G-20 spurs attention-seeking guerrilla marketing

Companies hope to borrow some of the media attention shining on Pittsburgh

Need to get a message to the world leaders attending the Group of Twenty summit? Elliance, an Internet marketing agency on the North Shore, would like to help.

The agency has come up with an idea to use its strategically placed offices -- across the Allegheny River from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- to use "2,400-watt beacons of democratic hope" to flash messages in Morse code toward the G-20 meeting place. If insurance concerns can be worked out, the project could launch quickly.

It isn't strictly marketing. As a joint effort with artist Osman Khan, the agency sees it as more of a grass-roots public art experiment. But if it could help boost Elliance's reputation as a creative place where the staff thinks a bit differently, well, that's OK with CEO Abu Noaman.

Outside of the many official and semiofficial efforts under way to market Pittsburgh around the G-20 summit this month, businesses are coming up with ideas that might be called guerrilla marketing or at least quirky attempts to borrow a little shine from the media lights blasting down on the Steel City.

A search of video site YouTube.com for the terms "G-20" and "Pittsburgh" brings up plenty of protest clips. But it also finds other offbeat pieces, including the short scouting video done by the Elliance staff as they held a camera in a car and drove around to make sure their windows could be seen from the convention center.

Brady Communications recently posted a 3-minute, 20-second video showing scenes around the city and staff members talking about what they love here. "Pittsburgh is a hidden jewel," says John Brady, president of the Downtown marketing firm, in his cameo. Other staffers talk about being able to get fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets, checking out galleries around town or learning to love Steelers football and the post-Super Bowl parades.

It could almost be an official VisitPittsburgh film, but it's not.

Lia Osle, Brady director of brand strategy, said absolutely the goal of the video was to pick up exposure. Or, as she described the thinking that got things going about a month ago, "Maybe we can grab a little bit of the spotlight that's focusing on Pittsburgh right now."

The agency, whose video had more than 200 views by early this week, knows how to use tags and keywords to pop to the top of search results. But, she said, such Internet markers have to be used properly. Search engines eventually figure out if a video of Britney Spears or a dancing wedding party has a G-20 tag but no connection at all to the event.

"That's what we didn't want to do," she said.

Sara Parks, co-owner of the fair trade and green lifestyle Equita store in Lawrenceville, was surprised to learn that a G-20 tag had been put on a YouTube video made by local filmmaker to promote the flea market that she and her partners began promoting this summer.

But, hey, why not, she said.

She wouldn't even mind if some people who come to town for the G-20 -- if not the leaders, then maybe some of the police brought in to help or other visitors -- stop in to check out the Lawrenceville Little Flea gathering at Butler and 36th streets that Saturday. "It's a great diversion and a way to see the neighborhood," assured Ms. Parks.

In an old-fashioned way, the market picks up on the economic and sustainable themes that helped bring the summit to Pittsburgh. Reusing items reduces the need for new things and cuts carbon footprints. In a tough economy, a flea market can help people buy things cheaply while others make a little money, Ms. Parks said.

Tim Fitzgerald, president of Jacobsen dealer Krigger & Co. in West Deer, also was unaware that the G-20 tag was one of several on a video showing a new Eclipse 22 prototype all-electric mower demonstration at Nevillewood a few weeks ago. "I'm not sure what the tie-in would be," he mused, noting that his son loaded the video before heading back to college.

But the $40,000 piece of equipment used for places such as golf courses is greener and cleaner than more traditional models, he said.

While he didn't exactly have a message for the G-20 leaders, he did have one for officials in Washington, D.C. They need to stop vilifying golfers, he said.

It seems companies don't want their CEOs seen golfing these days because it might look like they are goofing off. In addition, Mr. Fitzgerald said, the stimulus package bans municipalities from spending the funds on their golf courses. "There are a lot of people employed in this business," he noted.

Whatever messages the masses want to convey to the G-20 participants, the people at Elliance hope to be able to deliver. "I always feel it's important to hear the grass-roots voices," said Mr. Noaman.

After they came up with the idea a few weeks ago of using their windows in the Confluence building, they asked the landlord for permission. The project is benign, but they don't want to get anyone in trouble. Insurance concerns are being reviewed.

If everything works out, people would be able to send messages to a Twitter account, heyg20. Some would be translated into Morse code. Six windows with six different colors would each flash a different message. "It'll look like a light show," Mr. Noaman said.

Every so often, the lights could be synchronized to deliver a single message from Mr. Khan and Elliance.

The heyg20 organizers don't want some other group to try to hijack their windows for an inappropriate message, so not everything sent in would make the light show. But all items sent in would be available to those who want to check out the Twitter account.

That might be useful, too, for the G-20 leaders. They may not all be fluent in Morse code.

Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published September 2, 2009 4:00 AM


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