When you're standing atop Everest, anything from a stiff wind to a niggling leg cramp can push you off the peak. The same is true of big-name brands at the top of their games. If they don't continually secure their footing, even one-time behemoths like Benetton, Blackberry, and Blockbuster can slide off into mediocrity – or obscurity.
That's why marketers at Merial Inc. have been safeguarding their brands' positions near the summit of the animal-health industry. By the end of 2016, Merial had already made its trek to the peak, as it owned two ubiquitous pet-health brands that are top-of-mind among veterinarians and consumers: Heartgard Plus, which protects pets from heartworms while treating and controlling roundworms and hookworms, and NexGard, an ingestible flea and tick preventative.
So when two of the industry's top trade shows rolled around in 2017 – the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) in Orlando, FL, and the Western Veterinary Conference (WVC) in Las Vegas – Merial wasn't concerned with clawing its way to the top. Rather, it was looking for ways to dig its crampons into the high-altitude terra firma. Specifically, Merial wanted to devise an experience that would enhance its brands' existing loyalty and affinity.
"These two shows are the largest of the year, and everyone brings out their big guns," says Jessica Iden, CTSM, Merial's senior manager of conferences and conventions. "In the past, we'd used our largest booth, offered a number of symposiums, and hosted special events – and we planned to do all of that again in 2017. But this year we wanted to do something special to maintain awareness and loyalty for NexGard and Heartgard Plus, to tempt attendees to engage in an experience, and to generate show-wide buzz."
That "something special," Iden surmised, should occur as a separate experience that would complement her current corporate booth. "It's difficult to add a fun, experiential activity to an existing commercial exhibit," she says. "It's especially tricky if you're a pharmaceutical or health-care company with a certain brand aesthetic to uphold. So we planned to host our experience outside of the booth space and to allow our existing structure to retain its scientific focus."
The Gard Yard helped Merial Inc. foster brand loyalty, promote NexGard, and facilitate engagements with attendees.
Merial staffers handed out Pup Cup swag, including everything from scarves to plush Tank toys.
Dressed in blue and red uniforms, puppies duked it out on the field during each of the 20-minute soccer matches.
A branded, helium-filled blimp hovered over the stadium and housed one of the live-feed video cameras, capturing all the action from above.
To entice the pups to interact and chase the soccer balls, Merial rubbed bacon-scented paste onto each ball and several plush Tank toys on the playing field.
Merial promoted the Pup Cup via ads in each show's program, as well as fliers and four-page handouts distributed on site.
Iden also hoped the experience would provide an extra dose of visibility for the NexGard brand. Although the original form of Heartgard Plus has been around since roughly 1987, NexGard launched in 2014. While it was the only product of its kind at that time, two competing products recently entered the market: Bravecto and Simparica. Though Merial was confident of NexGard's top-dog position as of early 2017, Iden figured it couldn't hurt to massage mentions of the brand into whatever activity her team devised.
To further this aim, Iden hoped to center the event on a key NexGard differentiator: its suitability for puppies. Compared to its two new competitors, NexGard is the only brand that's safe for puppies as young as 8 weeks old and those weighing 4 pounds or more. So by integrating puppies into the mix, Merial staff would have an obvious talking point that would help to differentiate the brand when conversing with attendees.
All in all then, Iden needed a fun, engaging, puppy-centric experience that would foster loyalty and offer additional opportunities to generate awareness for the NexGard brand. It was a tall order indeed, but what else would you expect from two brands camped out at the summit?
Sniffing Out a Solution
In 2016, an exhibitor at NAVC released a sizeable outdoor sponsorship space, within which it had previously hosted a vet-tech activity. With future ambitions already leaning toward some kind of out-of-the-booth activity, Iden secured the space for Merial. In 2016, she used it to provide attendees with a relaxing, branded lounge and to host a custom-T-shirt giveaway activity. She also adapted the experience for WVC, purchasing a swath of unsold exhibit space to host similar activities inside the venue.
In 2017, however, NAVC changed locations, and no exterior space was available. So like she'd done at WVC the year before, Iden purchased unused NAVC exhibit space at a slight discount – planning to once again host a lounge and T-shirt-making experience. When she began brainstorming with Merial's longtime marketing partner Kristen Benjamin, vice president at marketing and public-relations agency Shepherd, the two quickly identified this space as the perfect locale for a puppy-focused activation.
While searching for an engagement that would fit the space allotted, as well as Merial's marketing objectives, the duo dreamed up a three-pronged strategy aptly titled the Gard Yard. Branded with NexGard and Heartgard Plus graphics and messaging, the experience would retain the T-shirt-creation activity. It would also include an interactive space to house staff and dogs from the Warrior Canine Connection veterans charity, which would provide exposure to a charitable cause and serve as a surefire draw. But front and center in the Gard Yard would be the Pup Cup, a one-of-a-kind soccer experience where two teams of jersey-clad puppies would battle it out four times a day.
Lively screen-printing professionals from Family Industries manned four stations, where they turned T-shirt making into an experience by engaging guests while creating their customized apparel.
Initially, Iden was a bit leery of her own idea. "At first I wondered if veterinarians would be drawn to puppies, because they see them every day," Iden says. "But the more we investigated the concept, we realized that cute puppies are what most likely led vets into practice to begin with. Yet these animal lovers are mired down with the everyday challenges of running their businesses and seeing sick or injured animals. They actually spend very little time handling these bundles of joy." Thus, Iden and Benjamin decided puppies would not only highlight NexGard's unique differentiator but also provide attendees with something they rarely have time for in their hectic workdays: the simple joy of watching healthy puppies at play.
For both NAVC and WVC, attendees' first introduction to the Gard Yard came via eblasts that Iden purchased as part of a sponsorship package. Sent to all attendees, the simple missives announced the Gard Yard, promoted its main activities, and listed the times of each soccer match.
Iden also ran ads, which piggy-backed off an existing ad campaign, in each show's printed program. The ad featured an image of a Chihuahua named Tank, the newly designed Pup Cup logo, the four daily scheduled game times, and the text "Puppies. Soccer. What could go wrong?"
Once they arrived at the shows, attendees discovered a four-page handout inside their show bags. The literature outlined all of Merial's at-show educational offerings as well as the Gard Yard. In addition, Iden printed fliers promoting the Gard Yard for distribution in Merial's booth and arranged to have push notifications promoting the events sent via the conference apps. At NAVC, she also purchased a "social-media takeover" sponsorship. In effect, during a specific time frame, the show blasted out news of the Pup Cup via all of its social-media avenues. The tactic allowed Merial to reach a broad range of industry professionals outside of its own social-media followers.
As they maneuvered the show environs, attendees couldn't miss the Gard Yard. At both events, the experience took place in a roughly 60-by-80-foot space near the front left corner of the halls. Here, faux turf flooring suggested a true outdoor experience, and Gard Yard signage branded the environments. Graphics included everything from 8-by-12-foot overhead banners to 24-by-36-inch posters, each of which featured the product logos, the words "Gard Yard," and an image of little Tank.
Dogs and Donations
A 10-by-20-foot area housed participants from the Warrior Canine Connection, a Merial Inc.-sponsored organization that enlists veterans with combat stress to train service dogs for wounded warriors.
Within each Gard Yard space, attendees were free to wander at their leisure, but many initially set out for one of four branded T-shirt-making stations. Staffed by professionals from Los Angeles-based Family Industries, the stations offered guests a choice of four different designs. After collecting a gray T-shirt in their preferred size, participants selected a design, choosing from options such as the official Pup Cup logo and the "Make Every Dog a Gard Dog" tagline. Then, they simply stood back and watched as their T-shirts came to life before their eyes.
"The T-shirt activity was such a simple thing, and you wouldn't think it would be a big deal for attendees," Iden says. "But they loved it. There's something really engaging about watching a T-shirt being printed in front of you." Attendees could also visit with veterans and their canine charges at a separate Gard Yard display for the Warrior Canine Connection, a Maryland organization that enlists service members and veterans with combat stress to train service dogs, which are then donated to wounded warriors. The semi-enclosed 10-by-20-foot space featured logos for the charity, which Merial sponsors, along with the Heartgard Plus logo. An angular back wall offered the words "Warriors Train the Dogs and Heal Themselves" along with "thought bubbles" filled with inspirational quotes from program participants.
Gone to the Dogs
While the T-shirt activity and charity area were certainly big draws at both shows, they were supporting roles compared to the Gard Yard's star, the Pup Cup. During four 20-minute
matches each day, which were carefully scheduled to coincide with breaks in the conferences' educational sessions, two five-puppy teams competed in the soccer smackdowns.
Starting roughly 15 minutes before each match, the event's referee, a professional presenter dressed in a yellow polo, black shorts, and soccer socks and shoes, began priming the crowd for the upcoming game. A couple minutes before a match began, the puppies and their handlers emerged from a pipe-and-drape-enclosed space near the back of the Gard Yard and paraded to the field like boxers approaching a prize-fight ring. Decked out in blue and red Pup Cup-branded uniforms, which delineated their team affiliations, the puppies represented a smattering of different breeds and ages, from sweet, yippy ankle biters to fluffy, floppy large breeds.
"We sourced the puppies through an animal-talent agency, which provides dogs for photo shoots, advertising, etc.," Benjamin says. "Each dog came with a handler who already had a close bond with the pup and was familiar with the trade show environment. We hoped this would help with the dogs' comfort levels and likelihood to participate in the matches."
The dogs then strutted onto the 11-by-20-foot playing field, which featured the Pup Cup logo at midfield. Equipped with two miniature soccer goals and a vinyl floor printed with graphics to resemble grass and soccer-field markings, the arena was enclosed by waist-high clear Plexiglas panels, some of which featured the Heartgard Plus and NexGard logos. As soon as the pups entered the stadium, the ref tossed in several game balls – each of which had been rubbed with a dog-friendly, bacon-scented paste to foster a bit more puppy interaction. Then, the game was on, and puppy mayhem ensued.
Throughout each match, handlers and attendees cheered on the pups, encouraging them to push any of the balls, or even one of several plush Tank toys the ref had added to the mix, into one of the goals to score a point. Given the occasional goal-area dog clog, a few player kerfuffles, and semifrequent "yellow card" urinary offenses, the experience was less about scoring and more about puppies playing to their little hearts' content. Nevertheless, the ref and the handlers did their best to maintain some semblance of a match.
To further the soccer-game effect, designers at Bill-O-Vision, which crafted all of the elements for the Gard Yard, devised a branded, helium-filled blimp that floated over the makeshift stadium. In addition, designers added an electronic scoreboard, two sets of bleachers on either side of the field, and a series of cameras and monitors. "We positioned cameras throughout the space – on a goal post, tethered to the blimp, and even underneath a clear Plexiglas water bowl," Benjamin says. "Then we projected various live feeds onto monitors scattered throughout the Gard Yard space. While people were watching the live action, they could also see the monitors, where at times they might catch a glimpse of a tiny pup scoring a goal or a giant tongue slurping up water."
During the matches, the referee and Merial staff handed out Pup Cup memorabilia, including branded pens, scarves, pins, and patches, along with a handful of plush Tank toys. "With this experience, we didn't require people to do anything to obtain the giveaways," Iden says. "Rather, we simply wanted attendees to enjoy the experience and leave with something to help them remember it."
At the completion of each match, and following much applause and fanfare for the players, the puppies paraded back to their enclosure, where they were free to snooze, play within an expansive pen, or sneak outside for a potty break. However, just because the match had ended didn't mean the experience concluded as well. Merial planned a few ongoing ancillary activities that would keep visitors entertained and engaged.
Whenever the Pup Cup wasn't in full swing, Merial hosted a goal-kicking contest. Within a roughly 10-by-10 footprint, the Bill-O-Vision team set up an inflatable goal. "It looked a lot like a child's bounce house on the outside, but it featured three holes into which attendees attempted to kick one of our branded soccer balls," Benjamin says. "If attendees managed to kick a ball into a hole, they got to keep the ball."
On the second day of each show, Merial brought in Abby Wambach, a retired soccer player and two-time Olympic gold medalist. An animal lover herself, Wambach sat in front of a Pup Cup-branded back wall and signed branded soccer balls for fans. She also distributed autographed, NexGard-branded photos of her wearing her gold medal and holding an American flag.
Throughout both shows, the Gard Yard packed 'em in. At WVC, 54 percent of conference attendees visited the activation, and at NAVC, that figure topped 62 percent. Considering that Merial typically draws 20 percent of show visitors to its corporate stand, that's a more than 30-percent uptick in brand exposure at two of the industry's most important events.
Plus, immediately after the shows, Merial was acquired by Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, a research-based pharmaceutical company that provides products for humans and animals. While by no means influenced by the Gard Yard experience, the acquisition propelled Boehringer Ingelheim to a pinnacle of its own, as it's now the second largest animal-health business in the world.
What's more, Iden and Merial management were thrilled with the Gard Yard outcome. "Having more than half of all conference attendees soaking up your experience is a huge accomplishment," Iden says. "And this type of exposure via an experiential activity no doubt helped to secure our existing product loyalty and awareness." In the end, Merial provided an unforgettable, on-brand experience that not only created an indelible impression with almost 10,000 of the veterinary industry's movers and shakers, but also helped the company's well-known products cement their positions at the top of the industry. E