Marketing Matters: How Creative! (Actually, How Creative?)

by Steve Cony

Camp is over. Now you face the beginning of that annual series of decision points, and one is determining the marketing message you will deliver for the 2003 season. Perhaps this is the very best time of year to discuss two critical aspects of your marketing message: content and tonality.

Creative Content

On the issue of content, you have the opportunity to balance needed information (often called “rates and dates”) with promotional messages about the value of the camp experience that you offer. Some camp directors choose to treat content super-seriously — never straying from a straightforward exposition of every last detail about the workings of the camp and the requirements of campers and parents. As a result, some camp marketing materials resemble little more than a parent’s manual. They bypass the opportunity to eagerly highlight what makes an individual camp special and valuable.

Why does this happen? Too often those responsible for guiding the camp marketing message feel that to stray from the factual straight-and-narrow may erode perceptions of the camp’s overall trustworthiness. Those who feel this way may imagine a parent reading a more fanciful message and responding with something like this: “Gee, that camp just said something funny in its brochure. Maybe they don’t take their near-sacred role of responsibility very seriously.” We can readily see that this is an association that is unlikely to occur among the vast majority who will see or hear the message. Therefore, it is unnecessary to reign in the marketing message just because it might raise the eyebrows of “someone out there.”

Setting the Tone

Including humor and joyfulness in the content of the message moves us into a discussion of tonality — the two are interrelated. In short, you are a camp. You are expected to provide an end product of . . . fun. If your marketing materials constitute the first look prospects get of your camp, and if that first glimpse does not impart a sense of the fun you create, how do you dig yourself out from that point?

Even if your specialty makes it important that your emphasis is on the instructional component — for example, a tennis or computer camp — the learning is still imparted in a manner that is appropriate for a summer activity. Never fail to portray fun, enjoyment, and relaxation as part of your operation’s total ambience.

Here are some examples of photos depicting the fun-filled experience of camp that are fine for your Web site or your brochure:

  • A camper or group of campers just totally cracked up in hysterical laughter — over who-knows-what
  • Staff members in outrageous costumes
  • A camper in the dining hall with food all over his or her mouth
  • A camper reading a book in an Adirondack chair
  • A counselor or even a camp director with a pie in the face

Marketing the truth
On the subject of truthfulness, you have some interesting decisions to make. As an example, consider the situation where a videographer went out to shoot testimonials from day campers for use in the finished production. One adorable young camper smiled a big banana grin at the camera and said, “I love it here so much that you know what I’m going to do? In January or February, I’m going to sneak back in and play a round or two on the mini-golf course!”

How precious, right? However, the camp director would not allow the clip to be included. The rationale: “We would not want anyone to possibly think that our grounds are penetrable off-season and that some child might get hurt while unattended on our camp equipment.”

How sad, right? This was a fanciful wish expressed by a small child — not based in fact and certainly unlikely to occur. It was almost certain not to happen in reality. Any reasonable parent would understand that this is not some veiled invitation from the camp for children to sneak back during off-season. Yet, the video was produced without this magical moment.

In editing your message, consider your statements carefully; however, do not express your message in such a standardized fashion that your finished marketing tool loses its impact.

When is “puffery” acceptable?
You can appropriately “bend” the truth about absolute reality. And, when you do it, you are supported by a variety of court decisions on the use of “puffery” in advertising. Judges have routinely rendered opinions that various exaggerated claims are permissible as long as those claims would not be taken perfectly seriously and thus would not be relied upon by a reasonable buyer. Several opinions include rulings that substantiation is not required for claims that are clearly exaggerations or boasts upon which a reasonable consumer would not rely. The Council of Better Business Bureaus mirrors these decisions in its Code of Advertising.

Of course, this does not suggest the wisdom of creating a message such as “Camp X is the best place you could possibly send your child.”

However, here is a better application: Camp Wayne for Girls, located in Pennsylvania, maintains an exhaustive recruiting process to find outstanding counselors. Camp owner Noel Corpuel frequently presents seminars at ACA conferences on his interview techniques. When developing a new camp brochure, the decision was made to use the following headline on the cover: “Select the Camp that Selects the Best Staff.” The brochure goes on to inform parents and prospective campers all about how the camp finds these wonderful counselors. Even so, logic suggests that no parent would assume that this camp is factually claiming to have the best staff of any camp whatsoever. Thus, the claim — when reasonably explained — stands the tests of appropriateness and persuasion.

An interesting word . . . persuasion. Perhaps an understanding of this word and its relevance to camp marketing will help those who remain skittish about their messages to become a bit bolder. Make no mistake, your marketing tools are — here it comes, the dreaded “C word” — commercials about your camp. They are not simply documentary statements of fact — they are meant to persuade. Your prospects live their lives as consumers, and they have certain expectations about being persuaded. In short, they accept it. You are asking them to make a purchase, and they expect that you will give them reasons to do so and that you will appear chauvinistic about your operation. Thus, you need not feel uneasy or embarrassed about making energetic claims on behalf of what you do for children.

Your first goal is to gain attention, and you cannot do this successfully if your message recedes into the background. Your next goal is to build interest, and this can only be done by highlighting what you do and how well you do it. The third goal is to create desire, and this is usually achieved in a competitive arena where you find an appropriate way to make your offering more enticing than those of your competitors. Finally, you need action from the prospect, and this is best accomplished by asking for the sale.

That’s advertising, and that’s what you’re doing as you begin to think about filling camp for 2003.

Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.