Some companies just ‘steal the show,’ especially at tradeshows. They’re the ones that seem to get the best opportunities, do the most business and reap the best return on investment. They are the companies that seem to come out of nowhere into center stage. How do you get ‘your’ company to that level of consciousness—especially when you’re promoting a small start-up with nothing but a skeleton staff and a business plan? A small B2B Internet company named Office Bob faced this question in early 2000 when it planned to attend NeoCon, a large industry tradeshow occurring annually at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Office Bob had a great idea to hire a celebrity, but required additional assistance and guidance in setting up a tradeshow promotion. So it hired Cohn & Wolfe. Cohn & Wolfe designed a program that would incorporate the celebrity in a tradeshow promotion and would utilize tradeshow management in casting the promotion as a community event. Good relationships with tradeshow management created additional opportunities for client visibility during the show. The result was the kind of ‘consciousness’ cited above for Office Bob, which, interestingly enough, came at a critical time for the young company.
Prior to the tradeshow, Office Bob had a very small staff and was virtually unknown. Plus, Office Bob lacked the one thing it needed to fulfill the goals of its business plan—a Web site. The Web site was crucial because Office Bob was entirely Web-based, with no brick and mortar sales location.
The site graphics and logistics were still under development. Office Bob company executives predicted the logistics of the site wouldn’t be worked out until after the tradeshow. With the largest industry tradeshow quickly approaching and occurring only once annually, it was entirely possible that Office Bob could ‘miss the boat’ on promoting its site in the face of stiff competition.
Cohn & Wolfe recognized it was going to be very difficult to generate media coverage and get the company’s message points out. What reporter/editor would be willing to take the risk of covering a site that might never materialize? Would Office Bob be the next ‘promises made—promises broken’ Internet company?
Even more important than the issue of generating media coverage was the issue of creating awareness within the furniture industry. In order for the Web site to work, Office Bob needed furniture industry folks to market furniture and services through the site. Other competitors were already threatening to take most of the marketing business from Office Bob—and they already had Web sites.
What Office Bob needed was a short-term, high-impact burst to cut through the clutter, to get the industry aware of what Office Bob was doing and what it planned to do in the future—with its Web site. Office Bob’s idea to hire Bob Newhart seemed like a good start.
To better evaluate and implement the client’s idea to hire Newhart, Cohn & Wolfe pulled media coverage of Newhart over a five-year period and gleaned information about Newhart that would be useful to the program. The agency also contacted tradeshow personnel to find out about any other competitor events taking place during the tradeshow. All research results were utilized in implementing overall media strategy and to ensure due protection of Office Bob’s corporate image. Some interesting points the research revealed:
Newhart had popularized Steelcase at NeoCon in the ‘70s. Interestingly enough, Steelcase has led the furniture industry in sales ever since 1974.
Newhart had started his career in TV comedy in Chicago in the 60s, while working for a Chicago-based advertising agency. His performance for six years on CBS’s The Newhart Show made him an adored celebrity—especially in Chicago.
Newhart was also the perfect comedian—nice, polite and clean-cut. He held a lot in common with Office Bob, especially in relation to Office Bob’s corporate mascot, which was symbolic of the company’s overall corporate culture. This mascot—which was more like a cartoon of sorts—was designed to occupy the virtual world of Office Bob’s Web site. The mascot was appropriately named ‘Bob’ and was a silly, likeable sort of fellow—very similar to Newhart.
Objectives to assist Office Bob were as follows:
- Cut through the tradeshow clutter, generate excitement about the company and drive traffic to the booth.
- Obtain ‘Friends of Bob’ partnership requests from at least 25% of tradeshow attendees.
Cohn & Wolfe would capitalize on Bob Newhart’s national and hometown reputation to promote Office Bob’s tradeshow activities, with the cooperation of NeoCon tradeshow management. Newhart’s appearance in Chicago would even be cast as a ‘homecoming’ of sorts. Tradeshow management would be approached with the Newhart visit as an opportunity for the NeoCon brand to gain additional publicity. Providing access to Newhart would hopefully gain favor with management and assist Office Bob in gaining additional top-tier visibility. The events for the show were planned as follows:
Newhart would perform comedy cuts from The Newhart Show at a company-sponsored event. Timing for the event was carefully considered in light of other competitor events occurring during the tradeshow. Newhart’s performance would be the first of the events—occurring the first night of the tradeshow.
Newhart would visit Office Bob’s tradeshow booth to draw additional crowds, with the timing of the visit left undetermined to create ongoing interest.
Cohn & Wolfe made contact with tradeshow management regarding the event and associated booth visit. NeoCon tradeshow executives got excited about Newhart’s appearance and recognized the opportunity Newhart’s appearance presented for NeoCon. They gave Cohn & Wolfe permission to include the NeoCon name—a recognized name in the furniture industry—in all press releases and promotional materials. NeoCon then carried the Newhart event and the Office Bob ‘launch’ in all if its promotional materials, including every tradeshow bulletin distributed at the show. Office Bob gained permission to have NeoCon tradeshow staff outfitted in Office Bob logo-branded vests and to distribute promotional materials throughout the show. Merchandise Mart director and owner Chris Kennedy (son of Robert Kennedy) went out of his way to visit the Office Bob tradeshow booth to greet Bob Newhart as a show of support.
Newhart’s event held the first night of the tradeshow was received with great praise from the Chicago media attending—including The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times and local TV—NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and WGN. Since the big guys covered the event, the little guys followed—trade press was equally generous in covering the event and Office Bob. The huge popularity of the Office Bob booth reflected well on the tradeshow; media coverage of NeoCon was equally generous.
The first objective was to cut through the clutter, generate excitement about the company and drive traffic to the booth. Proof that this objective was accomplished was measured by the number of logo-branded promotional items given out to interested foot traffic at the booth. The numbers were as follows at a show with an estimated 80,000 in attendance: Office Bob writing utensils—40,000; Office Bob T-shirts—5,000; Office Bob blinking buttons—35,000; Office Bob lapel pins—20,000. Virtually all promotional products were exhausted during the show, leaving just enough to get the young company through the final hours before the tradeshow doors closed.
The second objective to get ‘Friends of Bob’ partnership requests from at least 25% of tradeshow attendees was clearly exceeded. Office Bob received approximately 28,000 ‘Friends of Bob’ requests, which accounted for 35% of show attendance.