The Exhibitionists

Raising brand awareness is not just a matter of slapping up ten-foot posters across the country. One of the most popular and effective methods is exhibitions; and although many appear to be a scrum of people fighting their way from one end of a huge hall to the other, visitors comprise a carefully targeted – and captive – audience. And they attend events to be educated.

Exhibitions are also cheaper to run than mainstream advertising. This new emphasis has seen the position of the exhibition manager, who used to be the Skoda driver of the marketing industry, grow in stature and importance. A fact which is reflected in the calibre of person doing the job.

The statistics are telling: in 1992, spend on exhibitions in the UK was 704m. By 1997 this had increased to 849m, according to Exhibition Bulletin. As a result, a stand has to work hard to communicate and reflect what the brand or brands express, so getting a good position is a prime requirement.

Regular show exhibitors have an advantage but newcomers can still make an impact, says Penny Bradley, exhibitions and events manager for satellite phone company ICO. “Regular exhibitors book from year to year so you have to keep nagging the organisers and wear them down to get a good position,” she says. “Without that, it is not worth supporting an event.”

Bradley also places considerable emphasis on events surrounding exhibitions, such as conferences, dinners and media activity. “We had a big media briefing and a VIP dinner at the telecoms show in China; and our chief executive attended a dinner, seminars and workshops in India,” says Bradley. “We are sponsoring the opening ceremony at Telecom 99 in Geneva and will have a big presence there.”

It is also important stands entice visitors in. ICO wants to be seen as a communications company, not a satellite company, so its stand had to look hi-tech, but not so hi-tech that it alienated people. And an interesting design can also attract media coverage. ICO is in the unusual position of raising brand awareness – with trade only – for a product that does not yet exist. Its satellite phone should become available in August 2000.

Once on the stand, visitors can then experience the product and talk to the people who know most about it. According to David Wooton, exhibitions director of Coleman Moore Exhibitions: “Events are an excellent forum for launching a product because potential clients can see and feel it, giving them hands-on experience. You cannot achieve that with advertising and direct mail. For the same reasons, events are also superb for breaking into new markets.”

Wooton says exhibitions are about information dissemination to an audience that wants to be educated. Delegates are going there to find out more.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts is a case in point. Starwood is the umbrella company for a number of familiar hotel brands, including Westin and Sheraton. The company had been promoting these, but discovered people wanted to know what the holding company was, so it used the World Travel Market show to make its mark.

Michael Wale, vice-president area director UK & Ireland, Scandinavia & Turkey for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, says: “We had not supported WTM for two years but decided to return because we had a strong new message. We wanted to make travel agents aware of the brands and the company.

“The stand carried strong Starwood branding, but within that there were booths displaying each of our brands,” he says. “There was a very positive atmosphere at WTM this year and we benefited from that.”

The feel of an exhibition depends partly on the industry. In the travel and entertainments sector, for instance, you have to be seen to travel and entertain, so exhibitions such as WTM are sociable. But the telecoms industry is volatile: the lifespan of products is short, so these shows are very hard working.

A well established and successful history is one of the most powerful components in the branding of any product, and Confex is a good example of this. But this does not prevent a show losing its way.

Consumer electronics show Live was launched in 1991 in response to demand from the industry to help combat disproportionate focus on pricing and retail, and to promote brand values.

By 1995 a lack of communication between major industry players and the organisers meant Live was already becoming unfocused and by 1996 many of the leading brands had pulled out, including Sharp.

Michael Gabriel, head of marketing communications for Sharp consumer electronics, comments: “Last year, the show had re-established its core interest groups. The organisers came to the industry and asked us what we wanted. They responded to that and also restricted the size of stands so that no one brand would dominate the show. We were happy with what we achieved.”

Live marketing manager Alison Wynn adds: “We had to provide the right audience. The branding of the show was vital because we were relaunching it. Live’s robot logo is a strong brand identity, symbolising the bringing together of different consumer electronics products. It is futuristic, fun and striking.”

When the branding of an exhibition is very strong, this can provide insuperable challenges for exhibitors. Expo 98 in Lisbon, which carried an “oceans” theme, is a case in point. Specialist communications agency HP:ICM was given the task of designing the British stand. “Few countries found much to say about their future on the oceans, so they took the historical route,” says associate director and head of exhibitions Nick Keats.

“The Government chose the theme of innovation for the British stand, and we presented it as the oceans, our heritage and our future,” says Keats. “The British tend to have innovative ideas and let someone else develop them, so we found six products that had been taken up by industry or commercial enterprise.”

These included Hydrovane, a yacht with a rotating sail, which removes the need for sailors to tack; and a hydrodigger, which uses water to scoop out mud, allowing the sinking of pipes and cables and underwater maintenance work, while reducing damage to the microclimate.

The most prolific advocate of exhibitions to launch brands, or raise their profile, are the international motor shows. This year Ford was launching the Focus but also using the new, marque to make a statement about Ford’s new image.

According to David Girling, director Ford Group at event organiser Imagination: “The stand at the Birmingham Motor Show communicated the new strength of Ford and Ford Focus – strong, new age, contemporary design; an excellent driving experience. There was a game which allowed those participating to drive the car in virtual reality; and potential customers could also hold the wheel, use the gears and hear and see the car on video.

“The response we had was amazing. Our research suggested our stand at Birmingham was preferred to any other,” says Girling.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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