At a time when consumers are oversaturated with advertising, there is no better marketing opportunity than to attach a brand to something people want to look at anyhow – especially if that something is particularly fuzzy and adorable.
The arrival of pandas Er Shun, 6, and Da Mao, 5, caught the attention of the nation on Monday, and FedEx Corp., which shipped the animals from China to Vancouver to Toronto and on to the Toronto Zoo for free, got a fair bit of exposure out of the deal.
In addition to demonstrating its shipping prowess with its sixth panda transport since 2000, FedEx also got to play matchmaker, of a kind: the nearly 24-hour transport was the first time the two pandas met. The hope is that they might breed, something that has proved tricky for the endangered animals in captivity.
FedEx Express Canada president Lisa Lisson was feeling the love – when she warmed up, anyway, after a frigid morning overseeing the pandas' arrival in Toronto. She spoke to The Globe about FedEx's Panda Express and the benefits it brings to the company's brand.
Tell me about how the transport went.
We have done this before. We have a standard operating procedure. It all starts with having specially designed crates that we sent over [to China] 10 days prior that we put in their environment so they could go up to them and look at them, and maybe crawl inside. So when we actually put [the pandas] in there yesterday for transfer, it wasn't a big shock. We flew out yesterday – at 4:30 eastern time it left China, stopped in Vancouver, and it was nice to see the pandas on the plane sitting in their lovely little enclosures chomping away on the bamboo. We call it their in-flight catering. We had bamboo on there, and apples, and water. We had a vet on there, as well as two of their handlers they're familiar with. It went perfectly. … The transfer of animals, particularly endangered species, is something that we take great pride in. We have not had pandas on Canadian soil in over 20 years. … They actually had not met yet, so talk about an amazing first date.
You'll also be handling the transport from Toronto to Calgary in five years, and the transport of the bamboo to feed them for the entire duration?
That's right. They actually spend 16 hours of their day eating bamboo. The Memphis Zoo – and Memphis is our global headquarters – they grow the bamboo that the pandas eat. So we will be transporting and importing bamboo three times a week, up to 600 to 900 kilograms coming into the Toronto area. And we've got specially branded FedEx panda trucks. For the next five years, when you see them on the road, they've got the bamboo on there.
You put a big panda decal on the plane. What type of shipment merits this special decoration?
When we designated the MD-11 [airplane] and put the panda on it, we called it the FedEx Panda Express. For the pandas, that's something we took on. We do transfer other animals. I was in Calgary a few years ago when we imported a tiger from the U.S. But really, we do the branding in particular for these pandas. When we brought the tiger in, we didn't have tiger branding. Because the pandas are an endangered species and we want to increase awareness of it, that's why we decided to create a special brand logo for them. … Once this transfer is done, that plane will go back into regular service. The decal will be removed. The decals will stay on the trucks [that ship the bamboo].
They must be rather finicky cargo. They travel first class. What does that mean?
Our MD-11 holds just shy of 200,000 pounds. And basically, this entire aircraft was dedicated to the pandas with their own specially-designed enclosures that we created for them, which are plexiglass so they can see out. Then on that aircraft, we also had all of their apples, bamboo, water, and lots of stuffed animals. That only weighs about 15,000 pounds. So they pretty much have the whole plane to themselves.
Why the stuffed animals?
Apparently they like to have them. It's more of a comfort thing. We just made sure that anything they needed to have on the FedEx Panda Express to make it comfortable for them, we put it on there. We got a list from the handlers. … When one of them was leaning back there just munching on bamboo in mid-air, you know they're happy.
How do you handle panda waste on such a long trip?
They're in their enclosures. And I'm sure the handlers make sure they take care of that. I imagine when they landed in Vancouver they handled that and cleaned them up and got them ready for their leg to Toronto.
As a business that markets itself on being able to transport any package, is it useful to your marketing to demonstrate your ability to transport the pandas?
One of the things we do from a branding perspective is, we do ship quite a lot of interesting things within our network. … Sound equipment for major bands touring around the world – we ship quite a lot of interesting things. In a way, it's kind of par for the course for us. This is something we do. People think business, and documents and things like that. There's so much more that we do behind the scenes.
Are you going to refer to the panda shipment in advertising in the future?
I'm sure it's something that will be considered. But it would be premature to comment on whether it will make it into any marketing materials, at this time.