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Fire ants. There's not much good to say about fire ants. In fact, Stacey Himes, associate vice president of Tierney Communications, Philadelphia, refers to fire ants like this: "They're nasty, nasty, nasty!" Need I say more?

Do a Web search on fire ants and you'll find things such as: "With their fiery venom, they latch on with barbed mandibles and sting repeatedly with spiked tails. Their venom is injected by a stinger like a wasp's, and they create a burning sensation and a small bump or pustule within eight to 24 hours that can last for 10 days! Fire ants in the United States are active and aggressive, swarming over anyone or anything that disturbs their nest, be it wild animals, domestic animals and birds, pets or people." It's the pets and people thing that has my attention!

This is the part where I get selfish and say thank goodness I live in Minnesota, as opposed to the 13 Southeastern states where fire ants are an epidemic, in the view of some. When I hear that more than 25,000 people a year seek medical attention from fire ant stings, that a fire ant mound can be 15 to 24 inches in diameter, 10 to 18 inches high, and 1 to 3 feet deep with tunnels extending 5 feet or more down to the water table, it's time to bring Carl Spackler from "Caddyshack" on board to eliminate the nasty little insects.

Or, you develop an innovative and first-of-its-kind preventative product called TopChoice™ from Bayer Environmental Science; a single professional application of TopChoice will control fire ants year-round. Sure. Sounds simple, huh? Well, the upfront educational challenges were many for Bayer and its public relations agency, Tierney Communications, when they supported the lawn and pest control service industry by introducing the campaign last fall. A few of the challenges were:
  •  Up until this introduction of TopChoice, professional products dealing with fire ants tended to be curative, not preventative. Who's going to believe one application will solve all the problems in a consumer's yard for a whole year?
  • Only lawn care operators (LCOs) and pest control operators (PCOs) can be licensed to apply the product. Many other products on the market can be bought over-the-counter and applied by consumers themselves. Will consumers accept this new way of treating fire ants?
  • The product is premium-priced, meaning a new mindset for consumers as they decide whether or not it's worth the extra cost to try a new product.
  •  After the product is applied, it can take several weeks for it to be effective. Properly applied, TopChoice controls fire ants for a full year with one application ... but will consumers have the patience to wait that long?

In addition to the educational hurdles, Jim Fetter, director of marketing, Chipco® Professional Products, Bayer Environmental Science, says there were three major marketing communications challenges:
  • "We needed to elevate the awareness of fire ants as a public health problem because consumers had been hardened to the point where they just stayed off their lawns to avoid contact with the ants."
  • "We needed to convince LCOs and PCOs that they can reclaim their customers' lawns and that they didn't need to be resigned to solutions of the past."
  • "Believability was another issue because applicators felt it would be difficult to convince their customers that one application as a preventative measure would work for a whole year when consumers were always in a curative mode, chasing fire ant mounds around the yard."

Fetter says that's why public relations was the driver of this introduction, which he called "a great opportunity and Bayer Environmental Science's number one issue in the lawn care market."


Scott Williams, Lawn Master, Pensacola, Fla.; Gordon Morrison, marketing manager, Bayer Environmental Science; Dr. J. Bryan Unruh, associate professor of environmental horticulture with the University of Florida; Judi Pittman, NitroGreen, Ashburn, Ala.; Frank Meek, Orkin, Atlanta; and Jim Fetter, director of marketing for Bayer's Chipco Professional Products division, answer questions from the audience during a panel discussion at the Bayer-sponsored Fire Ant Summit in Orlando, Fla.
Himes and Steve Albertini, general manager at Tierney, developed the public relations and promotional plan to introduce the product to the professional service industry and their customers, along with the professional trade media. Early on, Albertini says, the client (Dan Carrothers, vice president of Chipco Professional Products) recognized the potential for the product and the effort it would take to properly introduce it. "We felt we had to get to the LCOs, PCOs and their customers with our message," Albertini says. "In meeting with the client, we focused on what we felt the breadth of the campaign needed to be in terms of size and scope. To their credit, Bayer came up with the budget for a national program on TopChoice featuring how and why it was different from other products on the market."

All parties agreed that the public health threat posed by fire ants needed to be further exposed, and the mindset that lawn service customers had learned to "live with fire ants" had to be changed. "Our research showed that people were so used to living with fire ants that they didn't believe a product could work to eliminate them," Albertini says. "We knew we had to get the message out there, and PR provided the third-party credibility that advertising doesn't. PR was the lead discipline to get the word out."

Himes says a trial balloon effort with the media started last fall. "Though fall is not the primary fire ant season, we were able to successfully generate media interest in areas such as Mobile, Ala. (an LCO went in-studio and talked to viewers about the product), Atlanta and other key markets. On the syndicated television show 'At-Home Live,' broadcast to 33 million people across the United States, a Bayer entomologist spoke in-depth about fire ants for 12 minutes."

With the success of the fall media campaign under their belt, the stage had been set for the 2004 rollout, which included preparing for a summit with a couple hundred LCOs and PCOs in February in Orlando.

"The summit was important for LCOs and PCOs," Albertini says. "In our survey with attendees after the summit, the vast majority said selling TopChoice was 'absolutely a new service business opportunity.' The two days of meetings were used to educate participants about the product and to tell them how Bayer intended to support them with communications tools to sell the product to their customers."

Bayer research last summer had revealed that only 20 percent of LCOs and PCOs were aware of TopChoice. "We had to give them a sense that there were a lot of tools available to build this preventative market," Fetter says. "It's tougher to build a category than compete in an existing category. We found a tremendous sense of excitement from them. We needed to get the LCOs and PCOs engaged, and I think we accomplished that."

The national and regional media relations efforts will continue in the months ahead. Tierney will work on broadcast and print efforts, placing LCOs on TV and radio programs, plus print opportunities.


What Bayer is really excited about is the grassroots communications efforts, appropriately named "The Swarm." Working with local lawn care and pest control professionals from Arbor-nomics, King Green, TruGreen/ChemLawn and Orkin, there was a major sponsorship effort at a NASCAR race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in March. A local LCO applied TopChoice free of charge to 100 acres of campgrounds at the site, and a tent was set up on site with a racecar simulator, in addition to signage and other promotional efforts.

In late March, in Ashburn, Ga., an annual fire ant festival attracted more than 25,000 people. There was a lot of interest in professionally applied TopChoice. When you live in the North, fire ant festivals in the South can only be compared to those popular mosquito parties here in Minnesota. But seriously folks...

"On Friday afternoon before the festival, local schools held pep rallies, where information, magnets and temporary tattoos were handed out," Himes explains. "There was a fireworks show, and an "I Love Lucy" skit where Lucy and Desi discover fire ants in their home (the festival's theme was 'nifty fifties'). A booth was available where festivals-goers could ask lawn care and pest control professionals about TopChoice."

Other efforts of "The Swarm" during 2004 will include free applications by service professionals to parks, Little League fields, historic sites and more. Also, local LCOs/PCOs will be facilitating TopChoice block parties with homeowners. Participation in more fire ant festival promotions in Texas and elsewhere is also being considered.

In April a Web site went online - The site is designed for consumers to learn more about fire ants and find local professional TopChoice applicators. And LCOs/PCOs will be launching direct mail efforts to their customers to explain the breakthrough performance of this new product in controlling and preventing those "nasty" fire ants and ugly mounds.


Traditional efforts like measuring media hits and impressions are ways to measure the overall effectiveness of the program in the months and years ahead. Information also will be generated from LCOs and PCOs to see how TopChoice impacted their business, Albertini says. Adds Fetter: "With our research from last fall, we'll be able to test and measure awareness and recognition among LCOs and PCOs. We definitely will track this in 2004."

Well, looks like Carl Spackler won't be needed after all! AM

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

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