October 11, 2010
Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau's Innovative "My Houston" Campaign Puts Houston on the MapBy Jim Bucci
The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB) had a problem. Their research showed that the city of Houston didn't really have an image—that most people didn't have a perception of Houston—neither positive nor negative. When people visited the city for the first time, they didn't know what to expect. Houston wasn't synonymous with anything specific, not like Dallas, the bustling metropolitan city that's home to the famous Dallas Cowboys football team, or Austin, the state's capital city, known for the University of Texas and world famous cyclist Lance Armstrong. Needless to say, Houston was losing out to its competitors—both in-state rivals and colorful cities like Las Vegas and Chicago—for tourists and conventions.
Marketing for the city in the past had focused on events like the Super Bowl, all-star games and rodeos. But the GHCVB now wanted to create Houston's first-ever image campaign, putting a face on the city. Houston's key benefits included its friendliness and its position as a leader in the arts, medicine, technology, culinary arts and other cultural areas. But above all else, the one trait that stood out was the personality and friendliness of its residents.
In 2007, the GHCVB saw great success in an unscripted documentary called "One Day in Houston," narrated by George Foreman and a host of other local celebrities. The PR team decided to expand this documentary into a multifaceted PR-advertising campaign that would resonate well with today's reality-based, celebrity-obsessed culture.
For nine months, the team contacted local celebrities and asked them to participate in a campaign showcasing their favorite things about the city. Through a grassroots effort and word of mouth, they were able to secure more than two dozen participants—everyone from Beyoncé and Hilary Duff to George Foreman and Yao Ming—all at no cost.
"We took the selling part out," explains GHCVB vice president of marketing Holly Clapham. "We drove for authentic communication that was unsolicited, unscripted and contained real words and real expressions from high profile people that knew our city."
"We gathered a group of notable 'Houstonians' to tell their story," she adds. "It was probably the coolest focus group you could ever assemble."
Suddenly, Houston was on the map.
The Challenge: Separate Houston from the faceless, emotionless, big city glut. The GHCVB team knew the perception the outside world held of Houston—they saw the city as just another 'big city.' There wasn't that emotional attachment to the area or the people.
To provide Houston with its own story and feel, separating the city from all those others across the country, the GHCVB used a celebrity-based campaign. But, in deciding to use celebrities to spread the good word about Houston, another challenge arose.
How would they corral a group of celebrities, who would be unpaid, to speak about Houston?
"It was challenging to get through to their agents," Clapham explains. "We had a hard time even getting them to ask their clients if we could interview them. So, we relied on the six points of separation. We contacted a person who knew somebody or someone who was the closest to them. I think it would be hard for any city besides New York or Los Angeles to pull off a celebrity campaign. But, once we got a couple of big celebrities on board, asking was a little bit easier."
Clapham had modest goals to begin with, thinking that five celebrity interviews would be realistic. They ended up with 26 in all.
The Strategy: Celebrity "Houstonians" tell their own "My Houston" story. Like the way many good ideas spark to life, the idea for the "My Houston" campaign ignited out of a session of casual talk about the city.
"I was sitting around with my video production team and we were talking about Houston," Clapham says. "We just wanted to tell the story of Houston. But, my Houston was different from their Houston. So we said, 'why don't we have celebrities tell the stories?' They could each tell their own story about their Houston."
"The celebrities had to consider themselves 'Houstonians,'" she says. "They had to have an association and bond with the city for a long time."
Each celebrity was asked questions about such things as their favorite places to shop and eat, the perfect day in Houston, what makes the city special and how they describe the city to friends who have never been there.
The Results: The "My Houston" campaign garners a host of prestigious, national media hits. The GHCVB launched the campaign with a Houston Chronicle front-page story that was picked up in newspapers and websites around the country. Additional hits followed, including coverage in the New York Times, NBC's "Today" show, USAToday.com, Business Traveller, Meetings and Conventions, Successful Meetings, Meetings South and others. In addition, Marketing News, the American Marketing Association's official publication, featured the "My Houston" campaign in its "Best in Class/Best Practices" column.
Secrets of Success: Read on as Clapham offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Bronze in "Best Travel, Hospitality and Destinations Campaign" at the 2009 Bulldogs Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity.
Be at the ready when key campaign moments arrive. "We had to jump when a celebrity was available," she says. "When a big celebrity was in town, we had to be ready with a camera or a tape recorder. It took a solid year to build. We went from thinking about going for five celebrity interviews to ending up with 26 of them."
Follow your own path, even if that means going it alone at first. "Don't be afraid to do something that the majority doesn't get or understand at the beginning," she offers. "If you know your path, you'll be able to know what you need to do. And those naysayers will be the first ones to jump on board at the end."
Nix the hard sell for a more real and authentic feel. "We took the selling out of our campaign," she explains. "We wanted to have celebrities that knew Houston well to talk about the city and tell us what they liked the most in their own words."
WINNER'S PROFILE: The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB) is the primary sales and marketing arm of the city of Houston and Harris County. The mission of the GHCVB is to improve the economy of Greater Houston by attracting conventions, tourists and international government officials to the area through sales and marketing efforts.