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Spirit at the heart of Gromit

Few people in Bristol this summer can have failed to be aware of Gromit Unleashed, the brainchild of Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal and Aardman Animations. The charity sculpture project has proved to be a runaway success, raising over £2.3m at auction, attracting 1.2 million people to the city and providing a £120m boost to the city’s economy.

Spirit have been lucky enough to have worked closely with the organisers from the outset, helping to develop the communications strategy, coming up with creative ideas and managing a busy media relations programme.

Whilst it was clear to the core team that the project had real potential, it took an enormous amount of detailed planning and hard work all round to turn it into something that would take the city by storm.

Here’s our ‘behind the scenes’ story of how the project developed…

The Challenge

When Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal was asked to raise £3.5m toward the expansion of Bristol Children’s Hospital, the charity knew it had a major challenge on its hands. It needed a ground-breaking campaign to capture people’s attention…and ‘Gromit Unleashed’ was born.

Based on the popular sculpture trails that have been popping up in towns and cities across the UK – think pigs in Bath, elephants in London and gorillas in Bristol – this one had an internationally-famous and much loved animated character at its heart, Gromit. But judging from the history of other trails, where the most successful one had raised just £500k at auction, this one would need to harness all the potential of the character to make a serious impact.

So the charity and Aardman approached international artists and celebrities to come on board to raise the profile of the project; enlisted the support of 80 businesses to sponsor a sculpture; produced trail maps, passports and an interactive app to harness the ‘inner collector’ in us all; teamed up with visitor organisations to encourage tourists to come to Bristol; and produced a range of beautiful souvenirs so everyone could own a little bit of the project for themselves.

Communications

At it’s heart a project about public engagement driving charity fundraising, communications have also played a vital role in the success of Gromit Unleashed and it has been a privilege to work with the team at the charity and Aardman on this incredible campaign.

From the outset, this project had real promise – a trail of 80 5ft Gromits, decorated by local artists and famous names from fashion, film and books, followed by a public exhibition and auction – but it was essential to get people to really connect with the character, if we were to succeed. So the communications campaign emphasised the personality of Gromit as an individual rather than a dog and also positioned Nick Park at the heart of the project, to make the personal connection clear.

The communications strategy involved a multi-channel approach, combining media relations, social media, a dedicated website, the app and map together with partner channels to reach different audiences and engage the public. The key partners on the project worked closely together to co-ordinate and deliver different elements of the campaign.

To enable clear messaging and calls to action, the roll-out was phased, firstly recruiting sponsors, artists and other supporters, then building public anticipation before the trail went live, next encouraging the public to take ownership of the project and finally harnessing support for the charity.

In terms of success, our media campaign alone generated over 1,000 media hits, from international media like the Washington Post, Time Magazine Online and the Hollywood Reporter, to most of the main UK nationals, regular coverage on national BBC TV news and blanket coverage across the region, including a Bristol Post media partnership which made the front page more than 20 times.

Implementation

To get the project off to a flying start, the Grand Appeal worked behind the scenes to recruit an initial 20 sponsors, before Gromit Unleashed was made public. Strong media coverage of the project combined with a carefully-orchestrated sponsor launch stimulated further interest from businesses which eventually resulted in 80 sponsors coming on board, after 60 had initially been anticipated.

To broaden engagement and open the project up to a wider creative community, artists were invited to pitch their designs for one of the Gromits on the trail. Attracted by the animated character and the appeal of having their work showcased alongside famous artists and designers, over 500 artists from all over the world applied to take part.

Whilst the artists were busy decorating their sculptures and the core team were planning the trail, we began building public anticipation by drip-feeding stories about the developing project to the media. We needed a strong launch idea to capture media and public attention, so, taking our inspiration from Gromit’s famous train ride in the film, The Wrong Trousers, we asked Nick Park to drive a steam train of Gromits along the historic harbour before unleashing them across the city. Hundreds of people lined the track waving flags to welcome the giant sculptures resulting in local, national and international print and broadcast coverage including BBC Breakfast, ITN and Sky.

As soon as the trail launched, the Gromits really started to engage the public and further interest was stimulated through consistent media relations activity together with careful nurturing of growing social media communities from the Grand Appeal. Throughout the ten weeks of the trail, it was impossible to move without seeing people eagerly following their maps and hearing excited children and families spotting the next Gromit. Many people found a way to enjoy the trail while fundraising – be it extreme cycling, morris dancing or painting.

Anyone involved in public engagement knows it can be unpredictable and Gromit Unleashed was no exception. There were reputational issues to manage throughout – from damaged sculptures at the start of the trail to the online bidding site crashing during the auction itself – and we all decided the best approach was to rally the public to support our cause wherever possible when we hit problems.

In September, the trail was followed by ‘The Greatest Dog Show on Earth’ exhibition, which gave visitors and potential bidders the chance to see all 80 Gromits under one roof.  We needed a good turnout to build momentum for the auction and a strong media and social media push helped draw in the crowds. More than 25,000 people flocked through the  doors of the ‘pup-up’ gallery in six days, with eight hour queues forming as the exhibition opened. This proved to be a turning point – and the charity trail had now become a phenomenon.

The undeniable success of the trail and exhibition fuelled further media interest, culminating in the auction, when the sculptures were sold by ex-Sotherby’s chairman and TV presenter Tim Wonnacott. The success of the project had taken many by surprise as the summer progressed, but few could have guessed what the auction had in store. Organisers were hoping to raise over £500K but as soon as the first two sculptures sold for £36K each we knew we were in for a special night. There were tears and cheers as the auction raised a grand total of £2.36m, with Gromit Lightyear the top dog on the night – raising £65K alone.

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