand.

At this particular Kroger event, and at all other VIP events like it, Tillamook walked away with both approval for the Loaf Love Tour to stop at the company's stores but also much stronger relationships with grocery executives. "The tour cemented Tillamook's place with these executives as a key player in the cheese industry," Asaro says. "It helped executives understand our cheese, and helped salespeople pre-sell cheese into these stores before our tour arrived. What's more, executives could see for themselves how far Tillamook was willing to go to help them sell its products."

Cheese Wheels Keep on Rollin'

While the VIP events throughout 2010 sought to add even more grocery stores to the existing Loaf Love Tour calendar, the tour actually kicked off in
January 2010 at stores that had already granted prior approval. Initially, the tour planned to visit 500 grocery stores, targeting consumers across the U.S., but particularly those in Tillamook's previously identified growth markets of Texas, California, Utah, and Colorado. "We wanted to reach at least 500,000 consumers between January and November 2010, and get each one to taste the cheddar that's made better," Asaro says.

The Love Loaf Tour set its wheels in motion in January 2010. With 500 grocery stores on its docket, Tillamook hoped the tour would reach at least 500,000 people.

In January, then, Tillamook loaded three of its Loafsters, which had been crafted by Volksfab of Port Orchard, WA, onto a customized 40-foot trailer and hit the road. (Since the buses topped out at 45 mph, highway travel was out of the question.) The trailer also featured exterior graphics made
to look like Plexiglas windows offering a realistic glimpse of the Loafsters inside - turning the transport vehicle into a moving Tillamook billboard. Once the vehicle reached its destination, Tillamook unloaded the Loafsters, each one of which visited a different store each day. "So in each city or region, we held three events every day for five days per week, resulting in 15 different Loaf Love Tour events within one area each week," Asaro says.

Tillamook also purchased billboard placements promoting the tour in key locations within each tour city - along with radio spots and print advertising to generate hype before the events. Plus, in conjunction with the tour, Henry V created a tour-specific website (www.LoafLoveTour.com). Here, people could read about the Loafsters, view the tour schedule, learn about Tillamook cheese, browse blogs from the tour's ambassadors, watch Loaf Love Tour videos, send a "Loaf Poem" to friends, and "follow" and "like" the tour on Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

And to ensure that participating grocery stores were fully prepared for the tour's arrival, Tillamook sent each one a pre-promotional packet. It included a spot to be recorded for the store's public-address system, a template that could be used to create promotional posters, and orange buttons for the staff to wear featuring what Tillamook calls "Loafisms," such as "Loaf is all You Need," "I Loaf You," and "Loaf Thy Neighbor."

To help grocery-store employees get up to speed on Tillamook's offerings - and also excited about the Loaf Love Tour - Tillamook placed "Loaf University" packets inside the break room of each store. Handouts explained the overall tour and directed employees to its website. After studying the information, employees took a short quiz to make sure they had a basic understanding of Tillamook and the tour. Brand ambassadors checked their quizzes, and provided free cheese coupons to those that passed.

When shoppers arrived at each participating grocery store, they found at least one of the Loafsters parked outside, along with a similar branded, cheddar-orange tent and fabric-covered table. Tour ambassadors - including two Tillamook Dairy Princesses (think Miss America Pageant for Tillamook, OR, farming families) and two women whose parents own dairy farms within the co-op - greeted visitors and offered them a cube of Tillamook cheese. Staffers also provided a bit of company history and explained what makes Tillamook cheese different from competing varieties. And as a departing gift, ambassadors gave shoppers discount coupons redeemable in the store and recipe cards for dishes made with Tillamook cheese.

Armed with their coupons, shoppers trekked into the store and sought out the Tillamook cheese displays, which had been pre-stocked with plenty of product. That said, sometimes there still wasn't enough. "At almost every grocery store at which we had an event, the store sold out of our cheese before the event ended," Russell says. In fact, according to Asaro, "Some stores that ran out asked us to leave early rather than lose face with customers. In the end, the coupon-redemption rate for the whole tour was astounding. The national average for coupon redemption with a grocery-store promotion is 5 percent or less. Our average rate for 2010 was 25 percent, and in some markets that percentage shot up to more than 40."

Thus, the tour sold a serious chunk of cheese at the 512 grocery-store events. And the Loaf Love Tour impressed upon grocers that given the chance, consumers will buy the cheese, a fact that will likely drive increased sales in the future. "The tour has definitely gotten the attention of our retail customers," Russell says. "It has also created another opportunity for our salespeople to interact with buyers - strengthening our overall relationships and creating sales opportunities for our other great-tasting products such as ice cream, yogurt, sour cream, and butter."

Cheese Pairings

In addition to these grocery-store-based tasting events, the tour also stopped at ancillary events targeting specific consumers and/or the press. In most major cities on the tour, for example, Tillamook and its Loafsters typically arrived a few days early to host what Asaro calls "pre-tour media days." "While consumers made up the majority of attendees at these events, our goal was to generate media attention," Asaro says.

For example, prior to its Phoenix events, Tillamook hosted a pre-tour media day at the Phoenix Zoo, complete with a Loafster and free cheese samples, recipes, and coupons. "We did radio promotions indicating that whoever showed up wearing orange at the zoo on this particular day got
in for free as part of the Loaf Love experience," Asaro says. "The media picked up on the event - generating awareness for the upcoming tour events throughout the city and overall awareness for the brand."

Henry V created a tour-specific website where consumers could "follow" and "like" the Loaf Love Tour on Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

The tour also stopped at several farmers' markets and on various military bases. "The farmers' markets helped us target fresh-food aficionados, and the military bases actually helped us spread awareness of Tillamook nationwide," Asaro says.

Along these same lines, the tour took on a slightly different format at carefully targeted stops at which it piggybacked on existing events. For example, to target health- and fitness-conscious consumers, Tillamook sponsored the 2010 LA Marathon. In addition to generating awareness via signage and media coverage associated with the event, Tillamook set up its Loafsters and several orange tents at the end of the race, where the company offered free cheese (a good source of post-race protein) to finishers.

Cheddar Melt

In terms of these targeted, ancillary events, none likely generated as much media attention - nor held a bigger cult following - than the Grilled Cheese Invitational, held April 24, 2010, in Los Angeles. The annual event is actually a competition featuring more than 230 people who think they cook a mean grilled-cheese entrée. Judged by celebrity chefs, the invitational draws 10,000 paying spectators all of which are self-proclaimed foodies and/or professional chefs. Meanwhile, among those 230 competitors are chefs who use the event as a test kitchen for new menu creations - and possibly even for their grilled-cheese-sandwich restaurants, an eatery trend that seems to be gaining momentum across the country.

In 2010, then, Tillamook became the title sponsor of the Grilled Cheese Invitational. "Tillamook wanted to use the event to target the foodies and chefs the event attracts - as these two groups can spread the word about our cheese faster, harder, and farther than most other groups," Asaro says. "But we also hoped to leverage some of the media attention the event generates." To that end, Tillamook enlisted the help of Bread and Butter PR of Los Angeles to whip up media coverage for this event (and the Loaf Love Tour as a whole).

At the same time, Tillamook wanted to ensure that whatever presence it created didn't somehow detract from the grassroots feel of the enormously successful event - a tactic Corporate Event Awards judges lauded. "You can still generate a ton of awareness and goodwill by sponsoring an existing event without completely destroying it and trying to make it your own," one judge said.

So rather than blasting its message across competitors' tents (all of which featured the same working tools for the sake of fair play) or showering the
event with branded graphics, Tillamook created Loaf Love Land and offered salivating attendees a taste of Tillamook cheese. "We set up three 10-by-20-foot orange, branded tents, and brought in three of the Loafsters to display nearby," Asaro says. "Then we just offered what people longed for at a 'look but don't touch' grilled-cheese competition - free cheese and grilled-cheese sandwiches."

Along with minimal signage featuring images of the Tillamook factory and its farmers, and text about the Tillamook cheese-making process, Loaf Love Land offered the same recipe cards, coupons, and cheese samples distributed via the Loaf Love Tour. Meanwhile, Tillamook chefs doled out their own versions of grilled-cheese sandwiches. "We had people lined up for more than 30 minutes to get free samples," Asaro says. "All the while staffers were touting the reasons why Tillamook cheese 'tastes better because it's made better.'"

Sandwich Satisfaction

All told, Tillamook handed out 23,200 grilled-cheese sandwiches and 16,000 cubes of cheese during the eight-hour Grilled Cheese Invitational. The company also scored major media coverage as a result of the sponsorship, and generated valuable awareness and critical partnerships with participating chefs.

Tillamook estimates that more than 24 million people were exposed to the Tillamook brand and messaging as a result of the Grilled Cheese Invitational and the media surrounding it. Plus, the company received mentions in more than 30 local, regional, and national publications, including The Huffington Post, Where LA, and the "Today Show" online. Additionally, Tillamook has tracked dozens of related blog articles and online food reviews, and important food-related web coverage at LA.com, PerishableNews.com, Grubstreet.com (Los Angeles), and more.

Tillamook Cheese Inc. packed up three of its custom Loafsters and hit the open road for
the Loaf Love Tour in January 2010. In the 10 months that followed, the tour made more
than 500 stops at grocery stores and events across the United States, where event
staffers interacted with nearly 550,000 consumers.

As part of its event sponsorship, Tillamook also sent free cheese coupons to event competitors prior to the event. "Of the 230 competitors - most of which could generate future, large-scale sales potential for Tillamook - 138 of them used their free cheese coupons, and many of them used Tillamook cheese in their competition sandwiches," Asaro says.

Among these coupon-wielding competitors was Chef Heidi Gibson, owner of the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco. As a result of the event (and the free cheese), Gibson formed a partnership with Tillamook. Today, Tillamook cheese is a major menu-identified ingredient in her restaurant.

Strong Cheddar

When the dust had settled on the Loaf Love Tour and its related events (650 in total), Tillamook and its creative agencies finally parked the Loafsters, and assessed the tour results. Ultimately hoping to generate awareness nationwide and increase market share, up from a dismal 2 percent in some areas, Tillamook's year-long marketing efforts recorded astounding - not to mention award-winning - results.

The tour's grocery-store events reached an average of 303 people per store, and the tour as a whole interacted with more than 548,000 consumers. Meanwhile, the average coupon-redemption stats for the entire tour (including grocery stores, farmers' markets, event sponsorships, etc.) averaged 25 percent. Plus, during the tour's 10-month run, unique www.LoveLoveTour.com visitors totaled 48,789, an average of 4,000 unique visitors per month, and roughly 25 percent over Tillamook's goal.

Tillamook served 23,200 sandwiches at the Grilled Cheese Invitational and scored media coverage in national media outlets such as The Huffington Post.

In terms of awareness, "Tillamook's brand-equity scores saw double-digit increases between 2008 and 2010 in key areas where the Loaf Love Tour and supporting marketing campaign have been focused," says Carmen Holley, associate vice president at Ipsos, a Paris-headquartered marketing-research consultancy that completed brand-tracking research for Tillamook. On top of that, sales in key target markets topped 7.6 percent during the tour and have remained at an average of 4 percent following it. Notably, however, while Tillamook cheese sales increased in 2010, Russell says sales of almost all other cheese brands declined during the same time period.

Perhaps more importantly, Tillamook felt its investment was cheddar well spent. "Through the Loaf Love Tour, our Pacific Northwest staple is on its way to becoming a national brand," Russell says. "We couldn't be happier with our results, as the tour has generated hundreds and hundreds of articles and press mentions, and it has helped us to build our online audience to over half a million people (via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and visitors to Tillamook's corporate and Loaf Love Tour websites)."

According to Russell, the company continually obtains market and consumer research via its tour staffers. "We get daily feedback from our brand ambassadors," he says. "They report back on which store they were at, and how both our products and those of our competitors were placed and marketed in that store. They also tell us about the questions consumers asked, and what they're saying about our promotions and brand. We then use this info to improve all of our marketing efforts, including packaging and merchandising."

In the end, Tillamook was so happy with the outcome of its 2010 tour that the company launched a similar tour in 2011, from which it hopes to generate even more awareness and spur continued expansion. "We learned a lot from the 2010 tour, most notably that we can get even more sales and awareness out of the markets we visit," Asaro says. "So instead of spending a couple of weeks in a market like we did in 2010, we'll spend up to a couple of months to truly saturate each location. Doing so should help us increase sales and awareness even more."

Based on these results and upcoming tour plans, it looks like Tillamook will continue to spread its cheese and its messages far and wide. And if the Tillamookians have their way, you'll soon toss out your cheese bricks to make room for a little Tillamook - because "All you need is loaf."  E

Linda Armstrong, senior writer; larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com

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