When the first Calgary Stampede was held a century ago, it was billed as "A Carnival of Cowboy Sports Open to the World." The slogan was a bit unwieldy; but it was fitting, because the world came.
Records say some 80,000 people lined the dusty streets for the first parade, when Calgary's population was about 60,000.
In 1912, the city marketed the event to the outside world. As it celebrates its 100th year, it is the event that markets the city.
An unprecedented number of advertising dollars are on the table for this year's centennial bash. The marketing budget has been boosted more than 20 per cent, signifying the event's importance and the opportunities it offers.
Long billed as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth," the Stampede has morphed into a spectacle geared toward tourism dollars, and crafting Calgary's western image. While it feeds on cowboy mythology and its roots as a livestock exhibition and rodeo, the modern Stampede campaign must fit into Calgary's role as a 21st-century power centre.
"When it's your 92nd Stampede, you've got to sell it. When it's your 100th, it's a good time to remind the community what it's all about," said Phil Copithorne, former creative director with ad agency Karo, who worked on the campaign.
Karo began by rooting through history, juxtaposing old footage with images of the city today, under the slogan "We're Greatest Together." A series of TV and online spots tap archival film dating back to 1917 from the National Film Board, Calgary's Glenbow Museum and the Stampede's own vaults.
"We didn't want it to be only about the past," Mr. Copithorne said. "It's about participating here and now."
It's a marketing challenge that could be applied to any modern city: How to look forward, without leaving the past behind. How to craft a message for the people living there, and also for the outside world.
Selling the stampede at home
The 100th Stampede is expected to set attendance records, largely thanks to hometown crowds. Calgary-area visitors account for roughly 75 per cent of ticket sales each year. So reaching out to Albertans first was key for this year's festival.
The "Greatest Together" slogan is meant to highlight the way the community comes together to celebrate the event.
"It's a call to action," said Karen Connellan, director of consumer marketing for the Stampede. "Let's turn 100 together."
But the typical media buy wouldn't suffice for this Stampede to set itself apart from the 99 that came before it. While it's common for organizers to run advertising in its home market for six to eight weeks leading up to the event, TV and print ads for this summer's party began running in November. In May, social media, outdoor and online ads began. A Stampede app has been upgraded to include Android and BlackBerry devices.
The overall ethos of the campaign was to go beyond event-centric marketing that focused on the chuck wagon races or the rodeo in years past, and instead talk about something bigger, said Mr. Copithorne.
Marketing the cowboy mystique abroad
More than ever, the Stampede is speaking to a larger audience overseas, and doing so more loudly.
With an extra $5-million from the Canadian Tourism Commission to woo international travellers, the 100th Stampede's marketing has spread to five continents. The strategy has focused more on emerging tourism markets such as South Korea, India, South America and especially China – regions where the future of the tourism marketing lies.
Last summer was the first time an official tour group from China visited the Stampede, after the Chinese government awarded Canada approved destination status in 2010. While travel to Canada was not forbidden before, government permission for tour groups is now easier to arrange. So is advertising; previously, the tourism commission had been unable to market Canada to Chinese tourists directly.
The China-based World Traveller media group and its broadcast crew also attended last summer's Stampede. Features in its magazine and on its TV shows were valued at $701-million worth of media spend.
The Stampede is increasingly being used as marketing tool to represent Canada. During Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to Beijing in February, he attended an event at a tour operator's offices accompanied by official Stampede mascot Harry the Horse.
In February and March, commercials ran on Chinese TV and in cinemas, and billboards were put up in subways and at bus stops. Five tour operators advertised "Together We Breakfast" packages for the Stampede and one will be bringing celebrity actor Xia Yu to Calgary. The tours have signed up 200 participants, a number considered a launch pad for a bigger tourism business in years to come.
There is a reason the Stampede is trying to lure more Chinese tourists: While the event has traditionally seen droves of visitors from countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, their citizens are making fewer trips to Canada. The number of visitors from the United States has been falling as well, Ms. Connellan said.
According to the Conference Board of Canada's travel markets outlook, published Wednesday, China is one of the fastest-growing overseas markets for travel to Canada. Trips from China accounted for only 2 per cent of foreign visits to Canada in 2010, but that figure will rise to 10 per cent by 2016, the report predicts. It's a new crop of travellers that Stampede officials hope will carry home stories of the centennial party, and help lay the foundation for the next 100 years.