Using Product PR to Market Manhole Covers
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Using Product PR to Market Manhole Covers

In the summer of 2002, the Town of Vail (TOV) had come up with a unique and artistic way to commemorate its 40th anniversary. It replaced its plain manhole covers with ones that displayed the town’s famous “V” logo along with its 1962 founding date and its lofty elevation, 8150 feet above sea level.

Paul Holmes

In the summer of 2002, the Town of Vail (TOV) had come up with a unique and artistic way to commemorate its 40th anniversary. It replaced its plain manhole covers with ones that displayed the town’s famous “V” logo along with its 1962 founding date and its lofty elevation, 8150 feet above sea level. The town installed the manhole covers throughout Vail’s heavily traveled pedestrian villages. But the manhole covers turned out to be too attractive and the 100-pound cast iron discs soon began to disappear right out of the streets at an alarming rate.
The Vail Town Manager decided to employ an age-old problem solving technique: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In order to deter the thefts of the manhole covers from the streets, the town began offering them for sale. The TOV decided that it should turn its popular manhole cover into an official souvenir, so it commissioned its supplier to make two souvenir versions of the commemorative manhole covers. One is full sized, weighs 52 pounds and sells for $295; the other is an 8-inch, six-pound gate valve cover that sells for $65. Both cast iron souvenirs are available in the TOV municipal office (shipping is available) and on eBay.
Relying primarily on word-of-mouth and limited local advertising, the TOV sold approximately $7,000 worth of manhole covers between July and late-November of 2002, its initial five months in the souvenir business. There was a limited in-house media relations effort that resulted in some coverage by the BBC, AP, CNN, the Denver Post and the Vail Daily during the summer of 2002, immediately after the manhole covers went on the market. But after the initial interest waned, sales slumped. The TOV needed a plan to boost manhole cover sales.
Therefore, in mid-November, the TOV retained CTA Public Relations to take its manhole cover marketing to the next level, using public relations strategies versus traditional advertising. With Thanksgiving only days away, CTA went into high gear, researching the market and developing a plan and a strategy to launch a Vail Manhole Cover campaign simultaneously with the 2002 Christmas shopping season and Vail’s ski season, both of which were about to kick-off on Thanksgiving weekend. The client’s objective was to increase sales of its souvenir manhole covers while secondarily providing greater exposure for Vail as a world-class destination resort.
The challenges were threefold: first, how do you generate a media buzz about something as mundane as a manhole cover? The second was budget: the TOV was severely limited in the amount of funds it could direct to a marketing or public relations campaign. The third challenge was the extremely short notice. CTA had to move fast.
In order for the media coverage to have the best chance to result in sales of the town’s souvenir manhole covers, CTA researched the market, working with the TOV to tap into skier visitor statistics and second-home ownership information. Based on the results, CTA determined it would specifically focus its efforts in key geographic markets where there is a high concentration of skiers who visit Vail frequently and markets with a heavy representation of homeowners with second homes in Vail.
Media research ensued with key feature editors and news editors targeted in primary target markets—New York/New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, California and Colorado—for holiday gift story pitches. Municipalities using creative methods to increase revenues was a concurrent story of interest to some reporters and editors on the national and regional level, and the TOV manhole cover marketing effort fit right in. Media lists were generated and pitches were written.
To kick off the marketing effort, CTA distributed a press release nationally on November 27, 2002 announcing “Vail offers souvenir manhole covers on eBay for the holidays.” The following week, CTA distributed a second release nationally, announcing that it was working with the TOV on the manhole cover marketing project.
In order to generate more interest CTA’s release and accompanying media pitch letter suggested several uses for the larger manhole cover which included end tables, patio or driveway inlays, garden conversation pieces, landscaping, etc. For the smaller version possible uses included trivets, deck inlays, decorative wall pieces (inside or out), door stops, and the like.
The media pitches were customized to specific outlets, pitching schedules were created that targeted either newspapers or TV news producers, and the pitches and releases were distributed accordingly.
During CTA’s five-week period working on the TOV Manhole Cover campaign, sales of the TOV souvenir manhole cover products increased by 260%, generating more than $20,000 in sales during the five-week media relations campaign.  Manhole cover market penetration was increased to 25 states, including the District of Columbia, compared to only 9 states prior to the CTA media relations program.
More than $117,500 in media publicity came to the TOV, as measured in equivalent advertising space in the media outlets that covered the story.
Publicity in the targeted markets included news feature stories of varying lengths (2 to 6 minutes) on Denver’s ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates during the peak holiday gift buying season, and the story was carried by more than 45 TV affiliates around the country and three national network programs: NBC’s Early Today Show (12/10/02), CNBC’s Wake Up Call (12/10/02) and National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition (12/14/02). Radio news coverage included KOA/Denver, KNX/Los Angeles and WBBM/Chicago.
Two feature stories by the AP, plus wire stories on Reuters and targeted print media pitching generated coverage in over 110 U.S. newspapers, including the key target markets: Florida, San Francisco, Southern California, Philadelphia, Dallas, New York, Chicago and Denver. National print media that covered the story included USA TODAY and SKI Magazine.
Statewide print media coverage included multiple hits in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News plus stories in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Boulder County Business Report and several smaller daily papers.
Online media coverage included Internet sites such as cnn.com, nypost.com and yahoonews.com.
The media buzz and significant additional sales created by the manhole cover public relations program were so successful that Vail is now considering expanding its product line to include reproductions of the stylized trail and pedestrian signs that direct visitors to Vail’s famous clock tower and covered bridge landmarks. In addition the Town of Vail is considering broadening its retail presence with a “Town of Vail Boutique” to accommodate visitors and shoppers in the posh retail district at Vail Village.
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