One of the biggest challenges facing any company is how to get the media and the public to give it a second look after it's been established in a market for a while.
Car-sharing company Flexcar, which currently operates in eight US cities, set out to get that second look by leveraging two seemingly dissimilar trends: soaring gas prices and the rise of reality TV.
"We wanted to take car sharing to the mainstream audience by demonstrating that it was easier than people thought to get around without owning a personal vehicle," explains John Williams, president of Scoville Public Relations. "So we created a campaign where a group of people would give up their cars in exchange for a transit pass, some free hours of Flexcar use, bike tune-ups, and other benefits."
The team devised the "Low-Car Diet," in which ordinary people, watched by local media, would drop their keys into a lockbox and go 30 days without their cars.
"By making it so visual, we traded on the media fascination of watching real people do real things," Williams explains.
In each market - San Diego; Portland, OR; and Washington, DC - Flexcar lined up the support of local public transportation officials and community leaders, which gave the effort less of a branding feel and more of a strong civic angle.
"It was more important to drive home the message that regular people were getting around just fine without their cars," he says.
The first Low-Car Diet took place in February in San Diego and got a quick boost when the President used his January 31 State of the Union address to say the nation was "addicted to oil.
"We quickly tweaked our press release headline to read, 'Addicted to oil?" Not us, say San Diegans as they quit their cars for a month,'" says Williams.
Flexcar and Williams also made sure each kickoff event was broadcast-friendly, with plenty of strong visuals. "We held the Washington event in a Metro station where we had the lockbox and speeches by local officials," explains Joe Dobrow, marketing consultant and Flexcar's acting CMO. "We ended up with several TV cameras, along with dozens of passersby who stopped by to watch."
They also created a Low-Car Diet Web site for each market, with bios, photos, and diaries that the participants kept, "such as one guy who asked for his keys back because he'd decided to sell his truck," says Williams. "It gave us that human element we used to get follow-up coverage midway and at the end of each campaign."
The Low-Car Diet proved popular, especially with radio and TV. The San Diego kickoff alone was reported in 62 markets and by national outlets Fox News Live and CBS' The Early Show. National Public Radio covered the Portland campaign, as did the BBC, which included the Low-Car Diet in a feature on best practices in US urban transportation.
More important, use of Flexcars increased, in some cases by up to 200%, in each market during the campaign.
Flexcar continues to work with Scoville, and this month they're bringing the Low-Car Diet to San Francisco.
Dobrow says Atlanta will likely be next after that, adding, "this campaign has been very successful, and [Williams] deserves a lot of credit for that."
This campaign shows how a willingness to take a step back from traditional brand building can change how a company is perceived in the media.
Instead of concentrating solely on the brand, Flexcar and Scoville let the civic angle take the lead and got people thinking about whether they actually need their cars as much as they think they do.
And despite the media's obsession with celebrities, this campaign also demonstrates the impact that PR highlighting everyday people can have.
By giving reporters a different spin on the story, Flexcar earned its second look from the public.
PR team: Flexcar (Seattle) and Scoville Public Relations (Seattle)
Campaign: Low-Car Diet
Duration: January to August 2006
Budget: About $50,000