Pumpkins are orange. Even the dictionary defines them as "the usually round orange fruit of a vine of the gourd family." So it was no small subversion when FARE, a nonprofit based in McLean, Virginia, devoted to food allergy cures and awareness, decided to launch a Halloween campaign called the Teal Pumpkin Project

The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of food allergies by providing nonfood treats for trick-or-treaters. If your house is one where trick-or-treaters can find such nonfood treats, then FARE--which stands for Food Allergy Research & Education--encourages you to paint a pumpkin teal and to place that teal pumpkin in front of your residence. Teal is the longtime color of food allergy awareness.

And if you don't have time to hit the hardware store for some Pacific Sea Teal or Aqueduct, fear not: You can use one of several free printable signs from FARE to indicate you have nonfood treats available. Popular nonfood treats include glow bracelets and necklaces; spider rings; crayons; slinkies; puzzles; and Halloween-themed pencils and notepads.

So far, the campaign has succeeded in terms of both social media and old-school media. Since its launch on Facebook on October 7, the Teal Pumpkin Project has:

  • Reached more than 5.5 million people and been shared 55,000 times on Facebook
  • Garnered nearly 250,000 pageviews for FARE's blog posts and webpages devoted to the campaign 
  • Generated more than 22,000 downloads for FARE's free printable posters and signs 
  • Drawn coverage on Today.com, CNN.com, Yahoo.com, and ABCNews.com (to say nothing of Inc.com) 

On top of all this, teal pumpkin devotees have posted more than 2,000 pictures on Instagram using the hashtag #TealPumpkinProject. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and the American Heart Association have tweeted the hashtag, as have several national media accounts.

Many of the photos reveal trick-or-treaters in the process of painting their pumpkins teal. By actively involving their constituents in the campaign, FARE has displayed a marketing savvy you might expect from a brand like Coca-Cola. Specifically, FARE has moved away from the art of storytelling (a term that's all the rage these days) and into the realm of storymaking.

Storymaking, in a nutshell, means gathering tales about how your brand has become a part of your shareholders' true-life experiences, according to David Berkowitz, CMO with Manhattan branding consultancy MRY. He shared these ideas in a column he penned in Ad Age called "The Beginning of the End of Storytelling."

Here's the concept: Storytelling, as most brands use it, is a one-way street, in which the brand monologues its tale. By contrast, storymaking is collaborative. The storymaking example Berkowitz likes to use comes from Coca-Cola and his wife, Cara:

Cara loves Diet Coke, so I asked her, "What's Coke's story?" The next thing I knew, I was living in a real-world version of the "carousel" moment from Mad Men. She started telling me about when Coke came out with cans with red tabs, and all her friends used to collect them. And then she told me about the games she played with her friends in sleepaway camp, where they'd break off tabs from Coke cans as a way to reveal which boys they liked. Thanks to this brand, I was learning more about the person in my life I have been the closest to for nearly a decade.

You can see how FARE has applied this insight to its Teal Pumpkin Project. Rather than simply announcing a top-down allergy awareness campaign, FARE is encouraging participation--and the documentation of inclusion--at every turn.

"My advice to other organizations would be to make sure you are engaging your passionate supporters," says Veronica LaFemina, FARE's vice president of communications. After all, it's your superfans who are more likely to become so-called brand ambassadors, spreading the gospel of your campaigns via social media and word of mouth.

Beyond that, the campaign's popularity is a reflection of FARE's marketing know-how and personal touch. Here are two other lessons LaFemina and the FARE team have learned:  

1. Credit the grassroots origins of your ideas. 

The initial idea for the Teal Pumpkin Project did not come from FARE. Rather, it came from Becky Basalone, executive director for the Food Allergy Community of East Tennessee, a local food allergy support group affiliated with FARE. Last year, FACET used teal pumpkins in local communities to indicate homes with treats safe for children with food allergies. FARE loved the idea and asked Basalone about making it a national initiative. 

All of that sounds easy, but FARE did it the right way. For one thing, it has a great relationship with FACET and all of its local affiliates, including open lines of regular communication and frequent Facebook page cross-posting and sharing. FARE also holds an annual leader summit, at which local leaders like Basalone get to meet one another and interact with the national organization. Those meetings create the bonds that make "asks" like this go smoothly.

Moreover, it's appreciable that FARE is crediting Basalone and FACET as the originator of the idea. It's hardly far-fetched to suggest that not all national organizations give credit where it's due under circumstances like this. But by citing Basalone and FACET, FARE is further bolstering its strong affiliate relationships, and sending a message that it's eager to learn about--and selflessly adopt--whatever campaigns are working in local communities. 

2. Prepare for the onrush of demands and simplistic questions--and handle the haters with grace. 

"Sometimes the facts about the campaign can be inadvertently misconstrued," LaFemina says. Specifically, FARE has dealt with a few media-made distortions suggesting that the Teal Pumpkin Campaign is somehow an attempt to ban candy altogether.

LaFemina and the FARE staff have a blueprint for handling those situations. "When it's factually inaccurate, we do our best to check it," she says. "Is it inaccurate or just phrased carelessly? When we do reach out to correct it, we do it in a positive neutral way, because we're happy to get the coverage."

Overall, reactions to the campaign have been positive and accurate. One reason for that has been the FARE team's smarts about keeping the campaign simple and accessible. To wit: The FAQ is friendly and rudimentary. The promotional materials are easy to download, print, and share on social media.

"You'll notice that the materials aren't overly designed," adds LaFemina. "They are not superslick, but they are reflective of our community. With any campaign coming from a fantastic grassroots idea, it's important to maintain the spirit of it."

Published on: Oct 29, 2014