By Charles Pappas for Exhibitor Magazine
Idexx Laboratories Inc. unleashes a slew of marketing tactics at the Western Veterinary Conference – everything from augmented reality to chocolate dog poop – and tops its sales goal by nearly 200 percent.
When Idexx Laboratories Inc. began planning its strategy for the 2018 Western Veterinary Conference (WVC) in Las Vegas, the Westbrook, ME-based company knew it was entering a dog-eat-dog battleground unlike any it had known before. Idexx faced stiff competition among the show’s 500-plus exhibitors all vying for a share of the $32 billion animal health-care market. The company planned to exhibit several products with a focus on its new Catalyst SDMA Test that requires only one sample to quickly detect kidney disease in real time. But in addition to simply showcasing its offerings, the manufacturer of diagnostic products and services for the veterinary, livestock, and poultry industries wanted its WVC exhibit to position the company as a health-care innovator. In other words, the company wanted its WVC presence to help attendees associate Idexx with innovation the same way they connect dogs with loyalty and cats with nine lives.
A 29-year veteran of the WVC show, Idexx recognized its essential obstacles to achieving those potentially elusive goals boiled down to two distinct but overlapping factors: the number of its direct competitors at WVC had doubled from three to a half dozen over the last few years, and its target audience is more old school than not, meaning prospects tend to prefer traditional marketing tactics over comparably high-tech digital campaigns. With more rivals than before duking it out for attendees’ attention, Idexx had to devise new ways to compete that balanced the tried and true with the new and bold. It would hold on to traditional tactics because its target audience preferred analog marketing on the whole, and simultaneously initiate innovative schemes to optimize its presence at WVC.
Idexx’s analysis of the company’s challenges may have been on target, but developing that insight into a successful strategy would be no stroll in the park. How exactly do you create a mix of effective unconventional/conventional marketing tactics for an audience that prefers a more old-fashioned approach?
Working with Global Experience Specialists Inc. (GES) and Live Marketing Inc., Idexx in effect chose a “quantity has its own quality” approach to the event. By cranking up the sheer volume of interactions for attendees, Idexx reasoned it would be more likely to network with prospects. And by incorporating both conventional tactics with more eccentric ones, it would hopefully connect with the entire spectrum of WVC attendees. Thus Idexx and its partner agencies hammered out an extravagant integrated-marketing approach that would infuse the company’s brand into virtually every nook and cranny of the event, from the alpha of pre-show communications to the omega of post-show follow-ups, with more moving parts than the American Kennel Club has breeds of dogs.
By incorporating both conventional tactics with more eccentric ones, Idexx Laboratories Inc. reasoned it would improve its odds of connecting with the entire spectrum of Western Veterinary Conference attendees.
With the torrent of touchpoints (including pre-show emails and direct mailers, branded hotel keys, elevator and window clings, room drops, educational sessions, an in-booth augmented-reality [AR] experience, live presentations, and even canine-themed coffee, just to name a few) came a corresponding flood of goals. The company’s main objectives were to increase show-related sales and influence 75 percent of booth visitors to associate Idexx with innovation, a metric it would measure via exit interviews. Additional goals included persuading more than 50 percent of visitors to participate in the in-booth AR experience and drawing 5 percent more attendees to its sponsored educational sessions than it had during the previous year’s show.
Marking its Territory
Three weeks before the show opened in March 2018, Idexx fired off the first of many salvos in its ambitious assault on WVC. A one-time direct mailer went out to 4,500 registered attendees representing the company’s core audience, a group comprising veterinarians, veterinary techs, and managers of veterinary practices. Starring a cute cartoon canine named Rexx, the mailing extended its recipients an invitation to visit the Idexx booth for an interactive AR experience and a test of their analytic skills. Foreshadowing the unconventional tactics the company would bring to the show, the mailer’s text – “Augmented reality is way too exciting” – hovered over yellow puddles that suggested Rexx’s enthusiasm regarding the high-tech experience was enough to prompt an unfortunate accident.
Accompanying the summons to the booth was an offer to enter a drawing for a $500 Amazon.com Inc. gift card by visiting a show-specific microsite. Idexx followed up three days before the start of WVC by sending an electronic version of the direct mailer to the same attendee list. Both communiques hinted at an extensive effort to draw WVC attendees to the Idexx booth, but they could hardly have prepared recipients for the sheer ubiquity of the Idexx brand.
Attendees encountered the first indication that Idexx intended to own the show at the Mandalay Bay hotel check-in. There, they received branded hotel keys sporting the mug of a YouTube puppy-video-worthy Boston terrier exclaiming, “Bad news. Good news. Just give it to me.” The key cards also included a catchy tagline, “Pets can’t talk to you about their kidneys,” along with the name of the new Catalyst SDMA Test and the company’s booth number.
Keys in hand, guests ascended to their rooms in elevators outfitted with one of four graphic clings using riffs on the hotel key cards, including a grumpy kitten grousing, “If this face doesn’t convince you something’s wrong, I don’t know what will.” Another elevator graphic featured a yowling Husky confessing, “I’m a whiner, I admit it. But you gotta believe me. This time it’s more than just whining.” followed by the tagline and the Idexx booth number.
Upon entering their hotel rooms, the 2,500 attendees discovered the first of two room drops awaiting them: a welcome message, branded pen, notebook, bookmark, and schedule of Idexx-sponsored educational sessions. A printed band wrapped around the notebook instructed recipients to bring it to the Idexx exhibit to facilitate their AR experience.
If the first room drop was practical, the second one (delivered the following day) was more like a practical joke. Idexx gifted attendees with a pile of dog droppings. To be precise, it left poop-shaped emojis made of chocolate in recipients’ rooms. More than mere sophomoric humor, the crappy confections tied directly into the company’s products, as they came bundled with informational cards promoting Idexx’s fecal antigen tests as well as a sponsored educational session on the same topic.
The touchpoints kept converging on attendees with the persistence of a perpetual-motion machine. When guests, branded notebooks in hand, made the marathon march from their rooms through the long corridor connecting the hotel with the convention center, five window clings like the ones in the elevators broadcast the message about Idexx’s new kidney test. If those didn’t catch attendees’ eyes along the way, two 38-by-96-inch meter boards featuring the same grumpy cat and Boston terrier from the graphic clings certainly did. Even before any showgoers might have reached the company’s booth, however, they likely checked out the WVC New Product Showcase, where the Catalyst SDMA Test was featured among other novel attractions. The display repeated imagery taken from the graphic clings and meter boards to help maintain a consistent look and feel, thereby fortifying the Idexx brand and messaging.
The Catalyst’s Out of the Bag
When attendees ultimately arrived at the 50-by-50-foot Idexx exhibit, they were met with an effort as coordinated as a synchronized swimming team. Idexx booth staffers, uniformly attired in branded coal-black cardigans and ties sporting black and white sheepdogs on a field of crimson, welcomed guests and steered them to sales reps who accompanied them to any one of eight 55-inch touchscreens where they first qualified attendees with a quick badge scan. Using the screens and their available content, sales reps noted the specific products that most interested each prospect, along with his or her e-literature requests and preferred method of post-show follow-up. (That data was later collated by Idexx to construct an algorithm that the company plans to use in its future marketing efforts to clients and qualified prospects.)
Up to 14 times a day, live presentations were offered in the exhibit’s 10-by-20-foot theater.
While both physicians and veterinarians are highly trained in their respective professions, the former benefits from patients whose average vocabulary can stretch from an average of 5,000 to as many as 80,000 words. But vets must learn to derive meaning – and ultimately a diagnosis – from an aural menagerie of woofs, meows, growls, and squawks that hint at what their charges’ specific ailments are. Knowing the consummate pride its target audience takes in its Sherlock Holmes-level deductive skills, Idexx staff good-naturedly dared booth visitors to participate in a three-part timed Diagnostic Challenge via the touchscreen kiosks.
Each segment in the Diagnostic Challenge represented a different pet patient and incorporated an Idexx product, including the new Catalyst SDMA Test. Further, guests would have just 90 seconds to get through each of the three parts while trying to identify the pets’ various maladies before that info appeared on-screen. With the gauntlet thrown down, guests began the first activity, which focused on the company’s Vet Connect Plus app that lets veterinarians access a patient’s diagnostic results and medical history on their mobile phones.
After the visitor initiated the activity by pressing a pet’s moniker – in this case a golden retriever with the romance-novel name of Scarlet Loranc – a clock began ticking down from 90 seconds. Players then swiped through a series of screens to see Scarlet’s test results, including data from her Catalyst SDMA Test.
Flicking through more screens to finish the activity before time ran out, participants saw Scarlet’s “kidney values” and how they’d changed over time, a factoid mentioning the 1.7 million pets the test has been run on in real life, and how Scarlet’s diagnosis resulted in a “renal therapeutic diet” that will likely have her fetching sticks and defending her home against squirrel invasions for years to come.
Before moving on to the second activity, participants explored the medical histories of another pair of pets (Polly, a feline, and Xena, a canine), including data from two additional Idexx diagnostic tests, Sedivue DX and Web PACS. Effectively gamifying what could have simply been a screen-based version of prosaic product literature not only walked guests through various Idexx offerings, but also showed attendees how medical data resulting from those tests would appear on the company’s smartphone app.
Seguing to the next activity, staff encouraged visitors to join an upcoming presentation in a 10-by-20-foot theater that accommodated 24 people at a time. There, 12 to 14 times a day, a Live Marketing product specialist, backed by visuals on a trio of 55-inch monitors, delivered a scripted presentation on the Catalyst SDMA Test.
The 11-minute story featured Jasper the cat, who was suffering from a dramatic loss of appetite and energy and a worrying drop in weight. Since meowing as a means of communication is pretty much limited to concerns about empty food bowls, the presenter showed how using the Catalyst SDMA Test correctly diagnosed Jasper’s chronic kidney disease in mere minutes and how that knowledge could lead to treatment and an improved quality of life. Once Jasper’s story wrapped up, Idexx reps handed out more “crappy” swag – this time in the form of poop bags and litter scoops – to guests, then directed those who had their room-dropped notebooks with them to proceed to the self-paced AR experience.
At any of eight available iPad-equipped stations, guests held their notebooks open to Quick Response codes and color graphics on the first of several pages. The upright-positioned tablets read the code on the page and launched an AR experience where Rexx tried to answer a vet’s questions about how he was feeling. Flipping from one page to the next continued the narrative. Stymied by his less-than-stellar canine communication skills, Rexx ultimately deferred to his owner, saying “I’ll let him tell you,” but the owner couldn’t offer much helpful information either. Thankfully, with the help of an Idexx test, the vet was able to quickly diagnose the pooch. After the AR journey, which lasted less than four minutes, staffers distributed branded earbuds to participants. Once they had completed all of the in-booth activities that interested them, guests were invited to relax for a few minutes with lattes that came served in Idexx-branded cups and topped with foamy steamed milk and a paw print made from a dusting of cocoa powder.
But the Idexx experience continued outside the exhibit hall as well. The company sponsored 18 educational sessions at WVC, roughly 12 percent of all the classes offered at the event. Casting the same wide net as the rest of its marketing efforts at WVC, the sessions delved into multiple attendee interests with syllabi that ran the gamut from marketing to medicine, e.g., “Do You Speak Emoji? Learn How to Use Social Media to Attract and Retain Millennial Pet Parents” and “Get the Scoop on Poop: Fecal Diagnostics, Details, and Data.”
When qualified prospects left WVC and returned home, they received a post-show missive thanking them for coming to the Idexx booth and providing the e-literature they had requested during their engagements with staffers. The marketing assemblage of multiple moving parts impressed Sizzle Awards judges with its wide scope and extensive effect. “Idexx managed to truly stand out among the sea of typical animal images and marketing messages that one can expect at a veterinary conference,” one judge said. “The multitouchpoint approach gave the company’s presence a real depth while creating memorable attendee engagements and outstanding results.”
Every Dog Has its Day
The Idexx exhibit may have looked conventional by some standards, yet the results of the company’s cover-all-the-bases approach were anything but. For starters, 58 percent of booth visitors took part in the self-guided AR experience, besting pre-show objectives by 16 percent, with some attendees spending more than 20 minutes engaging with the exhibit’s various activities. Similarly, Idexx exceeded its goal of a 5-percent increase in session attendance, as 3,427 attendees sat through one or more of the company’s educational seminars.
But those generally successful metrics pale next to the final two: The company smashed its show-related sales goal by an astonishing 196 percent. And exit interviews conducted by GES discovered that 88 percent of respondents left WVC associating the term “innovation” more closely with Idexx than they had before, eclipsing the company’s pre-show objective by 13 percent. With results like that, Idexx can justly claim to be Best in Show.