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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
OLD DOGS CAN BE TAUGHT NEW TRICKS
Freckles Proves Agility and Ability to Promote Iams’ Senior Plus PR Programs

by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor

This is a story about a famous dog. Lassie, you say? Rin-Tin-Tin, maybe? Richard Nixon’s infamous dog, Checkers? How about Eddie on NBC’s hit television show Frasier? Well, not this time. This is the story of Freckles, the centerpiece of two special events conducted by The Iams Co. to convince veterinarians that its joint health product for mature pets - Senior Plus - is the cat’s meow! Oh, sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The special events - conducted at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conference and The North American Veterinary Conference (TNAVC) - were developed for the Dayton, Ohio, pet food maker by Fleishman-Hillard’s (F-H) Kansas City, Mo.’s office and led by Shelly Kessen, vice president in the food and agribusiness division, along with client, Lara Strazdin, manager of communications for Iams and James Dickson, brand manager of veterinary products.

Senior Plus (the product is officially known as Eukanuba Veterinary Diets® Nutritional Joint Maintenance Formula™ Senior Plus) is the fastest accepted new product to date in terms of number of veterinary clinics stocking the brand, according to Iams. The company also reports that this product "created and leads" the nutritional joint-health category. It is sold only through veterinarians’ clinics.

A short lesson on dog years and arthritis is necessary before we go on. Freckles is 13. A dog reaches senior status at seven, joining 18 million other dogs in that category. Last year Freckles finished fifth in the American Kennel Club (AKC) national agility competition. She won in the overall category - competing against dogs less than half her age. Plainly speaking, that dog, whose diet is exclusively Senior Plus, is agile. And with 8 million senior dogs experiencing difficulty moving in part because of arthritis, companies like Iams are looking for ways to capture the vet market.

"We found a home run waiting to happen," Strazdin says, explaining that the company found out about Freckles through its customer service department. "Then we found out that Freckles was right here in Dayton. We arranged to have the dog come to our office for a meeting. She did a demonstration in our front yard."

After Freckles’ power point presentation and explanation of her pedigree, the folks at Iams were convinced they had a winner in their midst. OK, so I might be exaggerating a bit regarding the power point presentation. I think it was just an overhead projector and screen.

"The dog’s personality was great, and Freckles was so energetic," Strazdin says. "After the demonstration I sent information to Fleishman-Hillard and basically asked, ‘What would you do with this dog?’ They came up with a plan."

PRODUCT PERFORMANCE

The F-H office in Kansas City handles the vet portion of the Iams business, as well as a significant portion of the consumer public relations. Offices in St. Louis and Minneapolis also support individual brand and corporate efforts. Pete Abel, senior vice president and senior partner, in St. Louis coordinates the account for all F-H offices.

"We wanted to create an event to showcase what Senior Plus could do," Kessen says. "Our initial thought was agility demonstrations at major vet conferences. The first one was the AVMA last July in Salt Lake City, Utah. So we set up a mini-agility course at the Iams booth. Then we had Freckles’ owners, Rob and Kandy Robinson, speak of her winning ways and how Senior Plus fuels her every day."

Strazdin says the event promotion idea was a hit with Dickson, the product’s brand manager. "The idea to use Freckles to tell the story of Senior Plus and a senior dog’s diet was a hit ready to happen," Strazdin notes. "It was just a matter of our figuring out how to implement it."

As you might expect, veterinarians congregated at the Iams booth (estimates were up to 500 during the show). A pre-show mailer helped draw them to the booth. Veterinarians completed a Freckles/Senior Plus card and entered it in a drawing at the booth for a premium. Veterinarians also received a Freckles poster. Strazdin credits F-H with many of the tactics. "They are great at creative and follow-through," she says. (One example she notes was the use of Iams corporate logo paw print decals on the floor, which led veterinarians to the outdoor agility tent at the TNAVC event.)

Strazdin and Kessen felt audience participation would enhance the event, so veterinarians were allowed to assist Freckles in running through the agility course, with the aid of the Robinsons. "It was truly a fun event," Strazdin says.

Kessen says the booth event was part of a two-pronged effort at the AVMA show. "We also hosted a press luncheon," she explains. "Key vet trade media attended (there are about 15 major trade media, and the major magazines attended) and we used that lunch to have an Iams vet walk the media through the aging process. He explained the research that supports the diet change to Senior Plus when a dog reaches 7 years old - in other words what is called the ‘Seven-Year Switch.’"

Strazdin adds that the media messages were aimed at supporting the notion that when dogs reach senior status they don’t have to lie on the couch. "Dogs don’t have to slow down; they can keep active and remain agile," she explains. "And, by the way, there’s a premium food available from veterinarians designed for their needs."

An exclusive agility show for the media was part of the luncheon.

During the Salt Lake City show, Freckles appeared on "Utah Live," a local morning show, and on two additional evening segments. Following the show, a video news release (VNR) was prepared and distributed during Senior Care Health Month in September. There were 89 hits in 57 markets, garnering 2.1 million impressions, Kessen says.

SUCCESS SPURS ROUND TWO

Originally designed for one special event, the AVMA show’s success prompted F-H and Iams marketing folks to replicate the event at TNAVC a couple months later. This more "global" veterinarians show in Orlando each year reaches a larger audience of veterinarians than does the AVMA show.

"There was a buzz in Orlando about Freckles because many veterinarians go to both shows and had seen the dog in Salt Lake City," Strazdin says. "We circulated fliers about Freckles performing again, and we knew that some veterinarians had put up in their offices the posters we had given them in Salt Lake City because we saw them in clinics."

In Orlando, the full agility course was outdoors in a tent, allowing for more veterinarians to see Freckles. "We had planned only two shows a day for the veterinarians, but we ended up doing four or five each day because of the crowds," Kessen says. "Strategically, the Iams course outside was placed near the lunch line. That helped with traffic."

Incidentally, no hot "dogs" were served at lunch. Sorry, I couldn’t help it!

Kessen estimates that one-third of the veterinarians who saw Freckles perform in the outdoor tent made their way to the indoor exhibit booth for more in-depth information on Senior Plus from the brand manager and others. "I’d call the participation phenomenal," she adds.

In addition, Freckles was featured on a closed-circuit conference program, reaching about 13,000 attending veterinarians.

THE FUTURE

Freckles is still on the radar screen for potential future public relations and promotional opportunities, Strazdin says. "This campaign ranks in my top three as a success for Senior Plus since it was launched in 1998, as well as other public relations campaigns we’ve done here in recent years," she says. "I’m a big proponent of special events. Anytime you get a beautiful dog or cat telling a unique story that can visually depict our foods is always a winner for us. We’re not sure yet how we’ll work with Freckles in the future, but we do want to use her to spread the word."

The old promotional adage that you can’t lose from a publicity standpoint when using pets and/or kids applies in this case, Strazdin adds. "Every news station that used the VNR closed with our shot of Freckles playing with a small child in the agility ring." AM



Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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