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For many, the holidays became a distant memory when the last of the Christmas ornaments were put away. And some of us breathed a sigh of relief.

But there is one group, at least, for whom Christmas is never really "over" ... and that was holding their breath in anticipation over Christmas 2004 well into January 2005.


Posing with the Limited Edition "The Polar Express" Snow Plow/Mower are, from left, Steve Drake, owner of Drake & Company and CEO of the National Christmas Tree Association; Kat Fisher of Buzztone Inc., an agency for Warner Bros. Pictures; and Gene Hemphill, industry affairs manager for New Holland North America.
In 2002, USDA Ag Census data and annual Wirthlin Worldwide consumer polls corroborated that purchases of Real Christmas Trees the previous four years were decreasing. The data didn't go unnoticed by Chesterfield, Mo.-based association management company Drake & Company, whose largest client is a professional organization for the Real Christmas Tree industry.

Owned by Steve Drake, Drake & Company serves as the headquarters and staff of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) and six other national associations. Among their services are membership development, meeting and conference management, general administrative and financial management, research, public relations, promotion and marketing.

News of declining sales, coupled with indications that the supply of Real Christmas Trees would increase in the next three to five years, left NCTA with the million dollar question: What can we do to help growers and retailers sell more Real Christmas Trees during the holiday season?

The answer came in the form of an aggressive, research-based market expansion campaign designed to 1) recapture market share lost to artificial trees over the past 10 years and 2) to attract new consumers.

Funded by nearly $900,000 in voluntary contributions from Real Tree professionals, the multi-year campaign combines a variety of public relations programs, traditional media outreach and innovative marketing tools to supplement NCTA's ongoing promotional programs. All are focused on reaching Americans with the underlying message, "Nothing says Christmas more than a Real Tree."

On behalf of NCTA, Drake contracted with Alexandria, Va.-based marketing firm Smith & Harroff to design and implement key elements of the campaign. Elements of the 2004 campaign included a national contest for school-aged children and a nationwide cross-promotional program with a major motion picture released over the holiday season.


Recognizing the link between families with strong holiday traditions and the preference for using a fresh Christmas Tree, last July Drake and his staff team began development of a cross-promotional program with Warner Bros. Pictures and the holiday movie The Polar Express featuring Tom Hanks.

The movie opened nationwide Nov. 10, 2004, in effect putting Real Christmas Trees in front of120 million people during the peak Christmas Tree selling season.

The emotional message of The Polar Express provided a direct link to the emotional connection of fresh Christmas Trees for parents and their children, the primary determinants of a Real Christmas Tree purchase.

"The Polar Express movie and our industry - major tree growers, lot operators and cut-your-own tree farmers in North America - share a common message: that the spirit of Christmas is alive, as long as you believe," explains Drake, who also serves as NCTA's CEO. "It was our hope that children and parents across the country would slow down and spend family time together by seeing the movie and selecting and decorating a fresh Christmas Tree."

Warner Bros. Pictures placed the Real Tree message, NCTA logo and Web site on The Polar Express ads and posters sent to participants. In exchange, NCTA members helped promote the movie by offering discounts on the purchase of a fresh Christmas Tree. Those who brought in a movie ticket stub from The Polar Express saved $3 at participating retail lots and choose-and-cut farms. Consumers could find participating locations on NCTA's Web site by typing in their zip code and looking for farms and lots with The Polar Express icon.


One of the principal strategies for the 2004 Market Expansion Campaign was to seek partnerships to help Christmas Tree farmers and retailers take advantage of the opportunities for movie promotion.

That goal came to mind when Drake attended last year's Ag Media Summit in Tampa, Fla. He had a chance meeting with Gene Hemphill, industry affairs manager for New Holland North America. The pair shared ideas for cross-promotion a number of times since first working together to staff a media room for the Illinois Soy-Corn Conference 24 years earlier. Would Hemphill be interested in teaming up with Drake once again?

As luck would have it, a sponsorship opportunity with NCTA proved a perfect fit for New Holland to reach the untapped lifestyle market segment - people from urban areas who buy and farm a few rural acres. "We entered into a market and type of public relations and marketing that we've never done before," Hemphill says. "Polar Express tied us to people who we normally wouldn't have as customers."

NCTA, New Holland and Warner Bros. Pictures came up with a marketing plan that proved a hat trick for all three. New Holland donated a tractor, which Warner Bros. Pictures laminated with an image from the movie to become the Limited Edition "The Polar Express" Snow Plow/Mower. Warner Bros. Pictures ran an Internet drawing for the tractor, which in turn yielded a database of e-mail addresses that New Holland could use to reach the lifestyle market.

New Holland also agreed to sponsor NCTA's Help Santa Find the Perfect Real Christmas Tree National Contest - the association's other big promotion in 2004. Launched in November, the contest asked children to take a family photo in front of their fresh Christmas Tree and write a story about what made it special.

NCTA offered up to $20,000 in scholarships for the most compelling stories while New Holland provided an alternative prize - a trip for four to Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Entry forms were made available at participating Christmas Tree farms and lots and at New Holland's dealer locations.


NCTA relies on annual Wirthlin polls to monitor issues and develop key messages. According to the consumer tracking poll, the 2004 selling season was a "grand slam" for Real Trees.

Wirthlin reported more Real Trees were purchased and at higher prices than in years past: consumers bought 3.7 million, or 15.8 percent, more Real Trees in 2004 than in 2003, the largest year-to-year increase since NCTA has tracked consumer purchases. Real Trees represented 75 percent of trees purchased, a 4 percent increase.

By the same token, 600,000 fewer new artificial trees were purchased and 5.4 million fewer were displayed. Consumers chose to spend 26 percent more for their Real Trees in 2004.


Encouraged by these results, the Market Expansion Task Force continues to fine-tune its strategy for 2005, revising successful 2004 campaign elements while introducing new projects and strategic partners.

Warner Bros. Pictures and New Holland will continue to be part of that mix. Concepts for consideration include creating opportunities for Christmas Tree retailers to engage their local New Holland dealerships through New Holland Real Tree Days and packaging Real Tree messages with the DVD release of The Polar Express.

We're really eager to work with the DVD promotion in November," Hemphill says. "This was a home run all the way, but our successes wouldn't have been as great had we not been working together." AM

Rachel Plumb is a communications specialist with Winning Formula Communications, a Chesterfield-based PR and media strategies company.

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