PR Meets Advertising: Start with A Simple Idea

This is the story of an ugly-duckling billboard; an opportunity that was nearly missed; and of a simple idea that created a positive media storm across print, broadcast, online, and social.

It All Started with the Ugly Billboard

The billboard in question sits atop a warehouse building that’s across a shared parking lot from our office, just outside the large windows of our creative studio. We’ve been in our building since 2002 and over the intervening 12 years we’ve been held hostage to a parade of, well, to be kind—poor creative executions on this billboard.

Last year, a new microbrewery, Woodland Empire Ale Craft, leased the building. As part of their agreement, the building owner—who also owned the billboard on its roof—gave them the right to use the space for their own advertising.

One of the brewery’s investors approached us about creating a new outdoor board. This presented a great opportunity for the brewery and for us—the sign sits on “the Connector,” a state highway that runs through downtown Boise on its way to connect with Interstate 84, and more than 37,000 cars travel this route each day. The brewery building sits on the Connector, but its front is somewhat obscured to traffic by another structure. The highly visible sign offered fantastic exposure for the brewery.

 

Dave Doesn’t Hear Voices, but He Does See Patterns

For us, it was a different opportunity. We got the chance to flex our brains, squeeze our imagination, and dramatically improve the view from our office. And it all revolved around a simple, single idea.

Let’s go back to the stars first. Not all constellations in the night sky are readily apparent to the stargazer—that’s the way pattern recognition works. When someone steers you to it, tracing the connections for your eyes, it comes into very clear focus. But even after the pattern is identified, not everyone sees where that constellation and its guide star are pointing.

Dave Cook, our creative director, has a different way of looking at things. One winter day he walked into the office, blowing into his hands for warmth. He’d been outside stalking the intersection, checking out the traffic, looking at the billboard, and he’d seen something.

What he’d seen was a pattern, and a unique opportunity: westbound motorists were confronted by a horizontal lineup of standard, green highway directional signs that spanned the road. Why not give them another choice of direction?

 

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The Power of a Simple Idea

The idea was simple. Create a billboard for Woodland Empire that echoed colors and graphics of the traffic signs, completing the constellation by adding a guide star that pointed to the brewery with a headline that reads “Craft Beer—Right Here.”

It didn’t stop there, though, because our strategy also pointed to a far larger opportunity than the daily passing of 37,000 cars.

But first we had to sell the idea.

Our client wondered why we were only presenting one idea.

Because, we told him, it’s the only idea you should be considering.

When he saw the concept, he quickly recognized its clever use of the environment.

Woodland’s brewer questioned whether the look of the billboard matched the brand—a fair observation, but in this case the look of a highway sign was the opportunity. We countered that we were just trying to highlight your location with as much creativity as you put in your beers, which often use unexpected recipes.

Sold!

Sold, yes, but not without some trepidation from our client. After all, what if the highway department objected to the sign and we have to take it down?

Adding Foam to a Small Advertising Budget

Finally. They asked the question we’d been waiting to hear. Because that’s exactly what we thought might happen—our strategy revolved not only on an ingenious use of the advertising environment, but also on the downstream potential that our advertising could create controversy. If our instincts were right, we had the potential to add a huge head of foam to Woodland’s limited-budget advertising mug.

The billboard was installed around the brewery’s opening in January. It received great response as a fun and savvy use of the environment. Plus, it definitely improved our back-window view.

And for more than two months it held court over the Connector, racking up favorable impressions and generating awareness for the new brewery in town—while not unique vehicles, more than 2 million cars passed by the sign during that time.

Of course, we sat and waited, wondering whether the state transportation department was going to take notice, or if it even mattered. So much time elapsed that we thought perhaps the transportation department was actually okay with the sign, which was okay but wouldn’t fulfill our larger dream. 

Then One Day…

Then one day the brewery received notice from the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) that the billboard was in violation of state regulations, imitating their sign design and creating a situation that was both a public nuisance and a safety issue.
Bingo.

State to brewery: Tear down this signWe always recognized this as an idea had the ingredients for big PR. Creativity plus beer plus visuals plus state institution equals controversy and opportunity.

As our Creative Director Dave Cook likes to say, “All billboards distract drivers. Especially the good ones.”
This one enabled us to distract more than a few non-drivers as well.

dustyWe issued a news release and started working social media to spread the story. It took on a life of its own from there, begetting publicity and engagement, from social sharing to purchase at the point of sale.

The story ran on all three local network-affiliated TV newscasts and was front-page on the region’s leading newspaper. It quickly went beyond Boise, making newscasts in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, Providence, and elsewhere, including unofficial Brewtown USA, Bend, Oregon. The story ran in business trades and industry rags—AdRANTS, a leading adverting blog in New York City with nearly half a million unique monthly visitors, called it “perhaps the best outdoor strategy we’ve ever seen.”

What Starts with a “V” and Rhymes with Spiral?

We don’t like to use the “v” word here, but let’s just say its online trajectory was something that rhymes with spiral. Reach exceeded a million views. Engagement measured in likes, favorites, and social shares ran into the thousands across LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, and brought a slew of comments:

facebook post“Every time I headed to west Boise I ended up having a beer.” Tony Wheelwright, commercial loan officer, via LinkedIn.

“Love your brewery, going to miss that sign.” Rex Parker, Boise via Facebook..

Or this exchange between Leonard and Mike on Facebook:

“It’s clearly designed to imitate the transportation signs and should be removed.” Leonard Nolt, Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite School.

“Obviously, that was the whole intent. They designed it too (sic) mimic an ITD sign so when they (ITD) complained, free publicity would ensue. Mission accomplished.” Mike Sparks, Kent Washington.

And of course our favorite, from @BrentDaniel via Twitter:

“Just thought you’d like to know. I just heard about your sign on the local Los Angeles news. Give your marketing guy a raise!

Yup, the type of advertising Woodland Empire can’t afford to buy. We estimate comparative ad costs conservatively ran into five-figure territory, if not into six figures.

Compliments From the Code Warriors

craft beer right hereSpeaking of media exposure, perhaps an email from Reed Hollinshead, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department, provides the best conclusion to this story:

“… as I often mentioned in those interviews (but it didn’t always make it through to editing), we have no desire to fight with you, squash small business or negatively impact commerce—we just are obligated to follow Idaho Code. And as I often mentioned to those various TV outlets—it was a clever marketing idea, but ultimately contrary to Code. I/we appreciate your willingness to work through the situation.

“In case you are keeping track of ROI, the story ended up on all three television stations locally, in the Idaho Statesman, and IdahoReporter.com (an online info. source) even contacted me about it. I imagine those media mentions are worth quite a bit of paid advertising equivalent.”

Indeed, Reed, indeed.

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