Caninus Sellus : Dogs in Advertising

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

 

dogs1Dogs and children—they get us every time. Or do they? All babies may be adorable, but not all children are cute. The personalities of some are lackluster; the cuteness of others contrived.

It’s different with dogs. They don’t have to be cute, in the classic sense. But they pique our interest. Even people who don’t want dogs, or who don’t like dogs, like to look at dogs. We find them compelling.

To find out why this is, and why dogs work in advertising, Blitz spoke to University of British Columbia Professor of Psychology and renowned dog expert Stanley Coren. Dr. Coren is host of the Life Network’s Good Dog!, and the best-selling author of 17 books, including Why We Love the Dogs We Do, The Intelligence of Dogs, and How to Speak Dog.

Blitz   What is the psychological appeal of dogs in advertising?

Stanley Coren      The same thing that’s appealing about children. Dogs have been designed, by us through breeding, to appeal to us through their juvenile characteristics. They have the push nose and big eyes the way children do, and the response to that—our desire to take care of them, is wired into us.

The dogs that produce that response most strongly are those that have broad faces, long ears—as opposed to prick ears, and a ‘stop’ on the muzzle—where the muzzle takes a sharp upturn to the forehead. So the dogs that would most appeal are Beagles, retrievers, spaniels etc—not Rottweilers.

B        And the use of dogs in visual communications makes the message more appealing?

SC     There’s some scientific evidence of that. One study that looked at the acceptance value by people of products, found that introducing a visual of a dog in TV ads produced a 7% increase in acceptance of the product. It made no difference what the product was. Freud noted that the presence of dogs in his office made kids feel safe, and kept his Chow Chow in his office when he was seeing children.

B        So people instinctively respond positively to dogs, as opposed to reacting with fear.

SC     Fear is cultural or learned. And dogs are not wild animals. Man created dog. I don’t necessary agree with the DNA evidence that says that dogs have been with us for 125,000 years. But the paleontological evidence is clear—dogs have been domesticated for 14,000 years. And if you remember that we didn’t have agriculture until 10,000 years ago, that means that dogs were with us before we knew how to grow our own food. No animal has had a longer contract with human beings.

So the presence of a familiar, non-threatening dog increases everyone’s feelings of safety and security. From an advertiser’s point of view, that’s a warm feeling that will transfer to a product.

It’s the same kind of rationale that goes behind using children. In general, seeing children tends to produce a warm response.  There is a form of learning that leads to emotional responses. It’s called Classical Conditioning—you see a porcupine, you know the spines could hurt you, you feel fear and every time you see a porcupine image you’ll remember that fear. The sight of dogs or children produces the same effect, only with the warm response—whether you put their images with chain saws or perfume.

Advertisers want two things—to have their products remembered and to have positive associations attached to those products. Anything that will do that will work. Dogs do that. Cats don’t. Even though domestic cats have round faces, they still have cat faces and pricked ears. And cats are a bit more threatening.

The use of dogs and children in advertising often seems gratuitous, but it’s not. Because every time you use a kid or a dog, you increase product appeal. It’s the same logic as using beautiful women to sell clothes. Advertising is all about emotional manipulation. You need a jolt of positive association to appeal to the reader or viewer. And it’s not product-specific. Kids and dogs have been used to sell cigarettes and politicians. Some of the first animated characters in advertising were dogs—there was an ad where the dog was fetching Lucky Strikes. But it has to have cultural acceptance too.

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B        The developmental differences between dogs and children, though, make for a more interesting dynamic.

SC     The Super Dogs—Poodles, Border Collies, German Shepherds, are the dogs in the top 25% of the IQ range. They’re emotionally equivalent to 2 ½ year-old children. All other dogs are equal to 2 year-olds. But dogs have the social consciousness of 14 year-old humans. They need to be part of a group and do what the group is doing. They want three things—food, safety and social interaction. They will do anything for that and learn very quickly what they have to do to get it.

B        What about cultural considerations? Some cultures despise dogs; the Japanese love mechanical dogs.

SC     The Japanese have two issues. One is the fascination with technology. The other is space and economics—unless you’re wealthy enough to have a large space, you can’t have a dog. But the Japanese desperately love dogs.

Then you look at China and Vietnam, where dogs are seen as an efficient source of protein and are farmed for food. Fundamentalist Muslims believe that dogs are unclean. But when people come to Canada from cultures where there’s an aversion to having dogs in the home, their children and grandchildren fully accept them.

B        Would you agree that the concept of hearth and home involves pet ownership? Maybe our instincts tell us that a secure and comfortable home must include a dog.

SC     The dog is the eternal child, a non-threatening being that we can care for. It also provides unconditional positive regard. The dog will always love you and that is a great thing for psychological and physical health. And people know that—40% of Canadians have at least one dog, and 30% of Canadians would like a dog.

B        So in this increasingly hectic, stressful and unhappy society, the idea of a happy, honest and loving creature applied to a product will make consumers believe that the product could contribute to their happiness.

SC     Correct. My opinion, based on the evidence of the human response to dogs, is that putting dogs in advertising is beneficial.

Case in Point

Going to the Dogs: How Fido Bred a Brand

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There are a lot of successful branding stories to tell, but one of the more memorable might be Microcell’s launching a wireless service, calling it Fido, and inevitably, inextricably, tying its identity and communication program to dogs. How, one might wonder, did this come to pass?

“In 1996, Microcell was launching a new wireless service, but it needed a brand name,” explains Fido’s Director of Marketing, Patrick Hadsepantelis. “The name had to be consumer-friendly. At that time, in the wireless category, we had Bell, BC Tel, Telus and Cantel, and wireless was more targeted to business. Those were very corporate brands that didn’t resonate with consumers, and Microcell was launching a consumer-focused brand to democratize wireless in Canada.”

One might assume that exhaustive studies and surveys were conducted. Nope. The name was found through simple brainstorming.

“The name was chosen based on common-sense criteria,” says Raynald Petit of Montreal’s Bos Advertising. “With Microsoft, MicroTech, MicroThis and MicroThat, we know that using the Microcell name to launch a wireless service wouldn’t grab consumer attention. We needed a name that would really stand out. We looked at a lot of names—from plants, vegetables, minerals, animals. Fido became absolutely obvious. We were launching in Quebec, then in the rest of Canada, so the name had to work equally well in French and English, and have a universal cultural appeal. Fido comes from ‘fidelity’, so it means the same thing in French and English. The name had to be friendly, short and easy to remember. The word Fido made perfect sense because the phones, and the service, follow you everywhere you go. And dogs instantly conjure positive feelings, so the name resonates with people on an emotional level.”

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Once the name was settled, there was the task of developing the image materials and the advertising. “We had to ask ourselves what the role of dogs would be,” continues Petit. “At first, we said that we would use the name but no dogs. But we quickly changed our minds because the use of dogs makes it so easy to draw parallels with Fido’s services. And we decided to go with all kinds of dogs because there are all kinds of clients and client needs. The reason they choose Fido is that it can be adaptable to situations, as can dogs. If you have a mascot, it’s tough to stay with that. So the decision to use all kinds of dogs was a key turning point in our communications strategy.”

For Hadsepantelis, all advertising messages have to be in line with Fido’s promise of being honest, straightforward, simple, hip, different.

“We’ve brought a lot of innovations to wireless,” he says. “We offered free colour display and voice mail when it wasn’t available anywhere else. We introduced per-second billing, a Free Day package, and the Fido-to-Fido plan, where calls between Fido customers are free. The brand is street-smart and innovative. It’s much more than the dog imagery, but that imagery fits well with the youthful, spirited type of mindset that we appeal to.”

Any doubts about this strategy were quickly dispelled by the huge success of Fido’s first campaign—the Look-Alike campaign, where dogs were matched with people who looked like them, or vice versa.

fido3“People immediately embraced the concept,” recalls Hadsepantelis. “It was clear that we had something very powerful because, in those images, there’s a smart little promise that Fido cares about its customers. Dogs portray that friendliness. It shows that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and that we’re accessible. The very name has warmth and humour, and that’s important. A lot of corporate brands are nowhere near as customer-focused.”

“The role of the dog depends on the evolution of the market situation and what we want to communicate,” notes Petit. “Until this summer, dogs were at the core of our communications—on TV, print, billboard, packaging, collateral. Then there was a marketing decision to come up with new plans on a regular basis, and we were looking for something new for TV. So we created the Fake President campaign to launch new offerings in a simple way. The core was not a dog, but the ‘president’ introducing new products in an absurd situation. The dog was just in the background. It worked very well.”

Hadsepantelis is quick to point out the dogs are never used as a gimmick “We use different types of dogs because we have different kinds of customers and our customers have different choices of handsets, plans and packages. But we don’t use dogs gratuitously. There has to be a role for them, relating to the product. And people know that. And, now, when they hear the name Fido, they may or may not think about dogs, but they associate it with wireless. Fido is a stand-alone name with very fast recall. We have exceeded typical norms. And every time we use the dogs in messages portraying something innovative or different, we fuel the brand.”

fido5Hadsepantelis also notes that there has been occasional talk of getting away from the dog imagery, but the decision has always been to remain canine-centred. Aside from the fact that it’s not good to fix something that ain’t broke—Fido reached the one-million-customer mark faster than any other Canadian wireless carrier—he says: “When we do campaigns with the dogs, our tracking and measuring is so positive that we don’t need to leave it. The dog icon has helped us build such great brand recognition that we need only nurture it.”

Petit agrees. “Over the last seven years, dogs have become the icon that makes Fido stand apart from its competition. That icon has been the continuity in our advertising—it’s a very important part of the Fido image and always will be.”

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On Toronto Not Being the Centre of the Universe

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

torontoWhen I started this magazine five years ago, I got a lot of comments and advice from people, but one particular set of comments still sticks in my mind. It came from an agency guy in Toronto, who said: “What? You’re going to start a national B2B magazine from Vancouver? Are you nuts? Even with national distribution, you’ll have a helluva time getting the national advertisers in. Nobody wants to advertise B2B to western Canada. No one in Toronto gives a shit about western Canada.”

Blitz doesn’t just go to western Canada, of course. It goes to 5,000 in the east, 5,000 in the west. This guy’s point, though, was that, to national advertisers, the latter 5,000 doesn’t matter.

I thought he was being silly—just another sufferer of Toronto-is-the-Centre-of-the-Universe Syndrome. The spread of the disease, however, continues apace. Just the other day, a national publisher told me that he had met a young man who was an excellent writer, but whose career was certainly going to go nowhere because he’d never been anywhere but Toronto—and, worse, had no interest in leaving Toronto, or in anything not related to Toronto.

I recently spoke with the creative director of a Toronto advertising agency who said that he was having difficulty figuring out how to tweak his client’s creative for a particular BC demographic. When I suggested that he consult with a Vancouver agency (duh), the line went quiet—I think he may have temporarily blacked out. (Then he asked me to send him a list of agencies.)

Magazine editors aren’t supposed to sell advertising. But I’m also the publisher and have to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget that I’m likely to write about what I hear and learn, so they drop things into conversations which they may not otherwise say to a journalist. Things that make me feel a little sick.

The media buyer for Microsoft actually silenced me with the idiocy of this remark: “Microsoft doesn’t advertise in business publications which have a large BC circulation. At the B2B level, Microsoft is only interested in advertising to companies with more than 400 employees. BC doesn’t have any companies that large.”

This comment: “We’re not interested in Blitz because it has editorial relating to western Canada,” came from the marketing director of the Canadian Press.

The media buyers—indeed, the marketing people, for ‘Canada’s national newspaper’, the Globe & Mail, don’t bother returning calls. How often does the National Post advertise to western media buyers and marketers? What about the CBC? Never and never.

I could go on for an hour, naming company after company which, rather than advertising to the media communications community in all of the Canada, prefer to spend large sums of money on advertising to the same people in Toronto, over and over, year after year.  Reminder advertising is necessary but, in this case, it’s at the expense of untold amounts of potential new business.

While it’s true that the size of this country has always made it hard for Canadians to achieve the sense of ‘oneness’ which binds other nations, none of this makes any sense. Vancouver is Canada’s second-largest market. ‘Neglect of the West’ has been a political/economic complaint since Confederation, but it never occurred to me that corporate Canada could be so incredibly short-sighted as to think that businesses in BC (and Alberta) don’t need to be advertised to—that they somehow suffer from inferior spending habits, or aren’t savvy marketers, or don’t know how to compete.

It is a conundrum. A psychological puzzle that needs to be solved. If anyone out there has any solutions, ideas, explanations, I’m sure that all of those Canadians who live outside of Ontario’s borders would love to hear them.

On Advertising & Getting What You Pay For

Blitz Magazine, November 2002

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This issue is the 5-year anniversary issue of this magazine; here’s hoping that readers may look forward to more Blitz pages. Osama’s attacks and corporate corruption didn’t just rock the stock market—they knocked the wind out of magazine ad sales. You have, no doubt, noticed that every magazine you pick up is a lot thinner than in previous years. As for me, if all the people who gush about how much they love Blitz don’t start supporting it, I’m going to pitch my publisher’s hat into the Pacific.

The experts keep telling us that the Canadian economy is the envy of the G7, that we’re perfectly stable and thriving and bla bla. ‘Problem is, Canadian businesses don’t appear to believe that. The response of many has been to cut advertising budgets.

This is most unfortunate, because it is an inviolate rule of business that the uncertain, or down, times is when advertising is crucial. You can advertise when you have gobs of cash coming in—but you must advertise when it seems like you can’t afford to. Otherwise, you’ll sink.

Some recent examples: In an effort to maintain earnings, Bristol-Myers cut advertising by 14%; three of its five top-selling drugs are now losing their monopolies. Buy.com thought that cutting ad spending would save the company; sales immediately dropped by $20 million. Samsung decided to eliminate “unnecessary” costs. A spokesperson said: “The company is seeking ways to reduce travel, traffic, advertising and miscellaneous expenses.” To this, Sergio Zyman responds: “If you’re the kind of company that puts advertising in the same sentence as ‘miscellaneous expenses’, you deserve what you get.”

Zyman is the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola and the author of the newly-released The End of Advertising As We Know It. His point is that, in an effort to capture the attention of information-overloaded consumers, ad agencies have had to find increasingly inventive ways to reach audiences. Which is fine, except that the focus on brand awareness has shifted. Now, everybody seems to want to use every technical tool available—just because it’s there, to create hip portfolio pieces and win awards. When the focus should be on sales results, i.e. the actual goal. Zyman cites K-Mart as a perfect example: huge awareness, but it’s in bankruptcy. Remember the Taco Bell Chihauhua commercials? The ads won awards, the client’s sales tanked.

Over the last five years, I’ve had hundreds of calls from ad agencies and pr firms. The conversations rarely vary:

Caller: “We’ve done a terrific campaign for ABC Widgets and we think it would make a great article.”

Me:      “Well, the campaign isn’t newsworthy. The results are newsworthy.”

Caller: “Huh?”

Me:      “Once the campaign is well under way, or complete, the increase in sales figures would make it a story.”

Caller: “I don’t understand….”

Me:      “Your agency, and ABC Widgets, will track the campaign’s results, right?”

Caller:  “Uh…”

Me:      “So, in four months, or whenever, you should be able to tell me that, as a result of this campaign, the client’s sales went from ‘here’ to ‘here’. That they increased by ‘this much’. Then the campaign could be a cover story.”

Caller:  “But it’s a great campaign. Why isn’t that worth writing about?”

Me:      “Because it’s not a great campaign if you can’t show increased sales.”

Caller:  “Oh. OK. As soon as we have those results, I’ll call you back.”

No one has ever called back. And as it’s not likely that they passed on the chance for a cover story, I have to assume that I didn’t hear from them again because their campaigns didn’t generate results. They may have won awards, and the teen-agers producing them thought they were really cool and were able to persuade the client of same, but the work didn’t work.

It should be obvious to everyone that if anything a business does doesn’t contribute in some way to increased profits, it shouldn’t be done. To that end, marketing directors have to say to ad agencies: “This is the plan, this is what it has to achieve, I’m going to pay for your ideas on how to best achieve this. Once I, and the rest of my staff, agree that your ideas are likely to increase sales, I’m going to pay you to provide the required services.”

Marketing directors and company owners should not say: “This is the company whose products represent my life’s work. These are the products whose sales support the jobs of dozens of employees. I’m putting all of our prospects in your hands. I hope you can pull it off.”

payfor1At the same time, a marketing director or company president who expects a certain result, and who’s confident that what his agency recommends will work to increase sales, but who then balks at the cost of the work, is doomed. Ditto with company owners who think that flash-in-the-pan campaigns will produce results. This is especially true with print campaigns, where advertisers often cancel a campaign if one or two insertions didn’t generate immediate results. You want results, you have to commit for the long haul. You want more revenue, you have to open your wallet. You get what you pay for.

I thought everyone knew this. Zyman says that that is most definitely not the case. And that it’s time for everyone to think again. Because, he says, advertising is a science. And those who fail to master that science, and properly practice it, are going to go out of business—along with their clients.

On the End of the American Auto Industry

Blitz Magazine, March 2006

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The other day, I was sitting in a long line of traffic. I was at the top of a hill and could see all the cars below. I noticed that, out of 50 or 60 vehicles, only three were not Japanese or German. The US was represented only by a Hummer, a big lump of a Cadillac and an ancient Buick. All the rest were foreign. As I continued to drive around Vancouver that day, I kept an eye out and saw the same thing on every street, in every parking lot. Japanese, German, some Swedish. Lots of Jaguars. And everywhere, SmartCars. Nary an American vehicle in sight.

Meanwhile, the news on the radio was about how Ford and GM are on the brink, and I’m thinking “Well, duh.”

The mantra for big marketing is all about knowing consumers, knowing what they want, and giving it to them. This is nothing new. But American car-makers—who rank among the largest retailers in the world—have never done this. The American auto industry has always given consumers what it wants them to have. Consumer research may have been conducted, but it was ignored. Ditto all research into what the competition was doing. The message from American auto-makers has always been the same: “Here’s what we’ve built. Buy it.”

If I were the president of, say, General Motors, I would have looked at Great Britain, whose citizens pay some of the highest fuel prices in the world and have never wanted anything but the small and zippy. I would have seen the same thing across Europe and thought ‘Hmmm. Maybe the big car is about to do the way of the dodo.’ I would have listened to trend analysts—not American auto trend analysts, but energy trend analysts. I would have seen what the Japanese saw long ago: a growing need for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars with all of the options and comforts. I would have said to myself: ‘Look at how successful those Japanese manufacturers are. Maybe we should do the same thing.’

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead of giving consumers what they really wanted out of a vehicle—fuel-efficiency, safety, reliability etc., American car-makers said: ‘Oh forget the reality. Let’s look at consumers’ cultural aspirations, create vehicles that fit with their idealized self-images and appeal to their egos, and then market the hell out of them.’

So, at a time when roads are true danger zones, and when most couples wouldn’t dream of having more than two children, American car makers produced SUVs—gas-guzzling vehicles that everyone knows are unsafe. Then they marketed them as family essentials. At a time when drivers are increasingly distracted by cell phones and fast food, American consumers got vehicles with entertainment systems. In an era where commuting time can run up to three hours, Americans produce longer vehicles (longer vehicles increase commuting time for everyone).

Did consumers ever indicate that they wanted this? No. But the marketing worked. Until reality sunk in. Those vehicles are no longer desirable. There are millions of them out there, and no one wants them.

auto1Pick-up trucks are only needed by tradesmen. Yet we’re now seeing massive pick-up trucks driven by executives who happened to respond well to hearing Bob Seeger sing ‘Like a Rock.’ For the under-endowed, there’s the Hummer. Meanwhile, the US government is so desperate to find sources of oil that it has gone to war and is ready to plunder a northern nature preserve for a three-year supply. Chop logic.

If you look at the advertising for German cars, the emphasis is on performance and status. If you look at the advertising for Japanese cars, the emphasis is on reliability, safety, stability, comfort—and fun. If you look at the advertising for American cars, the emphasis is on all the snappy things you can fiddle with inside vans—to create toy bins and space for baby carriages. Please.

And speed—we’re still stuck with those tired old commercials showing cars driving very fast along twisting roads. Meanwhile, public tolerance for speeding is at an all-time low. Fines are way up, California drag-racers are going to jail—a Vancouver man was recently deported as a result of a fatal speed-crazed crash. Speed and recklessness are, like, totally yesterday.

The major shareholders of American auto manufacturers have never done anything to remove board members or CEOs. Now all’s lost. And you have to wait in a very long line to buy a SmartCar or a Prius; and a 2002 Toyota Echo costs $17,000—if you can find one.

Big Auto wasn’t paying attention. The lesson that everyone can learn from that is that communicators have to be smarter and make more of an effort to predict the future. We have to watch, listen and learn. We have to hear the ideas in our own heads, and listen to those of others. And we have to be better communicators.

We are in the Age of the Internet. And the Age of the Entrepreneur. Long-term success now depends on communicating, fulfilling needs, listening, providing great products and services at fair prices, and giving clients and consumers what they want and need. Otherwise, adios.

Communication Gone Wrong

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

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Direct marketers always talk about how precise their methods are. About how, when they send out promotional mail, they know exactly who’s getting it. They say they can target by income level, age, children’s ages. That they know that their clients’advertising pieces are being received by potential buyers.

In the mail, I receive an expensive package from a purveyor of yacht accessories. I don’t have a yacht. I receive an elegant package from a private school, asking me to consider sending my child there. I have a poodle. Now that I’ve announced that, I’ll start receiving samples of cat food.

Trade magazines also claim to be precisely targeted. (I’m one of the few publishers who can truthfully say that, as I up-date the Blitz mailing list every day and know exactly who’s getting it.) But my mechanic receives Strategy and Reel West. He doesn’t know why, he just does. I know this because I found them on the floor of his waiting room.

Technology has allowed for marvelous developments in magazine design. With the wrong result, I believe. I glance at Maclean’s and Vancouver. Both are so over-designed as to be unreadable.

Companies that can afford to commission good creative are airing TV commercials that are cloying (Toyota), nonsensical (Suzuki, Microsoft), badly written (Nestle) and annoying (Mott’s, All Bran). Even if people can stand to watch them, or make sense of them, the ads are bad enough to turn people away from the products they’re pitching. (And how about that McDonald’s slogan: ‘There’s a Little McDonald’s In Everyone’. Think about it. Ew.)

The Internet Advertising Bureau claims that an increasing share of marketing dollars is being committed to Internet marketing. Internet marketing firms say that advertisers can be confident about spending thousands of dollars in this fashion because web advertising is now so targeted—so precise.

I am a single, heterosexual female. When I open my email, I’m offered discounts on Viagra, potions to increase the size of my husband’s penis (by 3”!!!), potions to remove the hair on my chest, and something about a virtual experience wherein I can have sex with an Asian girl.

On a per-capita basis, Canada is the world’s most wired nation. Yet 1,000,000 Canadians have closed their Internet access accounts. It was recently reported that the editor of a popular e-zine has disconnected his incoming email address. His receipts were too time-consuming, too stressful.

Broadcasters are making TV unwatchable. We have an endless stream of propaganda pieces for the US military. Laughably bad sci-fi series. Shamefully stupid sit-coms. A special on the most passionate movies in history. Anniversary specials of once-popular TV shows. Weakest Link. Reality shows. Crap.

I now use the Internet only for addresses. If an email message doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to me, it’s gone. My recycle bin runneth over. Friends report that they own TVs for the sole purpose of watching rented movies—they now refuse to watch television.

So this is The Great Age of Communication. Communication is so easy, so quick, so efficient. Marketers are spending untold sums to communicate, and they think that their messages are reaching the right people. Methinks they’re wrong.

Worse, where the correct people are reached, they’re turned off messages by their quality. Because, more often than not, that quality is so mind-numbingly bad, so insultingly inferior, that people are rejecting both the message, and now, the medium.

All Aboard: Tourists Flock to BC for Rocky Mountaineer Railtours

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British Columbians are spoiled. Most of us live with mountains, spend our days unavoidably looking at mountains. Mountains and lakes, mountains and rivers, mountains and mountains. We’re used to seeing wildlife, and a trip to Calgary is no big deal.

But for people from Kansas City or Manhattan, Liverpool or Cairo, a trip through the Canadian Rockies is an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime experience. And this is why Rocky Mountaineer Railtours is one of the world’s most coveted of train trips.

The Rocky Mountaineer story goes back to 1988, when VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger train, started running a service called ‘Canadian Rockies by Daylight’. The service was heavily subsidized and, after two years without profit, the federal government put it up for auction. Twenty bids were received; the rights were awarded to Vancouver’s Great Canadian Railtour Company (GCRC), a team of former railroad executives led by one-time Gray Line Tours president Peter Armstrong. Rail is no longer a cheap, efficient way of transporting people over long distances, but the GCRC people knew that if the trip became an experience, it could be successfully marketed.

They were right. This was long before terrorism hit the travel industry but, even then, North Americans were looking for different types of vacations, especially those that didn’t involve leaving the continent. And tourists from all points of the globe want experiences—not just a couple of weeks sitting on a beach. They want an understanding of the places they visit; to experience the culture, history and geography of unique places.

GCRC purchased the VIA routes and equipment, bought and refurbished the old VIA coaches and, in April 1990, began operating a 500-passenger train service between Vancouver and Jasper, and Vancouver and Banff/Calgary. By the following May, capacity had increased to 600 passengers and departures were up by 50%. GCRC employed 50 people and received 11,000 guests.

Today, Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (RMR) is the largest private passenger rail operator in North America. It employs 350 people, owns 65 pieces of rolling stock and, in 2001, welcomed 73,000 guests. And the whole success story boils down to terrific service, excellent guest relations and targeted marketing.

rocky8The Rocky Mountaineer experience is a two-day, all-daylight journey that follows the historic train route constructed over 100 years ago through BC and the Canadian Rockies. (The high season is April to October, but there are also winter tours.) It’s not just a trip from Vancouver to Calgary; from Calgary, guests can do the return trip, drive out of Calgary, fly out of Calgary, or keep heading east on VIA. If they return to Vancouver, they can hook up with a cruise to Alaska, head to Whistler, Seattle, home, whatever. There’s a Calgary Stampede Tour, a Christmas in Victoria tour, various wildlife tours, skiing tours—RMR markets 40 different packages.

For the rail portion, guests choose from two levels of service: Gold Leaf, which is first class, and Red Leaf, which is first class-ish. Red Leaf is classic rail travel on 50 year-old reconditioned Pullman coaches. There are reclining seats, large picture windows, open-air vestibules and in-seat dining. Gold Leaf coaches are $3.5 million, state-of-the-art, two-tier cars with glass ceilings, observation platforms and dining rooms.

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Either way, guests are wined and dined with BC Salmon, Alberta beef and BC wines accompanied by white linen and fresh flowers. On-board attendants speak English, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin, and give passengers plenty of notice when the train is about to slow for key photo ops. Guests carry detailed maps and follow the line’s history with the Rocky Mountaineer newspaper.

The two-day journey travels 918 miles through the UNESCO Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site, which is Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Yoho National Park, then Banff and Jasper. The average pace is 75 k/hr and passengers do not disembark, but they can gape away at bears, bighorn sheep, moose, deer and elk. Along the way, they take in seven mountain ranges, plus tons of bridges, tunnels, waterfalls, canyons, lakes and rivers. And in the middle, they spend the night in Kamloops, where they have the option of attending the RMR-owned Two River Junction Dinner & Musical Review.

The cost of the trip depends on passenger choices. The minimum is $499 for Red Leaf, $999 for Gold Leaf (the split of choice is 50/50). When people order and book directly from the RMR brochure, they can spend up to $6000 per person; the average is $1300. But if they want to rent a car and drive back from Calgary, or head back to Vancouver via limousine, then stay at the Four Seasons before spending a week at Whistler, it can all be booked as an RMR custom tour and the sky’s the limit.

rocky6RMR houses a group travel department that arranges customized itineraries for groups—in the incentive and leisure travel sectors, plus the pre- and post-conference sector (many companies have their conferences right on the train).

Outside North America, RMR has sales reps in 18 countries, plus five sales managers who work out of the Vancouver office but travel the world making sure that tour operators, travel wholesalers and travel agencies are aware of the company’s offerings. The company supports the European market through a London office, PR firms are active in Los Angeles and London, and the company works very hard at maintaining a positive relationship with the international media.

As RMR’s VP Marketing, Graham Gilley, explains: “Our PR people pitch the international media with many different editorial angles. In 2001, we hosted 75 groups of media—we want those photographers and cameramen on board. We’ve been on Chef at Large, on the BCC, on CNN’s Hot Spots. And we work very closely with Tourism BC, Tourism Vancouver and Travel Alberta to get the most out of the media and make sure that Rocky Mountaineer is part of the story.”

This coverage not only helps sales, but it has helped the company build an excellent reputation. Its trade-marked slogan ‘The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World’ was actually a comment made by former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark. Rocky Mountaineer is only one of seven rail journeys to twice make the 20 Best Rail Experiences list issued by the prestigious International Railway Traveler magazine. In 1998, it was voted Best Attraction by the North American Association of Travel Writers. Fodor’s listed RMR’s winter tours on its list of Top-Ten Most Overlooked & Under-Rated Winter Tours.

This sort of thing goes over very well with the RMR market, which is people 55+, mostly couples and empty-nesters who can afford to be discriminating. About 40% come from the US; 25% from Britain, 20% from other parts of Canada, the rest from Europe, Asia and Australia.

rocky1“People come to Canada because they want to see its natural beauty,” says Gilley. “We’re the centrepiece of that Canadian vacation and a big draw to Western Canada. For train buffs, the fact that passengers have their own train [no cargo attached] is a big deal, but only about 15% of our guests have a real interest in trains.”

There are two groups of customers: tour operators and FITs, or Fully Independent Travelers, who either call to book directly, or ask their travel agents to book.

The Internet is a big part of the marketing effort. RMR has three sites: rockymountaineer.com, which has been up for four years; winterrailtours.com and spectacularmeetings.com have been up for two years. Gilley notes that rockymountaineer.com receives 2,500 unique visits every day, making it one of the most visited of Canadian travel sites. The sites are extremely thorough, offering detailed information packages, streamed video and 360-degree Ipix tours, plus scheduling and pricing information. But you can’t book on-line. You have to call.

When someone has chosen his trip from the website, he calls the 800 number; in Vancouver, there there’s a 24/7, 24-operator call centre that fields 1000 calls a day. The call is answered by a well-trained RMR salesperson, who starts with the caller’s immediate choice, then helps with the ‘vacation design’, then books it all. RMR has strategic alliances with Hertz, Laidlaw Motor Coaches and Fairmont Hotels, so the up-sell angle is very important. But it’s a win-win situation. With one phone call, RMR makes a profit, the consumer gets a fabulous, custom-designed vacation. And the one-stop-shop approach makes life easier, and costs lower, for travel agents.

There’s another, equally important kind of caller. Those are people who want the all-important, 56-page RMR brochure, 800,000 of which are distributed every year. The brochure is an even more important planning tool than the Internet information and is most likely to lead to the booking.

While the sales managers and overseas agents take care of their areas, in North America, advertising encourages people to make that call. A print campaign targets the FITs from January to June, with ads in Readers Digest, Canadian Living, Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian and regional lifestyle magazines. Gilley says that newspaper and radio ads do not work for RMR. “We’ve tested radio; we went heavily into newspaper three years ago, but we weren’t pleased about getting stuck in the clutter of seat-sale ads. We don’t sell on price point—we’re an experience and that’s difficult to communicate with newspaper and radio. We’re a very visual product and need to be seen in full-colour.”

rocky4Gilley’s print advertising budget is around $850,000. Aside from bringing in those phone calls, the advertising provides very strong brand awareness. The ads tell people to call their travel agents, or the 800 number. This helps to drive business to the travel agents, who are also very important to RMR’s success.

“We support travel agents very strongly,” says Gilley. “It’s important that people deal with travel specialists. We’re happy to take bookings over the phone, but we don’t want to cut off the travel companies—about 60% of our business comes from travel agents. And unlike other travel-industry companies, we have not cut or capped commission rates.

“This business is similar to any manufacturing business. We design and manufacture the product. We sell it to the wholesaler, who sells to the retailer, who sells to the consumer. And then we have to secure distribution to get our product on the shelf. We have to build relationships, maintain them, and build new ones.

rocky7“That’s how we get listings and co-op deals for promotions and marketing. We forge relationships by having a unique product which complements what those in the travel business are trying to do with their companies. It has to be worth their while. We’ve made it worth their while by gaining the reputation of providing a superior product—whether it’s the end product or part of a package. We have excellent worldwide distribution—since September, we’ve gained 10 new American tour operators who previously weren’t selling Canada. We already deal with most of the large operators, but we like to have distributors of all sizes.”

Gilley joined RMR in 1997. At that time, the company’s marketing was very much grass-roots. There was no database, no print advertising. And the marketing budget was only 2%.Well, now the marketing budget is only 4%.

“It’s not a large budget, but that’s the nature of this business,” explains Gilley. This is a very labour- and capital-intensive business. To make a train move 10 feet, it takes literally every employee we have—350 people in sales, operations, reservations, guest services, maintenance. That’s why there’s a tremendous reliance on the travel and tourism network.”

RMR has come a long way, however. Its marketing strategy was set up in four stages, with each stage taking one year to implement and all four eventually running concurrently. The four stages are Response, Anticipation, Experience and Referral.

Gilley explains: “Response involved retaining an advertising agency [Vancouver’s Bryant Fulton & Shee], then ensuring that our brand was in place, and that our ads were ready to go, so we had a way of generating response from potential guests. And we provided our PR people with the messages required to generate exposure for the brand.

“Phase two was Anticipation. The best part of any trip is the anticipation of it—the ability to say ‘I’m going on this vacation and this is what I’m going to do’. If we wanted people to say ‘I’m going on an incredible rail tour in an awesome part of the world’, we needed to capture those elements in our materials. So we re-did our letterhead, our corporate identity, our brochures, vouchers, itineraries, travel guides—everything down to the travel wallets. We built a presence in the hotels and started to get into response marketing.

“The Experience component begins when you arrive at the train station to board. We created a product department which is a group of people dedicated to designing itineraries and improving the on-board experience. We own 28 motor coaches, so we branded those and changed the colour of our trains—to red, white, blue and gold. And we looked at all our souvenirs, to make sure that there was consistent branding and delivery throughout.

rocky3“That leads to the Referral stage. This is very important, as 26% of our guests are referred by friends and relatives. This is why service is such an important element in the branding of Rocky Mountaineer. It has always worked without prompting, but we decided to formalize that relationship and make our clients our ambassadors. So if they want to refer a friend or relative, we’ll send personalized referral materials. And this year, we gave all of our guests a three-minute commemorative video to take home and show their friends and relatives.”

RMR also sells full-length souvenir videos for $18.95. Gilley wouldn’t give any precise figures relating to profits, but did note that annual souvenir sales are well over $1 million.

In 1999, RMR started conducting direct response campaigns, all of which have been very successful. Last fall, it spent $37,000 on mailing a win-a-trip package to 20,000 people who had previously requested brochures. The result was 203 bookings, 511 guests and $1 million in sales. Another campaign was simply a questionnaire sent to 20,000 US households; it received 13% response.

The company does some market research, though not much. Focus groups are the communication check for creative and there has been telephone research. But the best research is done on the trains. Four hours before the end of each trip, guests are given reply cards. They have the time and the motivation to fill them out, and about 32,000 cards are received each year. The cards are checked every two weeks; if adjustments are indicated, they are immediately made.

“This is the best way to know how we’re doing,” continues Gilley. “But it also allows us to build relationships with our customers. We employ three people who do nothing but look after responses to guest comments. If someone says his coffee was cold, we send him a letter. If someone says that he wanted to buy a sweatshirt and they were all gone, we’ll send him a letter. If there’s something a little more serious, we’ll send an appropriate refund. We send out 10,000 personal letters annually in response to comments. rocky2

“Our market is people who are older—they love to be communicated with. They’re not used to getting acknowledgements of their comments from travel companies. So this practice, in addition to creating referrals, creates lots of goodwill and improves their overall experience. We aim to please and the follow-up makes the entire Rocky Mountaineer experience that much more satisfying.”

 

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.