Sunday, June 27, 2010

Leaving Las Vegas (with tons marketing of ideas)

Las Vegas. To most people those two words conjure visions of sparkling lights, slot machines and that scene from The Hangover with the tiger, a baby and a chicken. You know, standard Vegas fare. But for Black Sheep, the City of Sin is more about fluorescently lit convention centers, swag and poorly constructed hip hop. No need to re-read… we said hip hop.

That’s right, it’s trade show time for our client, PFS Group, and we’ve spent the last few days living the good life and listening to the same 5 songs over and over again. In case you don’t know, the campaign for this healthcare accounts receivable outsourcing company is centered around a fictional character, Dr. Paid, a struggling rapper “discovered” by PFS Group with a knack for financial jargon and a passion for commercialized music.

Naturally, the bored-out-of-their-gourd people walking around staring at what might as well be third grade science fair projects find our departure from the expected exhibit more than welcoming. And the martini bar doesn’t hurt either.

The entire trade show experience always gets our brains working overtime, considering the next great step for the campaign and how we can help our other clients too. Las Vegas is an interesting place in terms of publicity and advertising, so we just try to soak it all in and let the creative juices (and Champagne) flow. Here’s what we learned:

1. Make it a Wynn-win situation. Now, night clubs aren’t necessarily the types of establishments we frequent, mostly because of the potential for awkward Situations. But, in Vegas it’s kind of unavoidable. Steve Wynn (of the major hotel) and Sean Christie, “nightlife impresario” (his words, not mine) established Surrender when the economy was turning south. His fist-pump haven counterparts cut costs, scaled back and withdrew from scene, but Surrender did quite the opposite. They forged ahead with their plans and promoted the hell out of their new brand.

And it worked! Their expensive bottle service and decadent atmosphere hasn’t deterred customers at all, and because they didn’t shy away, this club is now one of the most popular places on the Vegas strip. We’re not saying you should blow your budget or ignore the economy, but this is the perfect example of why marketing should be the last line item to cross off in tumultuous times.

2. Sweat the small stuff. People say everything in Texas is big, but that seems like a more appropriate statement for Vegas. We’ve stayed in the more famous hotels like Caesar’s Palace, the kind that have elaborate casinos and look like something out of a grown-up Disney Land. When we found out we were staying at Trump, we were kind of disappointed! Where’s the fun, right?

Wrong. It was amazing. And for non-gamblers like us, all of the little things made up for the lack of grandeur. We had free wifi, complimentary gym passes and full kitchens in our room. And that says something that us marketers should take to heart, don’t you think? Keeping the details in check and making sure a campaign or event, even if it’s not flashy or loud, has everything in place. And, if you’re going to make a statement, make one that’s also well thought out and smart – not cheesy and outdated.

3. You gotta gamble to win big. Like I said earlier, we’re not really gamblers… in the literal since any way. But, we had to try out a slot machine just to say we did. We popped in a quarter, pulled the lever and watched the pictures of cherries, dollar signs and pineapples (I don’t understand the fruit) spin around and around. Finally, it stopped. Two fruits and a dollar sign. Boo.

But what did we expect? A million dollars from a measly quarter? Well yes. But, rarely does that happen. And rarely, in marketing, does it work that way either. You have to take risks – sometimes big ones – to get attention. Just look at our PFS Campaign! We were nervous about even PITCHING the idea to our client and now we promote the most highly sought after rapper in the healthcare finance world. Not too shabby!

All in all, it was a pretty good trip. We’re glad Dr. Paid was such a success (he got asked to perform at a regional conference ON A REAL STAGE), and we’re ready to take our Vegas-sized ideas and get moving!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Warning: There has been a GAS leak! (And other TEDx Houston experiences)

Every once in a while, you just have to get up on a soap box and say something. This past Saturday outside the Houston’s first TEDx conference, we chose a University of Houston park bench instead.

Because of our love of learning and progress (not to mention our obsession with the event’s organizers, Culture Pilot), we decided to sponsor TEDx Houston. But, as usual, we didn’t feel like slapping our logo in a brochure really exemplified the Black Sheep mentality. So we staged a protest instead.

The theme of this TEDx was “Expanding Perceptions,” so we wanted to emphasize action, change and our opposition to “average” thinking. We created a fictional, tongue-in-cheek scenario – a GAS leak! GAS (General Apathy Syndrome) was spreading rapidly, and we needed to stop it! Protestors lined the sidewalk warning passersby and TEDx attendees of the imminent danger of succumbing to the terrible affliction and directing them to the nearest medic station. Our medics, dressed in scrubs and gas masks, passed out “antidotes,” stickers featuring a delta (thanks, high school thermodynamics) symbolizing change, and manifestos declaring our mission.

Photo via The Loop Scoop

And, as with all Black Sheep adventures, we learned a lot and confirmed many of our beliefs.

Photo via The Loop Scoop

1. Taking chances pays off. Our protest was mentioned in the first TED talk of the day and even folks in New Zealand are talking about it! Audience members, speakers and coordinators sported our antidote stickers throughout the eight-hour conference, and we received tons of rave reviews about how amazing and encouraging our protest was. We got lots of exposure, made hundreds of people smile and hopefully, we changed many perspectives. Press coverage, enthusiastic participation and a memorable event discussed all day among Houston’s biggest movers and shakers? Mission accomplished.

2. No matter how positive your message, there’s always someone who won’t get it. Keep in mind, our only goals were to inspire people to change for the better and to motivate progress. Who could argue with that? Negative reactions were definitely a minority, but these things come with the territory. Yet, despite those brief moments of let-down, we were able to keep an upbeat attitude. Like we always say, with every brilliant risk or novel idea, expect dissent. So, when you take a bold move, remember you can’t please everyone.

3. Your blood and sweat have to go into it. Cutting out cardboard with dull X-acto knives is bound to cause a scratch or two. Standing in the Houston sun for an hour and a half will undoubtedly cause extreme perspiration. But, putting your creative energy to the test and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone provides the greatest reward. Nothing is more exhilarating than pulling off a great undertaking, seeing the results and witnessing the excitement on people’s faces as they experience something amazing.

4.Empathy makes all the difference. Most people loved what we were doing, but not every participant can be treated equally. They are, after all, people. For the more reticent folks, we had to do a little hand-holding and ease them into the situation. The gregarious crowd members obviously required EXTRA stimulation. Reading responses and gauging people’s comfort levels is the key to keeping them interested and engaged on a personal level. (And yes, this paragraph is riddled with unintentional innuendo.)

Photo via The Loop Scoop

Ups and downs are inevitable, but at Black Sheep, success isn’t. We were honored to be included in an event as outstanding as TEDx Houston, and we felt completely at home surrounded by the type of people who have a genuine desire to make a difference. So, in the spirit of that day, let’s all do more with less and challenge the status quo – that’s the real antidote for apathy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

4 Things PR Folks Can Learn From Music Festivals

Lollapalooza. Bonnaroo. Coachella. We’re smack dab in the heart of music festival season, and with the Free Press Summer Fest making its second year even better than the first, we Houstonians are excited about emerging as a city with a legit presence on the scene. FINALLY! And, after spending our weekends donning wristbands among the masses of music lovers and hipsters, the Black Sheep team realized we learned a few things too.

Which obviously means we can write our tickets off as educational expenses. And also networking. Uh huh.

Image via Paul Viscontini at The Loop Scoop

Be prepared and chill out. Music festivals are unpredictable, and we’re not just talking about the paint slides. Extreme heat and cold, torrential rain, wind and tons of mud are pretty par for the course, and if you show up expecting anything else, you’ll be disappointed. Do what you can – wear sunscreen and bring an umbrella, but when things turn south, roll with the punches. Dance in the storm, roll in the mud and wait for a rainbow.

PR is no different. Whether you’re hosting an event or speaking with a journalist, do your research and plan for any possible bump in the road. But, as any experienced PR pro knows, SOMETHING will go wrong. And when it rains, it pours.  Which is sort of the beauty of the industry… the challenge of the daily grind. It’s up to us to kick our shoes off and make the best of a bad situation, console our clients and quickly problem solve.

Keep an open mind. At any given music festival there are tons of bands, and even the most well versed music junkies don’t know all of them. Take the time to listen to the acts you’ve never heard of and do so with the expectation that they just might be good. You never know what gems will pop up next.

This is such an important attitude to have in marketing as well. Can you imagine if a company had said, “Twitter? That doesn’t sound like anything I would want to check out.” It’s like saying the same thing about Lady Gaga! Finding the next best thing could make a difference for your company’s strategy and put you at the forefront of your industry.

Share and compare. One of the most exciting things about music festivals are the stories that come from them. Tales of crowd surfing, paint sliding, crazy people and fantastic performances make for ample conversation that prevails for years to come.

Image via Paul Viscontini at The Loop Scoop

And this is the perfect example of an effective marketing strategy. An event or a performance marketing stunt, even a well written media pitch, can have lasting effects if you connect with your audience on an emotional level. It creates the need for pictures, video, Tweets and countless reenactments of the experience, a priceless method for creating top-of-mind awareness.

Stage presence. Both the headliners at Summer Fest, Girl Talk on Saturday and The Flaming Lips on Sunday, were phenomenal. The crowd was totally into it, jumping, dancing and completely committed to the set. And after seeing them, it’s not hard to figure out why. Sure, their music is great. Yeah, they’ve got a lot of fans. But more than anything, they INTERACT, inviting fans to the stage, walking in a giant bubble on top of the audience, showing provocative imagery and encouraging excitement and participation.

Your company should also be doing these things. Instead of passively throwing yourself on a billboard or buying ad space, PERFORM. Give your audience no other choice but to be captivated and invite them to experience your brand in an up-close and personal way. Convey excitement and offer surprises that keep them guessing and watching. And if it comes down to it, we highly recommend a toilet paper gun.

It’s amazing how everyday encounters can reiterate our marketing and public relations philosophy. Sometimes it’s in a funny t-shirt or a political debate. Other times we find brilliance in mundane places like the grocery store or in a parking lot. And a music festival? Well, when it comes to learning there, it’s totally INTENSE, man.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Psst! Your marketing strategy is showing...

We love getting comments on our blog. Our goal first and foremost is to start conversations and create ideas among people with different points of view, so thanks to all of you out there for participating! In fact, last week, we received a comment that inspired this post. Our commenter pointed out the importance of transparency in marketing.

We couldn’t agree more.

Disingenuous advertising is unavoidable, and it’s ruining things for the rest of us. How can we appreciate fashion magazines when models are Photoshopped to look like Bratz dolls? And is it really any better when “celebrities without make-up” grace the glossy pages? Not if their hair is in their face and they’re standing in the dark. I understand wanting to have flawless layouts and attractive people in magazines, but I want those skinny models to be real, dammit!

Of course, the chance that fashion ads will ever be honest is like the probability Lindsay Lohan will make her next court appearance. Not likely.

But for the rest of the advertising and PR world, our expectations are a little higher. We’re all tired of being lied to, cheated and scammed (looking at you, Mr. Madoff), and you’d think after the past couple of years of economic downturn, bailouts and Tiger Woods, companies would start realizing we’re not stupid. And that we have the Internet. If you’re not telling the truth, we’re probably gonna find out about it in .5 seconds because SOMEONE on Twitter is going to know what’s up. We want to know where our food is coming from, the minute details of our politicians’ pasts, and we analyze everything from Lost to Michelle Bombshell’s tattoos. There’s no hiding and no limit to our resources!

Which is why it’s important that we make the following point: No matter how progressive, unexpected or surprising your next campaign is, you can’t cheat the system. Being subversive won’t get you results – it will get you disrespect. A performance marketing act or protest where you pretend you’re something  you’re not will prove ineffective. People are okay with clever strategy that catches them off-guard, but they’re annoyed when they’re unabashedly tricked. Here are a few tips for avoiding backlash:

1. Never lie. Especially to the media. It’s one thing to not give away all the details and to have secrets, but you never want to attract media under false pretenses. They will hate you, and you don’t want to destroy those valuable relationships. And you don’t want your misstep to be tomorrow’s story.

2. Ask first. This one is really hard to do sometimes, but when you’re representing your own business, the “better to ask for forgiveness later” philosophy could get you into a lot of trouble. Make sure you’re not breaking laws or causing distress to the environment you’re working with.

3. If you don’t trust them, lose them. With things like performance marketing acts, you’ll probably be selecting tens to hundreds of people to help you pull it off. While you probably can’t run a criminal background check on everyone, make sure they come with some kind of reference. These guys are still representing your business, and you don’t want them being too goofy – or worse – too creepy.

4. Claim responsibility. If you are producing something on behalf of your company, just like your first grade teacher said, put your name [or logo] on it. You don’t have to detract from your awesome campaign, but you do need to explain, on further examination, where this crazy/funny/shocking collateral is coming from.

5. Be yourself. For instance, if you’re a major oil and gas company, don’t flat-out confuse people by hiring clowns to form a parade through downtown. That doesn’t make sense. But, setting up simple street corner demonstrations teaching people about your company’s advanced animal cleaning technology after an oil spill might be something worth considering. By doing this, you’re admitting a flaw and also showing accountability while interacting with people face to face. Remember, not every “performance” has to be an act.

The line between progressive, interesting marketing and blatant deception is usually pretty defined if you use common sense. Don’t hurt people or damage property, but don’t be afraid to challenge yourself either. Avoiding negative repercussions is just part of the game of creativity, and these rules will never hold you back from a truly amazing idea.