Making Mission Impossible Possible
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Making Mission Impossible Possible

In late 2003, BASF received full Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration for the aquatic herbicide Habitat, thereby opening the door for BASF to enter this new market for aquatic restoration products

Paul Holmes

The United States has more than 154 million acres of aquatic waterways. Many of these areas are being overtaken by invasive weeds that affect water quality and ecosystem integrity, with major ecological and economic implications. While those individuals and organizations responsible for managing these aquatic environments have several weed control products available to assist them, research indicated that they lacked a product that a) offered long-term effectiveness on a broad spectrum of target vegetation species, and b) reduced the need for repeat applications.

In late 2003, BASF received full Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration for the aquatic herbicide Habitat, thereby opening the door for BASF to enter this new market for aquatic restoration products. The challenge: as a latecomer to this highly competitive and specialized market, BASF needed to gain recognition and earn the trust of an entirely new and discriminating set of audiences with whom it had varying familiarity or previous experience.

Though Habitat would fill the product gaps identified, it also was unclear whether its advantages would compel prospective customers to switch brands. The mission: launch BASF as a trusted resource and advocate for aquatic restoration. The impossible: kick off the launch, from start to finish, in six weeks, in order to capitalize on the seasonal opportunity presented by the EPA registration of Habitat. Padilla Speer Beardsley (PSB) and BASF chose to accept this mission and created the essential big splash with Operation Habitat.

Primary research (customer surveys and interviews with sales reps) revealed that aquatic herbicide applicators were unfamiliar with BASF and the active ingredient in Habitat herbicide. Spread out in the Southeast, Northeast and Southwest United States, these applicators are price-sensitive, want new product options, and prefer working with organizations that can make recommendations. They also are loyal to organizations viewed as partners in the business.

As for government agencies, selling to these groups is driven by a bid process that can take years to finalize. As a result, relationships are significant in their ability to influence decisions.

Non-aquatic herbicide applicators are familiar with BASF, but historically have had minimal involvement in the aquatic market, but the Habitat launch represented a substantial opportunity for them to expand and grow their business. Research indicates that product effectiveness is of utmost importance to them because it drives cost-effectiveness. This audience also is loyal to organizations viewed as partners in the business.

The objectives were: to generate awareness and excitement among key audiences of the value and effectiveness of Habitat; to create credibility for BASF in this market; and to educate and engage the sales force in selling Habitat.

The strategy was to create the biggest splash possible by holding multi-day industry events to introduce Habitat and also provide an industry forum for the exchange of valuable information with the key audiences ¨C thus establishing BASF¡¯s partnership philosophy from day one in this new market.

Among the tactics:
¡Æ Hold two separate launch events defined by geography.
¡Æ Compile a list of attendees composed of ¡°early adopter¡± of hand-selected applicators, government agencies and BASF representatives who held the most promise as influencers in order to accelerate purchase behavior.
¡Æ Include pre-meetings at each event for training BASF sales representatives.
¡Æ Customize information regionally based on interests and concerns expressed in pre-event questionnaire.
¡Æ Provide research and industry guest speakers to foster a workshop/partnership atmosphere. Balance the ¡°fine line¡± between an industry forum and a product launch.
¡Æ Schedule time within the multi-day event for attendees to network, an industry-first for these attendees.
¡Æ Provide unique entertainment to help create buzz about the event and, therefore, the product, including deep sea fishing and a mechanical bull.
¡Æ Provide informative collateral material and Habitat gifs attendees would use after the meeting.

To get attention in an already crowded marketplace, Operation Habitat had to be bigger than anything the market had seen before. That meant creating an industry event, not just a product launch. Meeting content was focused on overall aquatic industry issues, with Habitat in the background. Speakers were included from universities and government agencies, giving attendees an opportunity to network and access valuable resources, an opportunity that was as unprecedented as it was welcomed.

In order to take advantage of the market opportunity for Habitat, BASF and PSB needed to launch the product for the 2004 selling season. This translated into planning two large industry events in six weeks instead of six months to a year typically allowed for an event of this scale. To overcome the time constraint, two teams were established, one focusing on the east meeting and one on the west.

The list of invitees to the launch event arrived on small scraps of paper sent to PSB from more than 40 different BASF sales representatives, many of whom had little previous dealings with this market. This list was reduced from more than 800 contacts to just a few hundred considered the most influential. A team of individuals verified the validity of the list by calling attendees.

Of 25 primary media publications in this market (which is unusually high for a vertical niche in this industry), more than 60 percent covered the events in some way, which created pre- and post-event buzz. In addition, survey of attendees at the conclusion of each event (response rate of 100 percent) documented the awareness and excitement experienced by key audiences. Attendees said this event set a new standard, provided a much-needed opportunity to meet others in their industry, and offered them excellent industry-related information. (Actual comments made by attendees on their evaluation forms are documented in the PowerPoint report in the results section of this entry.)

The excitement and awareness generated by Operation Habitat contributed to the ultimate success of the launch - the product sold out of inventory by the end of the 2004 sales season. This demand was an indication that key audiences recognized BASF as a valued partner to applicators and government agencies responsible for managing aquatic environments and as a contributor of innovative products for aquatic restoration.

BASF created credibility with these new audiences through an informative industry event with speakers from across the industry and product ¡°hype¡± kept in the background. At one meeting, the average score for the speakers was 6.1 on a seven-point scale. The speakers at the second meeting were rated even higher, with an average score of 6.5. Attendees complimented BASF for an ¡®extremely organized event,¡¯ ¡®brilliant execution,¡¯ and ¡®content pertinent to their profession.¡¯ (Complete comments made by attendees appear in the PowerPoint report that appears in the results section of this entry.)

Operation Habitat provided the tools and timely training the sales force needed to successfully sell the entire Habitat product inventory in 2004.

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