Earth Day is an ambivalent holiday for many. Celebrants undertake various planet-friendly projects -- planting trees, taking wilderness hikes, thinking green thoughts -- activities any nature-loving person should enjoy. Problem is, it just doesn't feel like a holiday.
Carrie Branovan, director of creative services for the Organic Valley Family of Farms, thinks she knows why. "What's wrong with Earth Day is it doesn't have a meal attached to it," she told ClickZ Features. "Every holiday has to have a meal."
Branovan and other execs at Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative and one of the largest organic brands in the U.S., saw in Earth Day's fatal flaw an opportunity -- for the holiday as well as the co-op's brand.
Their idea: to design and distribute, via the Web, a set of "creativity cards" that would catalyze Earth Day gatherings and dinner conversation on April 22. A tall order, the plan involved nothing less than cooking up a new holiday tradition from scratch. But through an interesting online and print effort, their "Earth Dinner" vision has made remarkable gains in its first year.
In a Nutshell
Organic Valley defined the goal broadly: to provide a wonderful experience outside the realm of what people associate with Earth Day, and in the process to align its brand with the powerful emotions people have around food. At its core, Earth Dinner would be about branded content and viral marketing, according to Branovan.
"We're very focused in relationship marketing [and] what creates the most word of mouth," she said. "We're trying to empower or facilitate our best influencers to carry forth the message about the movement."
The campaign's centerpiece was a set of 50 cards. They were lavishly designed and each contained a question, challenge or trivia bit having to do with food. The idea was that people would organize Earth Dinners and use the cards to stimulate conversation around the table.
Organic Valley offered the deck via PDF on a dedicated site at EarthDinner.org, and folks could register their email addresses for a chance to win an attractive printed version. An off- and online campaign promoted the site, and it was hoped buzz and email forwards would give it additional momentum.
To make the card deck, which Branovan describes as "a cross between Tarot and Cranium," Organic Valley partnered with author Douglas Love. Love has written numerous creativity books and children's plays, and he executive produced the shows "Out of the Box" for Disney Channel and "Jammin' Animals" for HBO Family.
The cards offer a mix of trivia, open-ended questions and games. Card content ranges from the simple conversation-starter ("What foods or plants have you grown yourself?") to the nostalgic ("When the stress levels go up, what do you turn to as your favorite comfort food?") to the laugh riot ("With a blindfold on, ask someone at the table to feed you a taste of something and see if you can guess the ingredients."). The cards' margins are filled in with suggestions, food-related quotes and other minutia.
And of course, the deck has Organic Valley branding, along with a message from the co-op.
"It's not so much about buying organic, but about getting your mind around remembering that food has to come from somewhere," said Branovan. "What we realized when we started doing the dinners is that stories around food for people [are] like music. As soon as people start talking about it, the room gets electric with nostalgia and sentimentality. People talk about their grandparents a lot, and how food used to be."
The deck download site at EarthDinner.org offers several features designed to offer deeper engagement. The attractive Flash-based site includes a national list of restaurants participating in Earth Dinner, guidelines for planning your dinner, an email forward feature, and a "Join Our Table" newsletter sign-up, which enters people for a chance to win the hard copy deck.
A multi-faceted ad campaign drove traffic to the site. Organic Valley bought up approximately 20 million impressions, mostly in magazines and on Web sites. The buy included The New York Times Magazine, Utne Reader, OrganicStyle and others. The co-op also did some special direct mailings to a database of 90,000 teachers who had specified an interest in Earth Day-related curriculum materials. Additionally, Branovan's team worked closely with a several partners who emailed their constituent bases. These included Earth Day Network, the Organic Consumers Association, Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food U.S.A., and the Children's Health Environmental Coalition.
Finally, a search marketing campaign was deployed in the weeks leading up to Earth Day. Organic Valley bought the keyphrases "Earth Day," "When is Earth Day," and "Earth Day 2005," among others. It also did regional sub-campaigns, including buying terms like "Earthday Seattle."
With this strategy, the company took advantage of the lift in searches on Earth Day-related topics. Anyone who wanted to do something for the holiday, or was unsure what Earth Day is about, likely ran a Web search or two. So it was a good way for Organic Valley to capitalize on a wave of interest in the holiday. Or to put it another way, there are only so many keywords an organic food distributor can bid on and still achieve reach. Earth Dinner helped Organic Valley create new relevant keywords.
"There's a finite amount of inventory on Google for keywords like 'soy milk,' so we have to look elsewhere," said Greg Brickl, Organic Valley's Web manager. "The closer we got, the more traffic spiked to keywords we selected."
For its search marketing effort, Organic Valley recorded almost 6,200 click throughs to EarthDinner.org over the life of the campaign. The average cost per click was .27, and the overall CTR was .7 percent.
"We were competing against some fairly good campaigns on the other side," said Brickl. "Our primary keyword 'Earth Day' had an average position of 2.5, which isn't bad, but I was hoping for a little better."
Branovan said Organic Valley didn't have specific goals in terms of site traffic or PDF downloads, but she considers the results excellent. The number of decks downloaded through Earth Day was 11,435, during 22,970 user sessions. That means more than 50 percent of site visitors got the cards, at least in digital form.
Additionally, the co-op harvested email addresses for more than 2,000 people who signed up to win a hard copy of the deck. To improve next year's Earth Dinner, the Organic Valley marketing team plans to go back to those people and ask for feedback on the Earth Dinner and card play experience.
Finally, Earth Dinner organizers reported strong buzz in the weeks leading up to Earth Day. On the eve of Earth Day, the NPR show "Here on Earth" hosted an Earth Dinner on the air. Branovan said the show drew a high volume of listener call-ins.
And Organic Valley has since had some interest from publishers in printing and distributing the deck, but the co-op is leaning toward keeping the project in-house. "We're hard headed independents, since we're independently owned by farmers," said Branovan. "We have to look hard at the kind of publisher we'd consider."
In the end, Earth Dinner turned out to be very strong branded content, bolstered with a straightforward on and offline ad buy. Branovan and company hope it's just the beginning.
"We're calling the campaign done," she said. "Our goal was for it to last from around the first week of March until May 1. It's still got legs right now. More than 600 people got the PDF after Earth Day. For next year we're going to be very well positioned. Now we have a database of folks, and there are lots of cards in people's hands."
Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
June 5, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT