How Nonprofit Brands Like BWCA Benefit from Experiential Marketing [Interview]


04 November 2019


Experiences matter for every activation, especially when it comes to the nonprofit world. Memorable moments are what give us inspiration to move forward, help out the community, and become a part of something meaningful. Recently, STAR worked with Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to create an activation for the coveted Minnesota State Fair experience so attendees could talk shop about Minnesota's valued wilderness (education is always key). 

We were lucky enough to chat with Pete Marshall, the Communications Director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to fully understand how their team enhances the brand experience in the experiential marketing space of the Minnesota State Fair and elsewhere. Read the insightful interview below.

At Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of your most important goals is to create an immersive experience for your audience. Can you explain how you’re working to accomplish those goals?

Pete: As an organization, we’ve been around for over 40 years. I’m proud to work for a group that did so much to protect the Boundary Waters and to get legislation passed that made it into the wilderness it is today. Broadly put, we are an advocacy group, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to protecting, restoring and preserving the Boundary Waters and Quetico Superior Wilderness. Understandably, not everyone is attracted to advocacy work. Or, they aren’t aware of the dangers of copper-sulfide mining, don’t know about the importance of giving underserved kids the opportunity to experience the BWCA, or restoring campsites and trails (which are issues we deal with). To introduce people to these issues and our work, we start with something we love: The Boundary Waters. We want to remind people of how special this place is and why it’s worth fighting for. This is where we want to connect with people.

Tell us about your activation at the Minnesota State Fair!

Pete: The big challenge at the State Fair is that you need to stand out! After all, you’re competing with buckets of freshly baked cookies, fried pickles and butter sculptures. So, amid all the delicious food, we figured the best way to stand out at the State Fair would be to create a space that resembled a typical camp scene in the Boundary Waters. We wanted to create an inviting atmosphere (no, we did not include mosquitoes, so it wasn’t a truly “authentic” experience).

To do this, we knew we had to do two things: Have over sized, immersive graphics (thank you STAR) so people could feel surrounded by the wilderness, and two, we wanted to have a camp scene with a tent, a canoe, camp chairs and maps.

How crucial do you think it is for brands (nonprofits especially) to be integrating eco-friendly messaging into their communication?

Pete: Huge. There are millions of reasons why, and obviously, I can’t go into all of them. Climate change, overuse of resources, protecting the natural world, these are the issues of our age. Brands and organizations can’t escape these issues or wish them away. On a fundamental level, brands need to integrate these issues because their communications need to stay relevant to be part of a larger dialogue. By not incorporating eco-friendly messaging, a brand can risk appearing archaic. They will look like a product during the age of beepers, getting fined for not rewinding video rentals, and wearing Zubaz to the grocery store.


"Brands and organizations can’t escape these issues or wish them away. On a fundamental level, brands need to integrate these issues because their communications need to stay relevant to be part of a larger dialogue." - Pete Marshall

What trends are you seeing in the nonprofit world in terms of experiential marketing?

Pete: The challenge most nonprofits face revolves around the question: “How do we get people to connect with our issue.” Many times, the issues nonprofits fight for can be abstract, distant from people’s immediate concerns. So, creating an experience out of that issue is a way for it to stick with people. To get them one step closer to being involved. And it makes that nonprofit stand out from all the noise out there. The classic example of this would be charity runs where people walk or run 5K or so, and in doing so, raise money and awareness for a cause. Needless to say, every nonprofit wants to replicate the ice bucket challenge from a few years ago!

How does customer service play a part in these physical, branded moments?

Pete: In our hyper-connected digital age, where you can connect with thousands of people with a few mouse clicks, it’s important to remember that nothing beats meeting someone face to face and talking. I can’t emphasize that enough. Talking to people is the best way to make connections, the best way to introduce people to the issues we work on, like fighting copper-sulfide mining, and the best way to bring in new members. The importance of having a physical presence cannot be overstated.

Tell us some of your favorite experiential marketing activations from this year. They don’t have to be non-profit based if you have any in mind. What were they? Why did they stick out to you?

Pete: I wasn’t there but at the Chicago Marathon Expo last year, they set up an oversized treadmill and challenged people to run 200 meters at the same pace that Eliud Kipchoge ran when he ran what was then, the world record marathon. The pace was over 13 miles per hour! It was astonishingly hard for even seasoned runners to keep that pace for just 200 meters. Some went flying off (luckily the area was well padded!) And Kipchoge ran at that pace for two hours, for 26.2 miles!

STAR was happy to work with the Boundary Waters team to showcase their powerful message during the 2019 Minnesota State Fair and look forward to seeing their inspiring work in the future. Want to learn more about STAR's work? Message us here. 



Pete Marshall is the Communications Director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. He has canoed more than 8,000 miles through remote regions of Canada and paddled plenty of miles in his backyard of the BWCA.




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