Producers say TV spots are aimed at a different audience
By Ann McCreary
A $150,000 marketing campaign aimed at luring visitors to areas impacted by wildfires and other natural disasters last summer has raised questions among some Methow Valley residents about its portrayal of the valley and Okanogan County.
The state-funded campaign is intended to help the valley and county recover from economic damage caused by the wildfires, floods, storms and blackouts, and the resulting news coverage that may have given some people the impression that the entire county was in ruins.
In August, Gov. Jay Inslee approved a request for $150,000 in economic recovery aid to pay for the marketing effort to promote tourism and recreation, and the Economic Alliance of Okanogan County was selected to carry out the project.
A selection committee pulled together by the Economic Alliance awarded a contract to BrandQuery Inc. of Mount Vernon to develop and carry out the campaign with a very tight timeframe. BrandQuery is the same firm that developed marketing campaigns for Stillaguamish Valley following the slide in Oso, and also the campaign for Skagit Valley after the I-5 bridge collapse.
The campaign developed for Okanogan County includes three 30-second commercials and six 15-second commercials with a humorous spin that feature a pretend television “newsman” played by Seattle actor Pat Cashman engaged in reporting on a variety of activities — such as fishing, biking, golfing and jet skiing — at different locations in the county.
The segments depicting the Methow Valley portray Cashman eating an ice cream cone while sitting next to Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen in a convertible parked in downtown Winthrop, and reporting “no blackouts … a perfect room, great rates and really nice hosts” in Twisp as he climbs in a motel room bed and turns the lights out.
Other commercials depict Cashman riding a jet ski in Pateros, biking in Tonasket, fishing in Omak (although the filming was done in Mazama), and golfing in Brewster.
The commercials, which are being aired on television in Seattle and along the I-5 corridor and parts of British Columbia, each conclude with Cashman astride a horse saying, “from Okanogan Country, we’re open for adventure.”
“I’ve seen both positive and negative” feedback regarding the campaign, said Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the Economic Alliance. “I was in Seattle last weekend and spoke to a couple of random people at a Mariners game. They thought they were funny.”
“I’ve heard more local people that are not as happy with the campaign. The way I look at it is, we’re not the target audience,” she said.
“People are very unhappy about how the money was spent,” said Twisp Council member Traci Day during a council meeting last week.
“They [the commercials] are schlocky and an embarrassment. They [BrandQuery] did not do research into our community and the people who come here,” Day said. “I didn’t see a lot of the Methow Valley in them.”
“I’ve heard similar things,” Mayor Soo Ing-Moody replied.
“I had to put myself in the shoes of a valley resident who has been suffering this summer,” said Steve Mitchell, owner of Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop. “A campaign like that was a little too playful … sort of insensitive. I felt like the valley’s got a heck of a lot more to offer than the approach that they took.”
Holder-Diefenbach said the money was awarded to promote tourism throughout Okanogan County, not just the Methow Valley and areas directly impacted by the fires. “We’re seeing businesses in Oroville and Tonasket shutting down because people couldn’t travel up and down Highway 97” while it was closed during fires, she said.
Grand Coulee Dam, “the greatest attraction in Okanogan County,” lost tourists because “people couldn’t even see the dam (or) the laser light show because of smoke,” Holder-Diefenbach said. “The Omak Stampede was 50 percent down.”
Eric Christenson, director of marketing at Sun Mountain Lodge, said he felt the campaign was “wasting a great opportunity to show the rest of Washington just how incredible this area is. Every day, Sun Mountain Lodge receives phone calls asking if the area is burned and worth coming to see.
“News coverage during the fires, winds and mudslides documented disastrous conditions but have provided little follow-up that we are open, that our towns and surroundings are in glorious condition,” Christenson said.
“Images of our mountains, rivers, towns, activities, and a call to action on how to plan their trip would have been more effective” in bringing tourists to the Methow Valley and surrounding areas, he said.
Aiming for different
Jacque Beamer, president of BrandQuery, said the company chose a humorous approach deliberately, because the airwaves in the Seattle area are saturated with advertising aimed at luring tourists to the Oregon coast, Canada and Grays Harbor.
“We’re being inundated by tourism spots right now. The commercials I’m seeing are showing scenic vistas and after a while they kind of blend in. We’re looking to draw attention with something different,” Beamer said.
“Sometimes you have to take risks. I believe this is a risk that fights through the clutter. The feedback I’ve gotten on this side is very positive. … The feedback I’m getting in Okanogan County, people are disappointed with the work,” she said.
“I’ve gotten phone calls from people in the Methow that said it had to be strictly about the Methow Valley. But the contract was for the entire county. People thought the entire county of Okanogan was on fire,” Beamer said.
After the selection of BrandQuery for the contract, ideas for the campaign were generated in a meeting called by the Economic Alliance in late August, attended by 30 business owners, town and county officials, chamber of commerce leaders, and other stakeholders, Holder-Diefenbach said. The Economic Alliance is a nonprofit organization that is the county’s designated economic development agency.
BrandQuery took those ideas and came up with a campaign focusing on activities and locations, and filmed the commercials over a two-day period.
Holder-Diefenbach said she called a “roll out” meeting to review the ads prior to airing and invited the same group of stakeholders, but only five people attended. The commercials began airing during a Mariners game broadcast on Sept. 12.
“Because it was emergency funding we had a really fast timeline,” Holder-Diefenbach said. “This process is the same model used with Skagit and Snohomish. The only reason we got this money was because businesses were saying we need tourists now.”
The television commercials will air through the end of October, and the campaign also includes postings and a strategy for social media that is being handled through the Okanogan County Tourism Council, Beamer said.
The campaign will pick up again, probably in February, for a six-week run in the spring to encourage tourists to come across the Cascades for a visit.
“If communities are not happy with what we did, we need to re-evaluate,” Beamer said. “Our goal is to regenerate the economy. I don’t take that lightly.”
As part of the contract, BrandQuery will track sales tax revenues for 2013 and 2014 to determine if the campaign was successful.
“Marketing is one of those things where there are a lot of different ways to approach things,” said Amy Stork, president of the Twisp Chamber of Commerce.
“People may love or hate an advertising campaign,” Stork said. “We need to judge the effectiveness of this by whether it reaches the goal of increasing tourism and helping this area recover from the disasters of the summer. Only time will tell.”