Stampede lures locals with transit blitz

The Challenge...

The Challenge

It’s a sacred Canadian tradition, like going to Tim Hortons, watching a Saturday night hockey game or putting snow tires on the car.

Founded way back in 1886, the Calgary Stampede is one of this country’s premier annual events – an enormous exhibition and rodeo that attracts more than a million visitors from Canada and around the world. Promoting this July extravaganza has, for the past 14 years, been the task of Calgary-based ad agency Highwood Communications.

While this might seem a no-brainer, given the Stampede’s profile, there are several challenges involved. The first is a limited budget. Last year, for example, Highwood was given just under $1 million to mount an eight-week campaign that had to include out-of-home, newspaper, radio and television. (Planning for this year’s Stampede campaign is now well underway.)

The second challenge is to convince locals – who tend to take the event for granted – that the Stampede actually has new attractions to offer each year. ‘Those Calgarians who’ve gone [to the Stampede] the previous year do fall into that trap of saying ‘I’ve seen that, done that – maybe I’ll go next year,’ says Jeff Lennard, Highwood’s vice-president and creative director.

In addition, the Stampede has been trying of late to increase its appeal to the coveted under-21 demographic. ‘Research has indicated that this particular audience frankly wasn’t going [to the event], because they thought it was all rodeos and traditional things,’ Lennard says.

The Media Strategy

Transit advertising is key to the Stampede campaign, which runs every year through May and June. Susan Beck, media director at Highwood, says the agency generally purchases 60%-65% of the available boards on city buses and community shuttles during that time frame. In all, just under a third of the overall budget goes to transit.

‘What we hope to accomplish by that is to be in every community around the city,’ Beck says. The cost is about the same as running poster panels along highways – but the advantage of transit is that it takes the message right into local neighbourhoods.

By establishing this kind of city-wide presence well in advance of the actual event, Beck says, the campaign creates a sense of ‘pageantry,’ helping to build enthusiasm among Calgarians for a hometown event.

While the campaign also incorporates a fair amount of television, Beck says it’s not the primary medium – mainly because of timing. By late May, she explains, most of the major prime-time shows have aired their season finales and are into repeats, which means less high-profile programming and a drop-off in viewership.

Daily radio and newspaper ads also run during the course of the Stampede, to provide Calgarians with up-to-date event and concert listings.

The Execution

Because the transit advertising appears first, it sets the tone for the whole campaign, defining the theme and the general attitude that will carry on through advertising in all other media.

Lennard says the agency tends to go for a lot of humour in the Stampede advertising. If consumers find the ads entertaining, the logic goes, then they’ll conclude that the event itself must be pretty entertaining, too. (This approach also gives the Stampede a better chance of scoring with the younger crowd that it hopes to attract.)

As a rule, the creative team tends to avoid showing the sort of images that people traditionally associate with rodeos. ‘The consumer knows what a rodeo is, they know what a chuck wagon is,’ Lennard says. ‘What we do is try to entertain them in a provocative way.’

Last year, for example, Highwood created eight separate transit ads, each one focusing on a different aspect of the Stampede, from the midway to the food.

One featured a close-up of a bull’s rear end bearing a bumper sticker that read, ‘If you can read this you are too close.’ Another played up the excitement of the midway rides by showing a man’s hands duct-taped to the security bar of a roller coaster.

Having so many different executions circulating throughout the city made a tremendous impact, Beck says. ‘During rush hour, when all the buses get lined up in the [city] core at various transit stations, it’s really neat to see four buses in a row, each with a different Stampede message.’

While Highwood strives to ensure that the TV, radio and print ads all have exactly the same feel as the transit work, the agency develops distinct creative concepts for each medium. There’s never any attempt to adapt, say, a transit execution directly to television or radio.

‘The objective is that, as the consumer views the campaign over the period of its life, they’re going to have a lot of different impressions,’ Lennard says.

The Results

Rising attendance figures suggest that the campaign has been doing its part. Last year’s Stampede set an all-time record, attracting 1.2 million visitors – a 15% increase over the previous year.

Equally telling is the fact that last year’s ads were in high demand. According to the folks at Highwood, both the Stampede and the local transit authority received numerous calls requesting copies of the ads. And other consumers simply cut out the middleman, stealing copies from the buses.

‘From a purely egocentric perspective, it’s always fun to hear that people like your work and are prepared to take it home with them,’ Lennard says. ‘The consumer has been conditioned over the past couple of years that when the Stampede launches there is going to be a flood of funny messages out there.’

Lessons Learned

Lennard attributes much of the success of the campaign to the fact that Highwood works closely with Stampede staff at the research and planning stages. The more they know about the people who come to the Stampede – and the people who don’t – the better they can tailor the creative approach.

While $1 million may be a tight budget for a multi-media campaign promoting something as big as the Stampede, Lennard says the use of transit is a good way to optimize the advertising dollar.

‘You can always use more money,’ he says. ‘But you can get into overkill as well. If we were to have 100% of the buses, I’m not sure we’d be any more effective. Part of the allure is that on every third or fourth bus that comes by, you see a message – that tends to stand out.’

Also in this report:

- The out-of-home conundrum: Why don’t advertisers do a better job of integrating multi-media efforts? p.B1

- Quebec dairy producers milk outdoor opportunities p.B1

- Dunkin’ Donuts campaign leaves its mark p.B5

- CIBC targets commuters with whimsy: The campaign began with the ‘billboard thought’ p.B8