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When you can’t sell to your customers, give them what they need: an escape

Moments of Escape for Martin County, Florida

With the majority of people still homebound and the economy in free-fall, businesses around the world are scrambling to find ways to connect with consumers in the time of coronavirus. As branding and marketing experts, we are called upon to help our clients refocus, reprioritize, and restrategize — a charge we don’t take lightly.

One such client is Discover Martin, the office of tourism and marketing for Martin County, Florida. Fortunately or unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time it has confronted an existential threat to its economic health.

In 2018, the South Florida tourism destination — a naturally quaint paradise known for miles of unraked beaches, charming downtowns, and biodiversity — fell victim to widespread blue-green algae blooms and toxic red tide (an algal bloom harmful to humans and wildlife) that engulfed the Florida coast, triggering national media attention. The back-to-back natural disasters forced the county to temporarily close beaches and other waterways. Faced with major revenue deficits, many businesses that catered to staple attractions such as fishing, diving, and surfing had to close temporarily.

Discover Martin faced a choice: They could pause their media campaign and go dark until the blooms receded, or they could accept the current reality and change course. After all, the county still boasted plenty of attractions that didn’t revolve around the water.

They turned to us, their agency of record, for strategic advice. We quickly pivoted existing messaging to highlight attractions that could still be enjoyed, regardless of the situation in the water, including restaurants, shopping, hiking, and museums. We also worked with them to develop a tourism recovery campaign, dubbed “Like a local.”

The campaign encouraged visitors to experience Martin County like the locals do by focusing on the area’s natural beauty and the quality of its water-based attractions, many of which were starting to reopen but still suffered from negative public perception. The goal of the campaign was not only to drive tourism to the county, but also help the hardest-hit businesses recover lost revenue.

That campaign, brought to life by necessity, proved wildly successful. It won Best of Show at the 2019 Flagler Awards, which honors the best of tourism marketing across the state of Florida. Furthermore, despite the red tide event, in 2018 Martin County saw the biggest growth in tourism of any Florida county — up 17.9% from 2017, compared to an average of 5.7% for all other counties — according to a 2018 Travel & Tourism Economic Impact Study commissioned by Visit Florida.

Tourism in the time of coronavirus

The chaos wrought by the coronavirus pandemic dwarfs that of the red tide. The entire country went on lockdown. Travel stopped. Beaches emptied. Communities whose economies relied almost entirely on tourism dollars begged visitors to stay away.

How do you adapt to such an extreme disruption? Why spend money on tourism marketing when there are no tourists? Martin County, understandably, hit the pause button on advertising, while still maintaining a strong presence on social media.

Meanwhile, we got to work brainstorming proactive solutions for all our tourism partners. This time, we didn’t wait for Martin County to approach us.

Our challenge was straightforward but daunting: If we can’t sell tourism today, how do we keep Martin County top of mind for tomorrow? How do we create future tourists who will make Martin County their first destination after quarantine?

The concept we ultimately landed on was fueled by the collective research, reading, and idea-sharing of our team. At the beginning of the pandemic, our team had created a Pinterest board on behalf of Martin County that promoted relaxation through serene images and restorative tips. We saw an opportunity to build on that approach.

Our strategy was simple: If people are trapped inside, dealing with a litany of emotions, logistical complications, and anxieties from which there seems to be no easy exit, why not create moments of escape for them?

Using footage we already had at our disposal, we built five 30-second video spots, each featuring an unbroken shot of Martin County’s breathtaking beauty. The first spot featured an empty beach at sunset’s golden hour, waves crashing, the ambient hum of wind and water and gulls blending together to create an almost narcotic feeling of calm and comfort. There’s no messaging to hinder or hard sell the daydream, no mention of COVID-19.

In fact, there is no copy at all, until the very end: “This moment of escape brought to you by Martin County.”

Another spot highlighted the pristine shoreline through an aerial drone shot.

A third video focused on a gorgeous purple beach flower vibrating in the breeze, out-of-focus waves crashing in the background.

The effect is undeniable, like an ASMR podcast used to destress or overcome insomnia. For some of us who worked on these while in our own home under quarantine, the videos conjured a deeply felt longing to be on that perfect beach at sunset.

Not always about clicks

“Moment of Escape” was conceived for an easy launch on social platforms. But the client loved it so much that it’s now running as a micro-campaign across digital media. From concept and pitch to execution, the campaign was done and out the door in three days.

Results from the media placements are pending, but no matter the outcome, the campaign is a big win — for Martin County, and for us.

“This was an internal initiative with a goal of staying top-of-mind and creating goodwill at the same time,” says Rachel Mosley, senior account director for Martin County. “From a campaign performance standpoint, we always care about being effective. But success is not always about measuring clicks, and this is one of those times.”

When every brand in the world is delivering some version of the same message — “In these uncertain times” or “We’re in this together” — sometimes the best way to separate yourself from the pack is to take a hard left and give people something beautiful to enjoy, without asking for anything in return.

Josh Kline
Josh Kline
Josh Kline is a copywriter and editor for Belo + Company. Before making the leap to advertising and marketing, he worked as a journalist and editor for various publications in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He loves old movies, weird history, fine bourbon, and ‘80s pop music.