Former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson called Sacramento “an old cow town.” The cowtown reputation persisted. Working for an organization that is tasked with attracted high-tech businesses to the region, I needed to flip this negative reputation on its head in a creative way…

Sack-a-tomatoes

The Sacramento region, with a population of over 2,458,355 people, is not a small market. Indeed, it has tech talent concentrations that compare to those of tech hotspots such as Seattle, San Francisco and Austin. It is witnessing a USD 3.9 billion investment in its urban core, which now includes the world’s most technologically advanced basketball arena – and the average age of its population is lower than Seattle, San Jose, and San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the world outside of the Sacramento region is not aware of the thriving, advanced clusters of innovation in the market. The region is perceived as a slow-moving, government town with a plentiful supply of farms. For residents of the Bay Area, it is the place you might stop to get gas on the way to Lake Tahoe – but you would’t stop for long. The nicknames don’t help: Sac-a-cement-o, Sack-a-tomatoes, Excremento, Sock Town, Suckramento, and Suck Pimento

Outside of the Bay Area, the market isn’t very well known at all. In a way, this is beneficial – it can be less challenging to build a reputation from scratch rather than shifting a deeply ingrained negative perception.

Presenting an opportunity

The Greater Sacramento Economic Council is responsible for attracting business relocations and expansions to the Sacramento region. As their VP of Marketing and Communications, my role was to drive interest in the region by shifting perceptions and generating interest.

Through this particular project, we wanted to connect directly with CEO-level executive in the Bay Area and across the nation to tell our story transformation: A sleepy government town transformed into an innovation market-leader, supported by a young, talented population and vibrant urban core.

Through this story, we wanted to present the opportunity that our region represents to these business leaders. This opportunity is simple: Relocate or expand to our region, and you’ll be on the ground floor of a thriving, high-grown economic market with access to an endless stream of highly educated employees and state-driven business benefits.

Avoiding the trash can

Oh, so we wanted to reach the CEO directly? Of course we did – and so does everybody else in the world of marketing and sales. This ‘key decision maker,’ at least in the world of B2B transactions, is almost always the prime target. So elusive, though, is the CEO that most tend to market to subordinates or indirectly.

Gatekeeping Executive Assistants are the first to kill off efforts to reach a CEO through usual communications, such as the phone or email. Social media is hit and miss – while one might occasionally garner a response from a C-Level exec on social media, it is rare and typically doesn’t leave a lasting impact on the execs themselves.

Most ‘Trojan Horse’ efforts to FedEx a branded collaterals to the CEO are often just as quickly dismissed as a cold email. Low-cost options, such as pens, coasters, or even USB drives (does anybody even use those anymore?) are ‘sorted’ into the trash can or, at best, given to the Executive Assistant’s kids so they can finish their homework.

With a minimal budget, we didn’t have the option to send them all a branded Patek Philippe. We needed to get creative.

A point of pride

Former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson called Sacramento “an old cow town.” While initially an infuriating insult among Sacramento residents, it quickly turned into a point of pride that was embraced. At Sacramento Kings games (the city’s basketball team), fans clanked cowbells as a show of team spirit.

This embrace had a deep meaning among residents. Unfortunately, to the outside world (particularly the Bay Area), it merely perpetuated the existing stereotype.

How could we leverage this point of pride within the community without further deepening this stereotype?

Turning CEOs into spokespeople

Here’s what we came up with: We hired a local performance artist, David Garibaldi, to paint on a ‘canvas’ of 240 cowbells. This had several benefits:

  • A Unique Message: The message was clear (and we developed supporting marketing collaterals to help communicate it): The Sacramento region is proud of its agricultural heritage, but that heritage has a fresh coat of paint! This paint represents the new Sacramento region: One that is young, talented, vibrant, creative and full of energy. It’s a region poised for explosive growth, and with an interest in wholeheartedly embracing this growth.
  • Staying Power: As a limited edition art piece (one of only 240 created), it wasn’t likely to be tossed away upon receipt. Each were individually signed by the artist. The packaging not only told the story of the Cowbell, but also included a photo of the final art piece – so the recipient could see where their particular cowbell fit into ‘big picture’
  • Creative Proof: David Garibaldi was the perfect proof-point for the thriving creative, artistic scene in the Sacramento region. He was not only talented in his own right, but he had achieved national recognition by finishing in 4th place on the 7th season of America’s Got Talent.
  • CEO Influence: The piece of art was likely to (and did) end up in a visible location within its C-level recipients offices. This is where it would prove to be most influential: Visitors to the recipient’s office would be inclined to ask about the strange cowbell art piece on display in the recipient’s office – at which point the recipient would tell the Greater Sacramento story him or herself. What better spokesperson could we possible have than the CEOs themselves?

Avoiding the “Inception Effect”

In the movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio is on a mission to place a thought into the mid of his ‘target’ so that this thought would grow into a larger philosophy within the target – and eventually lead the target to make the decision that DiCaprio’s client desired.

There was a large group of target CEOs that likely didn’t know anything about the Sacramento region in the first place, and thus wouldn’t have the cowtown perception in the first place. we wanted to avoid a DiCaprio-like ‘planting’ of the cowtown concept in these CEO’s consciousness’ through this campaign.

Additionally, we realized that the idea of our region sending out cowbells could further perpetuate the cowtown perception if the context and story of the art pieces was lost.

To avoid either of these effects, we took the following measure:

  1. We included the full story and context as a package with each art piece. In each packaged cowbell box, we included a postcard that told the story of the project briefly. We also developed a video with the artist, in which the artist told the story himself. On the packaging and on the postcard, we included a link to a landing page for the campaign (www.whatswiththecowbell.com), on which we provided the full video and additional context.
  2. We controlled, as much as possible, media exposure. We wanted media coverage around the project, but didn’t want that coverage to take a negative slant. Rather than publishing a press release about the project, we worked directly with a select number of outlets to ensure the full story was told. In this way, we helped to any stories from news outlets that might indicate that our organization is further perpetuating the ‘cowtown’ perception with this project.
  3. We didn’t push the campaign through broad digital advertising. With online advertising, we couldn’t control how much of our story was told. Too often, users are exposed to ads for only a matter of seconds. For our campaign, this might lead to a very basic understanding of the campaign. A recipient of the ad might be exposed only long enough to see the cowbell and our logo – thus making an instant connection between the Sacramento region and cowbells, and nothing more. Therefore, we opted out of conducting this type of campaign, leaving more room in our digital advertising budget for campaigns that would leave more immediate, concrete positive associations.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. As a primarily non-digital campaign, analytic were scarce on this project. Additionally, with only 240 pieces that were meant to trigger a sales cycle that can last anywhere from two months to two years, the ‘conversion rate’ may still take some time to measure. Nonetheless, we know through conversations with recipients that this cowbell art was most certainly not thrown away. Instead, it has led our target demographics to discuss the merits of our region in depth. – not only with our team but also amongst their own peers.

Key outcomes

This campaign worked very well. We distributed the cowbells over the course of approximately one year, both through hand delivery and FedEx. They were sent directly to certain CEOs whose attention we were vying for, provided to high-profile visitors to our region, and delivered as a ‘Thank You’ after important meetings.

Our approach proved that creativity can overcome cost constraints when trying to ignite discussions with one of one of the most illusive B2B marketing target audiences: The CEO.

I’d like to thank Sacramento-based Franklin Pictures for their immense contribution to not only the filming of this project, but complete support for its coordination and delivery.