On Thursday, February 17 WMPRSA members and guests learned the strategy behind the buzzworthy LaughFest campaign from the three people behind it: Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids President and CEO Leann Arkema, SeyferthPR Vice President John Zimmerman and Reagan Marketing + Design President Mary Reagan Shapton. Leann Arkema has been with Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids since it opened its doors in 2001 to a community of adults, children, family and friends in need of cancer support. Her passion for the organization came across loud and clear as she shared the story of how many ideas came together to create the concept of what we now know as LaughFest. The idea had been “incubating,” as Leann describes it, since she joined Gilda’s. She knew that the Gilda’s community wanted to do something big and different to celebrate the organization and raise awareness in the area. The idea of a comedy festival came in 2009 and, after many brainstorm sessions, the LaughFest concept was born.
The vision for LaughFest was defined in many layers. Not only did they want to generate awareness and funds for the organization, but they also wanted to engage with the West Michigan community in a way that stressed the importance of emotional health – especially the importance of laughter. LaughFest was also an event designed to celebrate Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids’ 10th anniversary.
“We felt that 10 was an important number to focus on because cancer will touch all of us within the next ten years,” said Leann. “Part of celebrating 10 was positioning ourselves for the future.”
With the LaughFest vision outlined, Leann turned to Mary Reagan Shapton to help make the vision a reality. The team at Reagan Marketing + Design worked to develop a brand identity that would play into a variety of marketing and collateral materials for social media, print, web, video and other advertisements. After passing a smattering of ideas and creative considerations back and forth, Leann and Mary finally found the Aha! moment amidst the inspiration and the LaughFest brand was born.
Now that they had an event and a brand, Gilda’s needed someone to help them spread the word. Gilda’s wanted this big event to generate a big buzz in a different way that would grab the attention of the community. John Zimmerman and his team at SeyferthPR developed an idea to meet those needs…and the tease began.
The buzz started with social media when people were asked to post a photo of themselves with a yellow smiley placed over their face. From there yellow smiley signs began to mysteriously appear all over the city – strategically placed in shop windows, on buildings and on T-shirts. The origin and meaning of the smiley signs were kept so under wraps that even Gilda’s volunteers had no idea what they were for. Rumors began to fly as the media reported possibilities of WalMart, Google Fiber and McDonald’s links to the notion that something “big” was about to hit Grand Rapids.
The team at Gilda’s and SeyferthPR managed to keep the buzz under wraps until an accidental leak linked the smileys to Gilda’s Club four days before the press conference announcement was to take place. The leak turned out to be a blessing in disguise as people began to feel like they were being duped – the link to Gilda’s Club got the community excited again.
The response to the LaughFest announcement was overwhelming, garnering national attention as a one-of-a-kind event. The staff at Gilda’s already consider LaughFest to be a huge success as people from across the Midwest make plans to travel to Grand Rapids for the opportunity to see over 50 artists at 30 local venues. LaughFest attendees will also appreciate the affordable ticket prices and free activities, which is made possible by sponsorships, pro-bono partnerships and the help of over 1,000 volunteers.
Overall, LaughFest is an event that has generated a positive buzz that has spread across the West Michigan communities. The campaign developed by the staff at Gilda’s Club, SeyferthPR and Reagan Marketing + Design has helped to spread the word about an amazing organization while stressing an important aspect to emotional health that brings communities together – laughter.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” said Leann as she closed with the WMPRSA group. “If we can get people to laugh, we can get them to listen. Think about what this can do for our community.”