NFB-Allegra 2001 Everest Expedition
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

NFB-Allegra 2001 Everest Expedition

Working with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the PR team created a three-month campaign that helped publicize Erik Weihenmayer’s quest to be the first blind man to scale Mt. Everest.

Paul Holmes

Generating stand-alone media coverage for the seasonal allergy medication Allegra was a challenge for Aventis Pharmaceuticals.  To help overcome this challenge, Aventis and Cohn & Wolfe Healthcare (the Team) launched the NFB-Allegra (fexofenadine HCl) 180-mg 2001 Everest Expedition.  Working with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the Team created a three-month campaign that helped publicize Erik Weihenmayer’s quest to be the first blind man to scale Mt. Everest. 
Allegra also sponsored a documentary of the expedition to be broadcast at a later date.  Erik, a blind athlete and seasonal allergy sufferer, took Allegra to help manage his seasonal allergy symptoms during training.  To entice the media to cover the NFB-Allegra 2001 Everest Expedition, the Team conducted the first-ever satellite media tour via satellite phone from Mt.  Everest.  To ensure a continuous stream of media coverage, the audio satellite media tours occurred pre-summit, at base camp, and after Erik had reached the summit.  The resulting national media blitz helped the Allegra key messages reach millions of consumers, drove sales of Allegra, increased traffic to the Allegra and NFB web sites, and generated international interest in Erik’s story.
Erik was not only a perfect example of someone who would not let obstacles get in his way of enjoying the world, he also took Allegra to manage his seasonal allergy symptoms.  In the precision sport of mountain climbing, distractions from allergies while hanging on the side of a mountain can mean the difference between life and death.  Erik’s sport also demands alertness, so a sedating antihistamine would be dangerous for him to use.  Allegra is one of two prescription non-sedating antihistamines on the market, which is a key message for the brand.
Allegra competes against one of the most heavily promoted products in the world.  Therefore, sophistication of our message was essential to avoid the usual round up allergy stories that always included Allegra in the same breath as its competitors.  Our challenge was to generate stand-alone coverage in this marketplace.  The historic Everest expedition had the potential to be a huge media success over an extended period of time, and the timing of the expedition and proposed media campaign corresponded with spring allergy season.  However, while partnering an inspirational blind mountain climber with a prescription allergy drug was a good start, we faced three primary challenges:
  • How to secure ongoing media coverage of Erik’s expedition over its three-month duration
  • How to ensure that the NFB and Allegra were included in media coverage
  • What to do if Erik didn’t summit or was injured in his attempt to summit
To prepare for the campaign, the Team conducted several media audits including: the scope of media coverage of previous Everest trips, the scope of coverage of Erik’s previous climbs and the extent of seasonal allergy stories in the media to determine the nature of coverage.  The Team also had to gain a thorough understanding of what an Everest expedition entailed and all possible scenarios, including if Erik wasn’t successful in his summit or if he was injured along the way. After researching the media landscapes and gaining a better understanding of the Everest expedition logistics, the Team had to determine how to execute a successful PR campaign while the key spokesperson was in the Himalayan Mountains training for the trek.
Armed with this research, the Team then had to determine how to execute the first ever satellite media tour via satellite phone on Everest.  Working with KEF Media and Newport Productions/Aperture Films, we determined that audio transmissions were viable via satellite phone if we could figure out how to get the equipment up the mountain.  Also important were the “little things” needed to make this work, such as determining the best way to deal with time differences and having limited time to media train a spokesperson understandably more focused on a dangerous climb than disseminating campaign key messages.
Key objectives for this historical campaign were to:
  • Generate widespread national and local broadcast and print media coverage of Erik’s expedition
  • Communicate key message that the non-sedating antihistamine Allegra allows you to “Enjoy Your World”, whether you are a mountain climber or an average American
  • Support the NFB’s platform that physical challenges don’t have to hold people back from accomplishing great things
  • Time media activities to correspond with spring allergy season
  • Utilize live media coverage to ensure delivery of key messages
  • Target select publications and television for exclusive opportunities
  • Ensure and maximize steady stream of coverage and excitement by releasing Allegra-branded photos as “teasers” before satellite media tours
  • Capitalize on Allegra sponsorship of Everest expedition
  • Activate back-up plan if Erik didn’t summit or was injured
Campaign Execution

Since the Team anticipated that reporters would express greater interest in Erik’s quest rather than his seasonal allergies, we had to depend on Erik to deliver the branded messages.  Therefore, the Team decided on doing three satellite media tours via satellite phone from Mt. Everest (from below base camp, pre-summit and post-summit) in order to generate a continuous flow of coverage and ensure mention of Allegra and NFB.  Using these three milestones, the Team adopted an ongoing pitching strategy to sustain interest, thereby allowing us to be in constant contact with reporters to update them on Erik’s progress. 
Once the media strategy was settled, the Team was faced with the difficult job of executing the complicated logistics of conducting the first-ever satellite media tour via satellite phone on Mt. Everest and filming the trek for the documentary.  We had to make arrangements for hundreds of pounds of video and audio equipment to be delivered to Everest base camp at 17,192 feet—too high for helicopters to fly.  Local Sherpas and yaks were hired to carry the equipment to base camp and a technical advisor was hired to travel to base camp to oversee all media activities.  A photographer was also secured to climb with the team to take branded photographs of the expedition. 
Using these public relations tools, the Team employed several tactics to ensure that the NFB and Allegra were mentioned consistently during the satellite media tours:
  • Named the expedition the NFB-Allegra (fexofenadine HCl) 180-mg 2001 Everest Expedition, which provided an   opportunity to brand the campaign and increase the likelihood that the name would be included in media coverage
  • Designed a joint NFB-Allegra logo that was made into patches, banners, shirts and hats to be worn at all times by  expedition members and posted on base camp tents
  • Tailored Erik’s messages to include his challenges with seasonal allergies and blindness to pull through both Allegra   and NFB key messages
  • Regularly distributed photos from Everest to reporters to control the visuals used in subsequent media coverage.  All photos released featured NFB-Allegra signage
Extensive national and local print and broadcast media coverage including:
  • More than 500 million media impressions in the three months following the media tour 
  • Interviews on local television and radio, including: The Today Show (3 interviews), The CBS Early Show (3 interviews), MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams, CNN Live at Daybreak, The Tonight Show, Charlie Rose, Bloomberg and AP Radio
  • Majority of coverage included Allegra mention and key messages
Sales of Allegra 180-mg tablet grew during Q2 2001
Allegra U.S. Brand Team received calls from Aventis employees worldwide congratulating them on Erik’s success
Visitors to the site increased by over 650%
Visitors to the NFB website spent more time on the website than in previous months
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