Making waves in a big pond: The benefits of grassroots marketing

Imagine launching a major children's series on PBS-implementing a far-reaching, national publicity campaign, holding a large premiere party and press conference, obtaining national underwriters, creating a licensing program (including a style guide, of course), executing station relations, creating 30 unique on-air...
August 1, 1998

Imagine launching a major children’s series on PBS-implementing a far-reaching, national publicity campaign, holding a large premiere party and press conference, obtaining national underwriters, creating a licensing program (including a style guide, of course), executing station relations, creating 30 unique on-air promos, developing an outreach program and purchasing targeted tune-in advertising-all for $800,000. Pretty tough assignment, huh?

Now do it for half of that.

When PorchLight Entertainment launched the PBS series, Adventures from The Book of Virtues, in September 1996, we had big dreams, but a small pocketbook; $400,000 was our entire marketing/ad/publicity/promo budget. However, less than three years later, we’ve managed to exceed our goals in terms of publicity (nominated by PBS as one of the top campaigns with over 2,500 press articles and a dozen on-air segments), underwriting (two national underwriters), carriage (over 90%), national QSR promotions (Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A), and licensing (over a dozen licensees on board). To top it all off, we’re in pre-pro of our third season.

What’s our secret? We have a quality program, of course, and Adventures’ unique niche in the world of children’s TV

hasn’t hurt. But most importantly, we’ve been able to squeeze the most out of our budget by making effective use of good, old-fashioned GRASSROOTS MARKETING.

A large part of our launch centered on communicating the show’s message to parents, teachers and community leaders in hopes of creating a groundswell of support. We sought potential advocates on three fronts: schools, after-school programs and family-oriented organizations. Our thought was that if we could get these influential groups to talk about the series, we would build a strong audience for the program immediately.

With the help of experienced PR firms, we launched an aggressive publicity program. With an article providing hints on parenting, character-building activities for the whole family and entertaining stories for kids, we were able to get coverage in publications ranging from major market papers to ‘less than 15,000 circulation’ outlets.

To support our publicity efforts, we sent thousands of posters to fourth grade teachers. The front featured colorful pictures of our series’ characters and the back included a classroom-oriented, discussion-focused board game. We also sponsored ‘Virtue Essay Contests’ in certain school districts, and awarded winners with Adventures licensed product. These efforts alone generated hundreds of letters and e-mails from teachers thanking us for promoting character education.

Additionally, an outreach program (funded by the Sarah Scaife Foundation), was sent to National Boys and Girls Clubs and Parent/Teacher Associations. Bruce Johnson, executive producer of Adventures, also participated as a keynote speaker at the Clubs’ executive meeting. We quickly found that nothing is as effective as reaching out and listening to the people implementing your ideas.

To round out our efforts, we communicated frequently with community and spiritual leaders. Given the similarity between our themes (compassion, charity, wisdom), and the teachings of ‘family first’ organizations, we knew they would endorse the series if they knew it existed.

When Adventures premiered in the fall of 1996, ratings exceeded a 6.1 in households with kids. Our efforts had paid off!

However, to keep the momentum for the series going, we needed to broaden our marketing efforts. With the help of our national underwriters, we continue to expand our grass roots programs. To keep communities saturated with information on the series, we developed a family discussion guide along with our national underwriter, CIGNA.

To date, 250,000 guides have been distributed to families nationwide via teachers, PBS stations, churches, day care centers, doctors’ offices, the Internet and other community groups.

In addition, we are currently working with CIGNA to bring CARE FAIR mall tours to 10 cities this year. These events combine ‘The Business of Caring’ (CIGNA’s tag-line), with Adventures from The Book of Virtues to create a day of fun events and family workshops addressing themes such as responsibility, moderation, wisdom and determination. A test event at the Phoenix Metrocenter Mall drew over 10,000 people, a number that we expect to grow.

Chick-fil-A, the newest series underwriter, developed local marketing programs to complement our existing efforts. Plans range from featuring Adventures in two Kids Meals per year for the next three years, to in-school visits by our characters and point-of-purchase displays.

Most of our marketing activities are people-focused. We can’t compete with the majors on a national advertising basis, so why bother trying? Instead, we focus on the areas in which we can make a personal impact in hopes that enough local buzz, in enough parts of the country, will eventually spill over into the national arena.

Obviously, our tactics may not be appropriate for every program. But, considering that we’re using limited resources in a crowded marketplace, grassroots marketing has been the backbone of the show’s success! (Of course, if you’d like to give me a few million bucks, I will gladly demonstrate how I’d run a national campaign…)

Jill Newhouse Calcaterra is VP Marketing and Public Relations with L.A.-based Porchlight Entertainment

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