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Brand Awareness

Go Bold or Go Home

Years ago, as an in-house marketing director I was challenged by my boss to significantly grow our public sector business. The company at the time vended services to state-level human services agencies, our target. Our challenge was that this was a market dominated by much larger competitors.

It was difficult to compete with them on recognition and name awareness.

In addition to battling competitors twice our size, we had an additional problem of name recognition. Commercial relationships ran deep, and a contract in this sector was like the gift that keeps giving. Incumbents rarely lost when they re-competed existing service agreements. Especially when the competition was virtually unknown.

 After some time studying the problem I discovered that while incumbents tended to win back their own work there was one issue that might provide an opening into this market segment. It seemed that the big boys at times could be unresponsive to customer requests. At other times, less than forthcoming with the customers.

The issue for us was how to leverage that behavior to our advantage in order to increase name recognition for the little kid on the block.

Here’s the solution I came up with:

We took a sponsorship with an annual conference that was attended by the agency managers that were our target customer. We sponsored a breakfast for these attendees.

Simple enough.

But our key move would be to hire a professional impersonator. And not just any impersonator. One that specialized in impersonating former President Richard Nixon.

Most of the target audience were long-time government staffers and had vivid recollections of the 37th president—who had had his own troubles with responsiveness and forthcoming issues.

I wrote the script for the actor, whose name I forget.  The script was seeded with typical Nixonian gags, including a hidden tape recorder. 

The morning of the speech I went to the impersonator’s hotel room to bring him down for a last-minute rehearsal. When the door opened I saw Richard Nixon—in full makeup, including the putty ski-jump nose—standing there in his briefs.

I’m probably one of the few people ever to have seen Nixon in his tighty whiteys.

As the breakfast sponsor we were allowed to give a little sales pitch. Rather than drone on in corporate speak, we introduced with great fanfare and flourish the “President,” who made his grand entrance through the banquet hall working the crowd on his way to the podium.

The speech was a rousing success. People not only started recognizing us in the market. They recognized us as young, bold and creative—a company willing to think outside the box for their customers.

Most importantly the company grew as a result of the event. The number of clients we served grew to over a million. Revenues doubled. Within a few years we had sold the company to a leading private equity firm for a healthy multiple.

I thought of that recently when I read a more recent PR case study of tax preparer H&R Block.

The study focused on how H&R Block raised its public profile with the 20 to 34 year-old male consumers that nearly all consumer product companies covet. 

In 2012 Block was a nearly 60-year old company with a solid track record as a tax preparer.  However, Internet-savvy millennials by that time had started gravitating to online tax preparation. The problem for Block was that its reputation at the time was that of  “your father’s tax preparer.” e-commerce was not something that Gen Y consumers associated with H&R Block.

Kansas City-based Block hired St. Louis-based Elasticity to help disabuse Block’s target demographic of its notion of Block as a stodgy, old-fashioned company. In doing so it helped re-brand Block as a company that millennials might like to do business with.

The plan? Elasticity created the Great Mustache Campaign.

In the words of Aaron Perlut, managing partner of Elasticity, the company didn’t just think outside the box. They crushed the box.

The campaign was built around an imaginary legislative proposal to provide a tax cut to anyone who sports a mustache. The tax cut was the tie-in to H&R Block. The “Stache Act” was the play for laughs. It was Block’s Nixonian moment.

The campaign began with a Presidents Day announcement from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It included national TV appearances and creation of a phony lobbying group, the American Mustache Institute. It culminated with the “Million Mustache March” in Washington.

While the earned media from the campaign was impressive, most impressive was an admission by one of Block’s competitors that the Great ‘Stache Campaign had impacted its business that tax year.

Two campaigns—one big, one small. Same goal. If you want to break out of the clutter of your marketplace and get people to notice you be known for something.

Know what the essence of your company is and don’t be afraid to find news ways to communicate that. Be bold in your thinking and flawless in your execution.

Business, like luck, favors the bold.