Toronto Zoo gets ‘cheeky’ in the name of education

A summer campaign promoting the zoo's Wild Encounters exhibit makes the most of its budget by going to the core of its mission.

For a non-profit like the Toronto Zoo, which has a limited advertising budget but year-round offerings, a summertime campaign has to be a strong one, so “Become an Expert” went straight to the heart of its core message of educating its visitors.

Educational experiences are a key foundation of the zoo’s business, says Katie Gray, manager of strategic communications at the Toronto Zoo. “Accredited zoos in today’s world have an absolute responsibility and have a mandate to engage with conservation, research and education,” explains Gray.

The focus of the zoo’s advertising this year was on Wild Encounters, an exhibit featuring some of the facility’s prime species including penguins, gorillas and giraffes. “Become an Expert” was its way of developing a product within a program of other behind-the-scenes experiences, including animal and greenhouse tours or visits to the bug centre or wildlife health centre. “It really does share our message in general of wanting people to come to the zoo to learn,” she says.

The zoo, which this month celebrated its 45th anniversary, is open all year, except Christmas Day, but marketing budgets are slim, says Gray, and it can be a struggle to stretch the dollars it does have. “When you only have so much money you really have to focus it in our key season,” she stresses, which runs from the May long weekend until Labour Day.

Digital is a strong advertising approach for the zoo (allowing to see what tracks well and what doesn’t) and because of the abundance of imagery Wild Encounters provided, the assets were a little more dynamic than previous campaigns, Gray says, and could be changed up as certain programs hit capacity and others needed filling.

For creative, agency Grey Canada worked with the zoo to create videos and images that appeared on social, in out-of-home and TV with the help of media buying agency ZenithOptimedia. A sample of the commercials that ran depicts a David Attenborough-type narration of tigers in the perceived wild where a “kid accent” inflects the adult’s voice, slightly mispronouncing certain words the way a child might (think “twopical” forests and the “Towonto” Zoo). As the camera pans out, the “wild” becomes the exhibit beside which a freckled young girl missing her two front teeth is the “expert” guiding you through the journey of learning about the giant cats.

While the “bread and butter target market” of the zoo is parents and families with kids ages 12 and younger, Gray says this campaign had a broader appeal. “Connecting with wildlife is not just something that connects with families,” she says. Part of the media plan included radio spots and contesting in different markets focused on stations listened to by millennials. And the OOH images of the backside of a rhinoceros were “a little cheeky,” she says, but meant to appeal to that new market the zoo is starting to reach.

“They do want experiences and you have to sell it that way,” Gray says. “Now it is on us to evolve our products and offerings.”