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Mar 03, 2004
Case Study

How to Build Buzz at a Massive Trade Show on a Limited Budget: Operation Blueshock Strikes CES

SUMMARY: Do you yearn to dominate your industry's biggest trade show, but just don't have the budget for a giant booth or flashy party? You're going to love this Case Study...

Hear how a trade organization with a "meager booth" got mega-attention from both press and attendees at CES by flooding the show floor with 300-identically dressed models, carefully scripted to murmur one word under their breath.

Includes lots of useful details on logistics, plus links to photos and resources:

"We couldn't afford a big booth, we just couldn't," says Eric Schneider Marketing Manager Bluetooth Special Interest Group. "We're a trade association operating on a modest budget."

This January 192,000 mass retailers and technology engineers and developers, attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. There were so many booths that the entire Convention Center was filled, plus there were overflow booths located in tents pitched outside and in the halls of the nearby Hilton.

The hundreds of exhibitors included heavy-hitters such as Microsoft, Sony, Dell, Verizon, Intel, and HP. "I'd heard tall tales about CES," says Schneider, "but everything was bigger and more outrageous than I could have ever imaged. Some companies put millions of dollars into their booths."

Despite the fact that Bluetooth's floor space was "meager," Schneider's goal was get buzz throughout the show.

Over the previous 12 months, Bluetooth's technology had reached critical mass in terms of 3,000 manufacturers incorporating it in their products. But, the brand was hardly known by the outside world --- especially amongst retailers.

CES was the perfect platform to launch the brand to the rest of the consumer electronics world ... if Bluetooth could get anyone to pay attention.


Schneider and his agency turned to a scene in the 1999 film 'The Thomas Crown Affair' for inspiration -- where an art thief distracts police attention by flooding a large museum with dozens of look-alike bowler hat-wearing businessmen.

If Bluetooth could fill the Convention Center with hundreds of identical models in matching outfits, it could make a similar impression. In effect the entire show floor would become Bluetooth's booth.

The logistics team for the campaign codenamed 'Operation Blueshock' swung into action right after Labor Day. There were seven major steps:

Step #1. Getting permission

If you're planning to do anything unusual at a trade show, first you must get permission from show organizers. The Blueshock team didn't want to lessen their impact by spoiling the surprise, so they described the campaign very broadly to show organizers. "Can we have a couple of 100 employees give out cards at the show?"

They also contacted about 20 different staffers at the Convention Center itself to make sure that every level of security and management were ok with them flooding entryways with several hundred models en masse.

Step #2. On-site visit

Although they had been planning from show floor maps, the team invested in an on-site visit to spec out the situation in reality. So in November, they flew in to attend COMDEX (another big show in the same space.)

They paid extra attention to how traffic used various entrances, noting which were likely to become clogged and which were fairly open. Even though Convention Center security management were on board with the campaign, the team knew that news might not trickle down to every single security guard at the show itself.

They didn't want the fate of the entire campaign to rest in the hands of a guard who might slow or stop the models from entering the floor en masse. So, they decided split the models into large teams and to use several different entrances at once.

Step #3. Costuming

Obviously it was critical that the models stand out from the attendees. "We didn't want to do a typical booth babe," says Schneider. "People who go to CES tend to dress down, so we decided to stand out with formal wear."

Formal wear as in black tuxedos with blue pocket handkerchiefs for the male models and classic black cocktail dresses with blue clutch bags for the women. The women's hair was pulled back, and both sexes wore matching wrap-around sunglasses to help them maintain composure and avoid eye contact as they marched through the hall.

"In contrast to smiling booth staffers, our models were serious, almost robotic. They stood out, they were on an important mission. It was very Matrix-like in a lot of ways."

Where do you get 150-matching tuxedos? The team called dozens of sources months before the show and finally ended up shipping them in from Texas. The 150-matching dresses for the female models also came from Texas, in this case a bridal retailer was able to help out.

Note: While women's dresses were fairly easy to fit -- they only come in a limited number of sizes and bridal-outfitters always leave extra cloth for alterations -- tuxedos have "about five different moving parts" so getting the right size for each model can be very difficult.

Step #4. Hiring models

Hiring 300 models for a show in Vegas was also a challenge. Eight of the ten agencies the team called said it would be close to impossible. The team checked the references of the two agencies that showed no hesitation, and picked the best. (Link below.)

As each model was hired, the agency made them sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) so they wouldn't tell anyone about the campaign beforehand. Plus the agency identified the most responsible professionals as potential team leaders for the groups as they walked the show floor.

The agency also carefully measured models for outfits. This was critical because when you call in "blind" orders for formal wear (orders for which the tailor has not met the wearer), there's usually an average 70% failure rate. With the agency's help, this campaign only had a 30% failure rate, and the majority of problems were relatively minor.

Step #5. Pre-campaign staging

At first the team considered using a local hotel ballroom for staging, but they decided it was too expensive and there was too much risk of guests seeing the models before the show. So, they wound up renting a large locker room from the Las Vegas Wet & Wild theme park.

Prep staging took place over three days --

January 5th: Apparel and business card shipments arrive and are sorted through by on-site staff.

January 6th: Models check in for fitting and instructions. Each model received a 15-page operations guide explicitly spelling out how they were to behave on the show floor, as well as a little information about the brand they were representing.

(They were not supposed to interact with attendees beyond extremely limited, pre-scripted comments, so they didn't require much product-specific education.)

January 7th: "Buffer day" to finalize alterations, check in models who couldn't make it the day before, and walk the live show floor to spot potential problems.

Step #6. Planning measurement

Schneider has to show measurements for every dollar he spends,
so he made his own plans to survey a sampling of 100 attendees before and after Operation Blueshock swung into action. His small team were stationed with clipboards outside the main entrance and pulled randomly selected attendees aside for this.

Step #7. Action!

In the middle of the day on January 8th, six 55-passenger buses pulled up in two parking lots outside the Convention Center. 300-models climbed briskly out and strode, in teams of 15, towards their variously assigned entrances all around the buildings.

The minute they got through security, the models fanned out on the show floor "like a virus" quickly handing out blue business-sized cards to everyone they met. The cards had the Bluetooth logo on one side and a mysterious phrase like "I do not Seek; I discover" or "Simplify Your Life" in any one of eight languages on the other.

No matter what, the models were only allowed to say one thing out loud to people who asked them questions, "You'll find out tomorrow."

As the models began to run out of cards (men had 400 in their pockets, women had 200 in their clutch bags), their assigned team leaders radioed back to headquarters. Then at precisely the 75-minute mark, every single model on the show floor turned around and marched quickly back out to the waiting buses.

To attendees it seemed as though the virus had abruptly vanished.

The next morning, January 9th, buses pulled up again outside the Convention Center. This time 100 models stepped out, each carrying an identical bouquet of flowers in a blue vase. They quickly delivered the flowers to exhibitors all over the show which were companies who were members of the Bluetooth trade association. (Link below to photo of a flower delivery.)

Schneider explains, "We wanted to do something people in the booth would accept and display and not stick in the back closet. It was small enough that it didn't really conflict with what their booth was doing."

The second the flowers were delivered, the models whisked out of the buildings again.

That afternoon all 300 were supposed to sweep through the show floor one last time, delivering blue cards that named Bluetooth along with a listing of booths where Bluetooth partner companies could be found. But, there was a problem...

The day before one model had plunked down her cards in a stack on a couple of booths instead of giving them out one-by-one directly to attendees. Several exhibitors (some of whom were none-too-thrilled about the way Bluetooth's stunt had distracted attention from their own offerings) complained vociferously.

Luckily, the team had already created a list of alternate plans in case of problems. So after a quick round of negotiations with show organizers, they were allowed to launch Plan B.

That afternoon, the models again entered the show floor in several groups from separate entrances. However, this time the groups were bigger: 70-models apiece. And, this time they didn't fan out as individuals.

Instead they marched like phalanxes of soldiers, in columns of two abreast, up and down each major aisle of the show floor. They showed no expression and didn't interact with attendees at all. Instead they chanted, "Bluetooth" quietly, almost under their breath. (Link to photo below.)

After they covered the show floor in their assigned area, they wheeled smartly out and exited into the main public lobby area, where they whipped out the Bluetooth cards and pressed them on anyone who would accept one.

Then precisely 66-minutes after they'd entered the building, they vanished out the door, never to be seen again.


Can you say outstanding success? It seemed as though everywhere the team went, they were surrounded by CES attendees talking about Operation Blueshock - on the show floor, at parties, in restaurants, even on the plane home.

In the relatively tiny amount of time the models were on the show floor they were able to deliver a phenomenal number of cards. During 75-minutes on day one, the models handed out a total of 86,500 cards. During the much shorter lobby time on day two, the models handed out 43,500 cards, many of them to attendees who had followed them as they marched off the show floor.

To Schneider's knowledge, every single targeted booth kept their flowers on display, and many booth managers said they'd definitely gotten a bump on traffic from the campaign.

The random survey revealed that 68% of surveyed show attendees said they'd seen something at the show that increased their awareness of Bluetooth, and the vast majority of these mentioned operation Blueshock.

Plus, Bluetooth's Web site's traffic, which was already at an all-time high due to show-related press releases, then rose another 94% the day Blueshock swung into action. Site traffic on day two of Blueshock was also far above average.

Last but not least, it seemed like almost every reporter filing daily news from the show mentioned Bluetooth. "When you hear a model calling in on the radio, 'Can I do an interview with CNBC?' you know you've scored a touchdown." (The answer was no, because the models were (a) supposed to be mysterious and (b) weren't media trained.)

Will Bluetooth roll out the campaign at other shows? Probably not. The surprise factor is gone, and the campaign worked so well that Schneider's now moved from brand buzz-goals to more specific marketplace education.

However, he definitely thinks it could work for marketers in a different industry.

Useful links related to this story:

Photos from CES & sample blue cards

GamePlan Marketing & Events (the agency that invented this campaign and handled all the logistics)

Best Agency - the talent agency that supplied the models

See Also:

Comments about this Case Study

Build buzz at a massive trade show on a VERY LIMITED BUDGET by hiring 300 identically dressed models? Hah ha ha ha hah your truly james blair (ha ha ha)

Aug 10, 2006 - Paul of Williams Group says:
Somebody please explain to me how this was accomplished on a "limited budget"?

Aug 11, 2006 - Bryan of BT&D says:
How to Build Buzz at a Massive Trade Show on a Limited Budget. I was looking forward to something I could use. Instead I get: $ Fly out to COMDEX to scope out the space $ Hire 300 Models (use various numbers of them for 4 days) $ Rent 300 Tuxes and Dresses $ Rent a Locker Room at Wet and Wild $ Survey 100 Randomly selected attendees $ Rent Busses for models $ Print 130,000 business cards $ Buy 100 vase with flowers to hand out Wow! What a limited budget! I didn't find this useful at all! Limited Budget! How about an article on building buzz with a realistic limited budget.

Aug 11, 2006 - Mary Kay Lofurno of SyberWorks, Inc says:
In this case, I would have to agree with the other folks commenting, but it is all relative to your industry and the company's positioning in it. So what is inexpensive, i.e. [no money to one], is a ton of money to the other. Any way you cut it, even with a tiny booth and staying at your Aunt Margie's [she is three cousin's removed, but you just happen to have a distant relative in that city--having fun here], tradeshows can be very expensive endeavors. When it gets down to it, it all depends on the industry, the company, the market, and your budget.

Aug 11, 2006 - Shelley of NorthEast/Eagle says:
What sort of budget are we talking here? Could you share an approximate for the whole shabang? models, agency, clothes, cards, flowers etc.

Aug 11, 2006 - Shelley of NorthEast / Eagle says:
I found it... Bluetooth’s meager $300,000 budget wouldn’t go far against Godzilla exhibitors like Panasonic, Microsoft, and Samsung. Battle Plans: Bluetooth turned to GamePlan Marketing & Events of Austin, TX, for a plan of attack. With CES looming, Bluetooth gave GamePlan just three days to develop a strategy. That meant skipping the obvious ideas like throwing a party and hiring the Blue Man Group. “For $200,000 you can wrap the Marriott in your colors,” Hayden says, “or rent a crane and hang a 200-foot screen and shine Gobo lights on it for $5,000 a week. But those tactics couldn’t give us results we could count.”

Aug 14, 2006 - Steve Montgomery of SafePlug says:
I appreciated the article. We have all heard the basics. The Bluetooth initiate serves as a paradigm buster, an idea generator. You folks are doing a great job of getting us to think and question. A good marketer does not just copy leaders, but sets new paths by merging great ideas into new innovations. Thanks for helping us "stir the pot".

Aug 16, 2006 - Ehrlich of INVISTA says:
I loved this article. It makes you think and look for creative ideas. In addition it really shows that execution is everything. What if they didn't have a plan B... Any booth at a major tradeshow will cost you 100 to 200k + all the employees time and travel and booth staff...+ customer events, etc. Even if it sounds like a lot, it isn't...try to buy media coverage this generates...a booth usually doesn't get any. Gabriela

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